On Target 1 – Don’t be a charity

In the first of a regular feature, On Target will follow the experiences of an anonymous, independent bus and coach operator reporting as it is, day to day and providing thoughtful insight on what makes a successful business, including people, pricing and operational issues. Whether you agree or disagree with On Target’s views, let us know. Drop a line to [email protected]

On Target is a title that sums up my philosophy. We are all target driven in business, or should be, as that is the only way we can measure our success or otherwise. My company is long established as am I and with some very capable people supporting me, I find myself with time to share my experience with a wider audience. So, why share with others?

One of the great attractions of our industry is the comradeship we all enjoy. Whether that be through friendly and sometimes not so friendly competition, gatherings though our trade body, CPT, events such as the annual bus and coach show, awards events, Bus Driver of the Year or the British Coach Rally to name but a few, we are a sociable lot on the whole.

I have always believed in sharing best practice, although I know those who prefer to keep their secrets to themselves, in the mistaken belief they have something that others don’t. Rarely is innovation entirely new. Business is mainly a case of common sense, although that seems to be in short supply these days. Dare I mention Brexit, for example?

However, there are many other examples. As a student of the School of Hard Knocks and the University of Life, I can’t claim to have a degree in nuclear science or in media studies, but I do possess a BA Hons in common sense. That, and willingness to change, is an essential ingredient. I have applied skills I didn’t know I had, through necessity, if my firm is to survive and even more so if we are to thrive. Making it up as I go along to a certain extent but learning by experience. So many people tell me they have 25 years’ experience, but it is often the first year repeated 25 times, so they know little more when they get their gold watch.

I run a varied and diverse business, not originally through any particular plan, but through taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. Most companies, whatever industry they are in, do the same. I do now, however, have a business plan which looks forward to the next five years. A Crystal ball is often needed, but it is important to have a vision, decide on your priorities and go for it. Once you have a longer-term plan, it becomes easier as you just add another year.

Flexibility is also vital. We need to move fast, to grasp every opportunity, which sometimes come from the most unexpected sources. For that reason, my Company operates a very diverse fleet, encompassing local bus, private hire, express services, contracts and our holiday and day trip programme.

So what are the biting issues that need to be tackled? Well here are a few for starters…


Don’t be a charity

Are you a charity? Are you operating contracts that cost more to run than you receive? I hear talk of the bread and butter work to keep going through the lean months, but can you afford to subsidise your customer or the local authority?

Maybe you can, but at least let them know how charitable you are as a supplier. We all know about the scandal of the “not for profit” operators working under section 19 rules, but effectively running commercial operations under a less demanding regulatory regime.  This is a scandal, which is quite rightly being addressed by the DfT following pressure from CPT and others.

You can see the dilemma, as the press highlight the bus and coach industry “fat cats”, picking on the local volunteer sector and depriving the community service the legislation was supposed to provide for. But so many ‘proper’ operators, with their higher cost base, also operate on a not for profit basis; they just don’t realise it. How often do we hear moans that prices are on the floor, are less than we got 20 years ago and we can’t carry on like this? Is it all the fault of the voluntary sector, are we just fooling ourselves or cutting each other’s throats?


Have a drive for more drivers

Are you short of drivers? Most operators are and many of those drivers you have are likely eligible for their bus pass. The recent publicity about a 77-year-old driver, following a fatal accident , presented the industry in a poor light, although it wasn’t the guys age, more his driving record at fault.

If there was a limit on the age of PCV drivers, we would face an even bigger shortage and we would lose the most experienced people. I knew of a former driver of mine who retired at 72 and three weeks later got bored, moving to another operator where he continued until he was 94. He only gave up because of the CPC, although he had gone down to a five-day week and didn’t go out at night because he couldn’t see very well.

Recruiting staff from the retail sector is one area we can explore. When your local Debenhams closes, it sheds staff used to dealing with the public, who work funny hours and don’t get paid much. All they need to do is learn to drive a bus or coach; they have all the other skills and can earn more money. When the retail door closes, the bus and coach industry door should be opening. We can liberate people to a better life, they just need to be told. I suspect most coach operators can’t man (person?) their whole fleet and buses are losing mileage due to staff shortages.


Be a manager

Management is another bee in my bonnet, as the future of our industry depends on getting people who really can plan and manage.

Many work their way up from driving. Nothing wrong with that, as I did exactly the same. However, you can’t manage and plan from the driving seat, because if you do, a vicious circle commences where drivers don’t have management support and either leave the industry or move on to another operator, who has someone who will be there for them.

You won’t find TOC managers driving trains, or airline bosses flying planes.. In my view, management skills are sadly lacking in the coach industry particularly. Maybe that is because they are not allowed to manage a convenient source of drivers. Don’t kid yourself; every time a manager drives, it is just making your driver shortage even worse.

So, there you have a taster of what is to come, I look forward to telling you how it is from the front line, watch this space…

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