Blazing ahead

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In the first of a two-part interview, Blazefield co-founder Giles Fearnley speaks to Jonathan Welch about his life and times in the bus industry

In September, it was announced that long-standing First Bus Managing Director Giles Fearnley was to retire in December, following a handover period with incoming new Managing Director Janette Bell. We spoke to Giles to find out more about his long and varied career in the bus industry and his thoughts on its future.

I started by asking Giles how he found his way into the bus industry. “It’s over 48 years ago now,” he recounted. “I applied for a job with the then-local authority-owned Sheffield Transport department, and that’s where it all started. I began my career on the accounting and finance side of the industry, which undoubtedly in later life has served me well and gave me a great grounding, and I progressed through a number of career steps on the accountancy side before I then went into more general management and leadership.”

From north to south

“A couple of years after I joined in 1972, Sheffield Transport was subsumed by the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, so I worked there for a few years before I joined the National Bus Company (NBC). I was ambitious and wanted to progress my career. I suspected the fastest way of doing that wasto be prepared to move, and so I did from Sheffield to Brighton, to Southdown. The following year I couldn’t have gone much further, I went to the North East to what is now Go North East – it was Northern General in those days. After a few years there I moved to East Yorkshire in Hull, where I also became involved with Lincolnshire Road Car as well, at a time when NBC brigaded some companies together. Then just before the music stopped, as we used to say, before privatisation of the bus industry and in the run up to deregulation I moved across Yorkshire to the West Yorkshire Road Car Company in 1985, based in Harrogate, being appointed Company Secretary and Finance Director there.

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“The timing of that personally was really fortuitous, it was just before the announcement was made about how the NBC was going to be privatised. Within a few months of joining there I was very much involved with preparing the business to be sold and became involved in a management bid to purchase the company. Deregulation came in in 1986, we did a lot of work in the run up this and through privatisation making the business fit for the private sector, taking costs out and making it much more efficient, ensuring it was sustainable without the enormous amount of subsidy which previously came into the industry. West Yorkshire was sold in 1987, the management bid which I was involved in was not successful and we were sold to the newly formed AJS Group which had been set up to buy operations from NBC.”

Alan Stephenson, Chairman AJS Group; Irwin Dalton, Deputy Chairman National Bus Company and; Giles Fearnley, Managing Director West Yorkshire Road Car Company at the signing ceremony when AJS Group purchased West Yorkshire Road Car from National Bus Company at privatisation in August 1987

Into the private sector

“I was asked to become Managing Director, which was a wonderful opportunity and meant that I had met my career goals to move into a leadership role, and earlier than I might have expected. We had a few tough but exciting years as the business transformed for the private sector and from the start we focused our minds on how we would grow our business and particularly our customers rather than the age we had come out of pre-deregulation where bus businesses were very heavily subsidised and passenger decline was the order of the day. Pre-deregulation, my time was very much spent in negotiating with local authorities ensuring they were giving us enough money to meet our costs, whereas suddenly it was all about customers and encouraging more people to travel as that was the only way businesses were going to survive.

“Four years later, in 1991, the owner of AJS Group wanted to sell and I, and a colleague Stuart Wilde, had the opportunity to buy this business, which by that time had operations in Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and London. We formed a business called Blazefield Holdings which ran initially six bus companies. We bought some and sold bus companies over the we owned Blazefield. We wanted to move forward, and we put an enormous amount of resource and finance, as much as we could, into upgrading the fleet and we did that continuously right through to us selling that business to Transdev in 2006. At the time we sold it we were boasting the most modern fleet in the UK, and we had seen passenger growth year on year in some of our local companies.”

Lancashire opportunities

“Our biggest break whilst owning Blazefield came from Sir Brian Souter of Stagecoach. He spoke to me one day in late 2000 and said he was interested in selling his East Lancashire business, which had depots in Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton and Clitheroe. We agreed terms and purchased those in Spring 2001. It was around that time we decided to concentrate on the North of England and progressively sold our businesses in Hertfordshire and London

“Before then, around 1996, I took a ‘sabbatical’ into the rail industry, which was an amazing and challenging experience, as privatisation was fast looming prior to the 1997 General Election. With other bus industry colleagues, I formed Prism Rail, and ultimately became Chief Executive. We bid for rail franchises, winning and operating 4 of these. I was totally immersed in running that company until 2000 when I moved back into Blazefield around the time of Sir Brian Souter’s approach.

“After Transdev purchased the company in 2006 I stayed on for a couple of years as Chief Executive. At the same time, I was President of CPT, and then became its first chairman, and during that time I also became involved in a second railway venture as Chairman of the aspiring open access operator Grand Central prior to it starting services in late 2007.

“In mid-2010 I wasn’t looking for a new role but was approached to see if I would take on the vacancy at First Bus and couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity. I knew it was a business that was much in need of new direction and new focus. It hadn’t been perhaps making the best of its opportunities. FirstGroup’s focus had moved a few years before into North America with huge acquisitions over there. The business in the UK seemed like the minor partner, and that had seeped through into the allocation of investment to First Bus. I joined very nearly 10 years ago in February 2011 as Managing Director.”

Giles Fearnley, Chairman of Blazefield Holdings and Stuart Wilde, Managing Director of Blazefield Holdings, at the formation of Blazefield Holdings following its purchase of the bus companies from AJS Group Limited in August 1991

Highlights

“Career-wise being promoted to West Yorkshire as Company Secretary and Finance Director in 1995 was a phenomenal move. I ended up being very much in the right place at the right time. I gained massive experience by leading that business through quite enormous reorganisation, bringing trade unions and staff on-side to do some really difficult things. We achieved, amongst many things a voluntary agreement for a significant pay cut for drivers in Harrogate for example. Without this the business couldn’t afford to keep trading. I committed that if we could turn the business around, we would put the rates back up, and that happened three years later. We actually achieved around 12 consecutive years of passenger growth in Harrogate, from a business that in the late 1980s was on its knees. We achieved this through our investment and our staff. They were amazing, they totally backed us because they could see we were committed to growing the business, improving the customer experience and protecting their jobs. We had a lot of stand-out experiences but that was one of the most successful ones.”

“We had a period around 2004/5/6 when we were winning numerous awards, Bus Operator of the Year and business awards for example, a sign of what we and our staff had done with the business since we purchased it.”

Trains of thought

“I found my time in Rail very stimulating and rewarding. There was a lot of resentment in the Rail industry in the 1990s towards those of us who entered the industry from the outside, though I wasn’t alone. Having experienced bus deregulation and privatisation and having to move extraordinarily quickly to save businesses and rebuild them and be prepared to take decisions and just get on with it, really did stand me in good stead when the opportunities in Rail after privatisation were quite huge. We needed to move rapidly and to grow because of the nature of franchise agreements and commitments they contained – although that was at the time when a franchise agreement was two inches thick. Very different to more recent years where they are almost floor to ceiling. There was a lot of spare capacity on the tracks, so you could increase services and achieve better utilisation of rolling stock. You could start to experiment with fares, all things that British Rail found more difficult, working under the constraints of the public purse.

Harrogate was an area where Blazefield saw significant success. Harrogate & District and Keighley & District are both now a part of the successful Transdev Blazefield operation since Transdev purchased Blazefield in 2006. JULIAN DOLMAN

First Bus

In 2010, Giles took on the role at First Bus. “I knew broadly what I was taking on, I was determined that to make a difference and create a much more positive, successful business. I knew I would have the backing to do that. Tim O’Toole, who was very recently appointed as First Group’s Chief Executive, appointed me and we talked long and hard before I joined about what he wanted and what I wanted. We had very similar goals. At the time I joined the businesses were losing passengers at the rate of 7-8% per year which was way worse than national statistics and something had to be done very quickly. Because of that and underinvestment, the business had lost its way. There was a lot to do but at the core we had great operating areas.

“To tackle this over the first few years we shed – mainly through sales, thankfully, rather than closure – a number of businesses where our market share was low, or another operator might be able to achieve a turn-around which would have taken us much longer. We had so many issues to tackle, we had to reduce the scale of the challenge so we could get on with the job faster.”

Exiting London

“We surprised a lot of people when we came out of London. We were one of the largest operators in London. We had 1,100-1,200 buses. A key factor for us selling was because the wider business needed investment. When I joined there was no plan for the businesses outside London – where we had around another 7,000 buses – to meet DDA requirements, which were fast approaching. Because of the tendering process, London was absorbing a very high proportion – around 60-65% – of our total capital expenditure in new buses and those buses displaced were sent out into networks like Leeds or Glasgow two-thirds of the way through their useful life. By selling London we were able to divert capital funds elsewhere and from the proceeds able to accelerate capital expenditure and catch up some of the lost ground from the previous years. It shocked the industry at the time, but it was absolutely the right thing and even more so with hindsight.”

Keighley & District was another company which became part of the Blazefield Group, and is now the Keighley Bus Company after Transdev took over. JULIAN DOLMAN

Local authority relationships

“Another problem was that First Bus’ relationship with a number of local authorities around the country was not as good as it should be because of the lack of investment, fares going up too regularly and a lot changes of management which was doing nothing to help. One of my earliest goals was to recreate fully functioning operating companies around the country. When I joined, the business there were 5 large regions including London with little between these regional tiers and the depots. Many great people had left. I was able to recruit a number of people to join us from outside and were able to support those already within the business. Within three years we had a fully-fledged management in each of our operating companies, which we still do today. I think that’s one of the greatest achievements, we’ve put back the character, identity and autonomy of these businesses so they can do their jobs extremely well, with the support of their staff, identifying with local geography and local stakeholders. The management team is visible to their colleagues and brings out the best in them.”

New focus

“We did sell some depots, and we made a number of small acquisitions and we really began to focus on improving the customer proposition and working with local authority partners. Increasingly this strategy has been going very well indeed. I was determined that we changed the view of partners from being the bus operator that they would rather not have, to the one offering value fares, additionally one they could trust and rely on.

“A lot of that trust comes from operating a comprehensive network. First Bus will deliver on what it commits to and it is also investment. We have made very significant investment and are now very well placed to meet the clean air challenges in all our major conurbations with Euro VI and we’ve now made a pledge to be carbon-free by 2035, buying no more diesels by 2022. We are fixed on this and see the clean air agenda as an enormous opportunity for bus to demonstrate, for the first time in decades, its true worth and deliver on its full potential. A city with congestion will never achieve its clean air aims, and there’s great focus – even more so post-covid – on clean, spacious centres and this is the chance for bus to show how it can be part of that, doing what it does best transporting large numbers of people frequently on main corridors supported by other feeder services.

We’ve been very much working towards this with many of our local authority partners. Hampshire, the South-West, Leicester, Norfolk, South Wales, Yorkshire, Scotland are just some examples. We’ve got really strong investment decisions from Central Government and local authorities into bus from sources such as the Transforming Cities Fund. The stand investment is Leeds where £200m is being invested in very short order by Leeds City Council and West Yorkshire Combined Authority in bus priority on all main corridors. We matched that by committing to a Euro VI fleet. The opportunity for a 50% increase in passenger numbers for Leeds, which is our joint goal, is I believe within grasp once this work is finished.

One of the biggest leaps forward for the industry has been the technology, such as contactless payment and app-based ticketing and information, says Giles. FIRST

Improving figures

“When I joined our passenger statistics were way worse than the national average. Looking at the numbers now, our numbers across the board are consistently above the average and have been for several years, in terms of year on year variance. We’ve had phenomenal success in Bristol where we have seen a 54% increase in passenger numbers since 2012/13.

“I haven’t seen that anywhere else during my career across a whole network. We’re really focussing on the customer, and never more so than during this pandemic. For example, we brought forward so many additional functionalities to our app displaying in real time, available capacities including whether the wheelchair space is available. We encourage payment by contactless ticketing or mobile phone, and now this is even more attractive through Apple Pay with express mode. We have now the tap and cap price promise in Aberdeen, Doncaster, Southampton and Bristol and with more areas planned. We are ensuring that the bus product we are offering is fit for 2020 and beyond.

“We are planning for a post-Covid world, we will grow by encouraging existing passengers to travel more often, by attracting new passengers with a product that meets and exceeds expectations, and by stopping people just drifting away from the bus, to other modes. We do attract new customers by showing them it is different to the days when you would travel by bus to school, possibly to university, then perhaps buy a car and not use the bus again for many years. I’m not saying the bus is right for every journey, but we need to position it with all our customers so that they see it as being part of their travel options throughout their adult life when making journey choices. What cities are doing preparing for the clean air is really exciting and the electric and hydrogen bus revolution, which is to come, will support this.”

After diesel

“We’ve just put more electric buses into York, which will have the highest proportion of such buses for any fleet in the UK – a third of the bus fleet will be electric and we have greater ambitions there. We’re just taking delivery of 15 hydrogen double-deckers, the first in the world, in Aberdeen. That’s in partnership with Aberdeen Council, and will be exciting to gain experience of that technology.

We’ve just been awarded money from the Scottish government towards a fleet of 22 electric single-deckers for Glasgow. We are intent to move big scale to electric and hydrogen just as soon as these technologies are totally proven and can provide us with the range we need for daily operation, in particular battery range, and at a cost that – together with any funding that is available – makes the business case. We’re working closely with manufacturers at all stages.”

South Yorkshire

First has made great progress in turning its Bus business around, and one of the few remaining underperforming areas was widely acknowledged as being the South Yorkshire business, not helped by the economic realities in that area over the last decade or more. Giles explained: “The whole of the South Yorkshire area has suffered economically for a number of years and that has made it more and more difficult but after a lot of hard work, I am absolutely confident that we are now going to be delivering our very best in South Yorkshire as we are elsewhere. We unveiled a new livery, it refreshes the product, and is demonstrating that this is not a new business but a business with a new outlook and a new commitment to the customer.”

Giles’ family is no stranger to transport in the region – before him, his grandfather was General Manager for Sheffield Corporation Tramways from 1904 to 1936. Reflecting Giles’ own connection with both First and with buses in South Yorkshire, and to commemorate his retirement, the first re-liveried bus for Sheffield was named ‘Giles Fearnley.’

More on the transformation of the South Yorkshire business can be found here: cbwmagazine.com/revitalising-south-yorkshire, where we talk to Managing Director Nigel Eggleton.

Part two of our interview with Giles will appear in next week’s issue.

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