James Freeman, who rose from bus conductor to becoming the Managing Director of First West of England, the area’s main bus operator, has announced that he is retiring from the business next May.
Freeman, who lives in Bath, has overseen a major transformation of the bus company in the region since he arrived six years ago, including the introduction of one of the largest fleets of biomethane buses across the country and the roll out of the £230m rapid transit metrobus development in Bristol. Prior to the impact of the coronavirus on the bus industry, the business had seen growth in passenger numbers of between 6-10% per year during his tenure.
Today, First West of England employs some 1,800 staff and has a fleet of 600 vehicles covering Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and parts of Somerset and Wiltshire.
Freeman previously held leadership positions with Reading Buses and Stagecoach, where he was Chief Executive Officer and a Managing Director respectively. He had previously worked as Managing Director of Badgerline Transit Developments in 1987 which was eventually subsumed into First Group which is the parent company for First Bus. He was just 28 when he was appointed to his first Managing Director role at Shamrock & Rambler Coaches in Bournemouth.
Says Freeman: “I am a very lucky person in that I have been able to spend my career in a sector about which I am extremely passionate. From an early age I was fascinated by buses and felt then that I could help to make them run. My first contact with the company was when I boarded a brand new bus on display outside Marlborough Street Bus Station in Bristol in 1968. The man I talked to on that day helped make up my mind day that I would make my career on the buses.
“I got my first paid job as a bus conductor way back in 1974. After graduating from the University of Southampton, I’ve not looked back.
“Amongst my proudest achievements have been establishing First West of England at the forefront of sustainable developments in the industry to minimise the impact of our vehicles on the environment and enhance air quality in the areas we serve; the digital innovations we have introduced before and during COVID-19 which is taking customer service to a completely new level; and the strong working relationships we have forged with local leaders to ensure buses are, and remain, a critical and prominent part of a sustainable mobility strategy for cities, towns and outlying areas across the region. Consequently, the general public, as well as local leaders, regard us an important part of local life, contributing to making the West of England a place where people want to live and work.
Freeman added: “Last but not least I have been immensely proud of my team in the way they have helped keep the region moving during the pandemic. We have lost drivers as a result of this dreadful virus, who will be forever remembered, alongside our staff across all our regional depots who have worked tirelessly to serve key workers and now those returning to work, school and further and higher education.
“Whilst retirement will be a wrench, as I’ve made so many wonderful friends amongst colleagues and customers, it is the right time to pass the baton as the business needs constant regeneration, and therefore fresh thinking, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.”
Giles Fearnley, Managing Director of First Bus, added: “We have been very fortunate to have had James on the First Bus team for over six years. An inspirational leader, he’s made a tremendous impact across the West of England business, with our stakeholders, customers and of course, his colleagues. Through his time not only has patronage risen at record levels but the role of the Bus and the contribution it is making to the economic, social and environmental agendas, has never been better understood across the West of England.”