NAT Group: Overhaul is more than just a new livery

Successfully steering change is among the toughest tasks for a manager. Yet it is something that it is progressing increasingly obviously at NAT Group in South Wales under the tutelage of Managing Director Adam Keen.

Adam’s name is well known in some parts of the industry, not least among CoachMarque members. In his previous position at Go South Coast (GSC) he was responsible for the famed Excelsior business, based in Bournemouth, among other parts of GSC that were under his stewardship.

NAT Group: A rapidly-growing business

A move to Cardiff came in July 2019. Adam joined what was originally known as New Adventure Travel, which was by then part of ComfortDelGro. Under its previous ownership NAT Group had grown rapidly, and while it had achieved a lot during that period, the challenges were clear by 2019.

“At the time of purchase by ComfortDelGro, 18 months before I joined, the business had 130 O-Licence discs. But it owned over 200 vehicles. Many were off the road, most with little chance of making a return. There was huge variety in the fleet, which created engineering challenges.

“It seemed that we had one of each chassis and body combination that had ever been produced. It was obvious that there was a need for things to become more standardised.”

Adam also instituted a management restructure to strengthen the business. Driver turnover was higher than he would have liked, and concerns existed among some local authorities (LAs) about the reliability of certain services.

“We had to do something to steady the ship. My biggest frustration was that I couldn’t do the work quickly enough. There was a lot to do, but I also saw huge potential.”

The latter comes from the business’ diversity. It is rare in that it covers almost all bases: Local bus work, school contracts and most areas of coaching, including international hires. Its head office in Cardiff’s docklands, and depots in Pontypridd and Swansea, strengthens the proposition.

NAT Group develops a strong coach base

Although work to transform NAT Group began as soon as Adam joined, it was October 2019 before that started to capture aspects that were immediately noticeable to customers.

Most obvious among those steps was the introduction of a magenta livery. Flagship bus service X1 retains its metallic blue scheme, but the Adventure Travel and Adventure Coachlines names debuted with the new image. Application of magenta is proceeding at a respectable pace.

Adam Keen
Adam Keen joined NAT Group as its MD from Go South Coast on 1 July 2019

“I was busy telling stakeholders that the business was changing. They would ask if the livery was going to change too,” says Adam.

The focus of Adventure Coachlines is shifting. Like NAT’s bus arm, the coach fleet is blessed with vehicles from many manufacturers. The coaching operation has already been slimmed, and for good reason, Adam continues.

“Rates, particularly on tour work, can be poor. As a result, we have dropped some of that programme.

“In places the returns were good, but in others we were not making anything. The only option was to terminate those contracts.” That apart, the coach arm is performing well. New vehicles will arrive this year.

Driving change by training its own

Recruiting the right calibre of coach driver had also become tricky. Some wanted only to do tour work and balked at other duties. Because of that, NAT has moved away from recruiting experienced drivers and towards training new entrants.

While there is an increased cost involved in that, the benefits include newcomers knowing what to expect of the job at NAT. They also often engage better with customers thanks to the training given.

Also instituted has been a split between coach drivers and bus drivers. Previously, coach drivers would occasionally drive buses and vice-versa. That was a “messy” arrangement, says Adam, and it imported difficulties. It didn’t work, hence the demarcation.

Adventure Coachlines works closely with Snap. It has partnered with the on-demand coach travel provider and Adam sees a strong future for the collaborative agreement.

The plan with Snap going forward is to use coaches with tables, charging points and a host with food and drinks. Free reservations for table seats will be available.

NAT’s scheduled coach work is primarily marketed on ticket price, and for a reason. “There is strong rail competition along the M4 corridor to London, but its fares are high. The service we run between Bristol and the capital is doing particularly well and the partnership with Snap is strong,” says Adam.

Tackiling the challenges of running buses

Stabilisation work undertaken since Adam’s arrival has also benefitted the bus arm. Vehicles for flagship service X1 apart, the magenta livery is starting to spread. With it is coming a more local approach.

NAT Group
Cross-city service X1 in Cardiff will retain its blue-based livery and high-spec buses

Depending on the depot, buses carry Adventure Cardiff, Adventure Swansea or Adventure Valleys names.

Establishment of local identities is a nod to earlier success at GSC with something similar. The early response has been good. Passenger numbers are on an upward swing.

“We aspire to achieve more of that via organic growth and innovation,” says Adam. But in Cardiff, there is an enemy: Congestion.

Adam has been vocal about his hopes to see car access to Cardiff city centre restricted. The Welsh capital has pockets of poor air quality that it needs to address, but Adam believes it should do much more.

But if any LA does work that benefits buses, it is logical that it will expect something in return. Some operators have promised major investment in new vehicles. NAT proposes a less extravagant approach, but one that is equally beneficial to the travelling public.

“On one service we have had to add 12min to end-to-end running times to maintain punctuality. It’s looking likely that even more time will be necessary.

“My proposal is that if the LA does something innovative to reduce buses’ running times, we will reinvest those savings into increased frequencies and possibly new services. If congestion was not so bad on our X1 route, we could have increased its frequency by now. That is so frustrating.”

Steering away from franchising ‘at all costs’

While bus franchising is not on the cards for sure anywhere in Wales, nor is it definitely off the agenda on NAT’s patch.

Although ComfortDelGro’s intention is to expand its presence in the UK market, Adam does not favour that happening in South Wales via re-regulation.

“Our preference at all costs is to steer officials away from franchising. We believe that we can work with LAs to provide the services that customers want on a commercial basis.”

In the medium term, there is an aspiration to grow NAT Group, but any such expansion will be done “cautiously,” says Adam.

Nevertheless, he suggests that an increase in vehicle authorisation will be applied for in due course. Whether that captures existing seats of operation or new areas will depend on circumstances. Additionally, expansion via acquisition has not been ruled out.

Did the reality live up to the expectations?

NAT Group
The Adventure Coachlines arm has moved away from low-paying work, says Adam

Adam realised from the beginning that turning the NAT ship would be a challenge.

That expectation proved to be accurate. But after more than seven months at the helm, there are now signs that change is starting to deliver results.

Engineering and operational management has been overhauled, and rationalisation of vehicle types will help the work that those members of staff have started.

Coach drivers that are new to the industry are coming through and being guided by two recently promoted leading drivers.

Work behind the scenes with LAs has helped to settle their concerns about reliability, while bus drivers are now more in tune with delivering what the customer requires.

Adam is frank when he says that there remains a lot still to do. Introduction of the magenta livery across the fleet will take time, for example, as will the roll-out of further culture change.

But business overhaul is not an overnight process. Recognising and accepting that all is not perfect in the first place is the first step to putting things right. Formulating a plan to do so is the next step. Doing that took up much of Adam’s early weeks and months with NAT.

That work is now paying off, helped by a vision to capitalise on all the things that NAT does well. There are a lot of those. As a business, it is intent on capitalising on them all.