No-one disputes TrentBarton’s claim to be ‘the really good bus company’, but do we understand the formula behind its success? Marc Morgan-Huws offers his view

Being 100 years old is a good a time as any to reflect on a tremendous journey. We are proud to be recognised as the really good bus company, but these things take time – and, not least, the determination, loyalty and hard work of people throughout the years.

So says TrentBarton’s website, and who would deny that TrentBarton is indeed one of, if not the very best bus company in the land.

Their 100th anniversary celebrations say a lot about the ethos and culture of the organisation. Their open day last month was very much a celebration for their customers and the local community, thoughtfully constructed and enthusiastically crafted no doubt by the permanently exuberant Alex Hornby, who is the company’s commercial director.

So what is it that has made and continues to make TrentBarton at the very least, one of the very best bus companies in the land? What is it that we should learn from TrentBarton that we could apply in other bus companies up and down the country to make them as successful?

Is it that they have such strong sub-brands across their networks; each route forging its own identity, creating customer recognition and loyalty?

Is it that they continue to use the 12-hour clock in the face of the spread of the 24-hour clock, making timetables easier for customers who struggle with such complexities?

Is it that they employ the great Ray Stenning to craft everything they do that the outside world sees?

Is it the specially designed vehicle interiors, whether it be unbelievably striking orange and black leather seating, or Ray’s much copied (often badly) Caffè Nero wood effect flooring and silver hand-poles?

Could it be the tweaked vehicle designs in the flow of new Optare buses, again crafted by the great man in shorts?

Perhaps it’s even the fact that branded routes mean branded routes – no peculiar plain red or white ‘spare buses’, and indeed enough branded spares to deliver the consistency of the branding at all times?

…or are we actually missing the true ingredients of success when we look at these symbols of success? Is the list of actions the effect, of rather than the cause of, the ‘secret ingredients’ that TrentBarton and a small number of other operators have found, and not diluted?

You see, the thing is, that I don’t think that we readily realise what it really is that makes for a truly great bus operator.

 

Enthusiastic, unconventional leaders

When you hear Ian Morgan, deputy chairman of TrentBarton’s parent company, Wellglade, speak about the journey from a National Bus Company outpost to the present day, there are some things that resonate. One is the lack of any overwhelming seriousness. To put it bluntly, you never think they take themselves too seriously.

I’ve only really once met Jeff Counsel, TrentBarton’s managing director, but it was at the Isle of Wight Festival when I was at Southern Vectis, the island’s bus company. He had been persuaded by Alex Hornby that they should come and drive for me at the festival, and they duly turned up and did just that, without fuss or favour. I like MDs and directors who don’t mind, indeed actively seek out the opportunity to get behind the steering wheel and who then just get on with the job in hand like the perfect special events driver – seen but not heard!

Mr Hornby of course, is well known to me. Alex commanded Eastleigh-based Bluestar and me Southern Vectis alongside one another for a while. There was never a dull day!

And so to my first observation on what makes a ‘really good bus company’. Appointing Alex as commercial director was inspired. I couldn’t think of a better choice. Great bus companies need inspired, enthusiastic and unconventional leaders – people who think outside of the box – who are looking for that new idea or take on the service and products. TrentBarton seems to me to have that.

 

A real identity and more – a purpose

Ray! Working with Ray Stenning is something that I will forever value. Ray isn’t a good designer – he’s far more than that. The rebirth of Southern Vectis was a great and hugely educational journey for me. When Ray arrived, I knew we were beginning a new journey. We’d had people in before – designers – who brought pretty pictures of bus liveries to choose from. But here was someone who talked about creating a new brand – a complete identity – and one that needed to convey what we wanted people to think of our company. We spent time working out that we wanted to be modern and progressive, while reflecting on our long history, so without ‘going retro’. I shall always remember him telling me: “You won’t get lots of pretty bus liveries to take home for the wife to choose from – you’ll get one. And if you don’t think it works we’ll start again.”

Ray created the brand, the message, not just designs, and over time everything had his stamp. The vehicles inside and out, the roadside infrastructure and bus stop flags, the website, and all the printed literature. Ray even brought prose that swept away the ‘bus speak’ when we gave him free reign to edit our words in all our materials.

It is clear to me that here lies the second ingredient of a really good bus company – a real identity based on an understanding of what the product is, who the customers are, and how to communicate it with them. More than just an identity, but a purpose.

 

Freedom to act and innovate

Before Southern Vectis became part of the Go Ahead Group in 2005, life was different. There were challenges and pressures all of their own, and after the sale I spent a fair few years unpicking much of the workings and peculiarities of the organisation. Yet, one thing that had great value was lost. That was the ability to pull all the levers from Nelson Road in Newport.

I really enjoyed working for Stuart Linn when he was the group managing director. Stuart too was ‘off the wall’, challenging the status quo. What was great was that when he decided he had had a good idea, it could happen – literally there and then. We weren’t controlled by group manuals and systems, we didn’t have to fill in numerous spreadsheets every day before we could even dare to think about what we actually ran or how we ran it, and generally there were no fixed ideas.

We still used conductors in the bus stations to speed up boarding, and they were scheduled to conduct busy and tightly-timed journeys when needed. They often accompanied the likes of me when a driver was needed to pick up a missing departure, and to get it back on time. Spare buses were the norm where elsewhere they were seen as a vile waste of a precious resource. We rarely lost a single journey, with spare buses and drivers poised to cover a breakdown or late incoming bus at the drop of a hat.

And so my third suggested ingredient is the freedom to act and innovate. TrentBarton doesn’t have a group rulebook or system to follow, and I am sure doesn’t have a spreadsheet for every imaginable recordable activity. Having great and innovative ideas is good only so long as you can freely implement and try them.

 

The customer is king

One thing that has irritated me tremendously over my years running buses has been those engineers who are somehow disconnected from the purpose of their supposed activities. I mince no words; I offer no olive branches to those who have disagreed with me over the years. Engineers’ over-riding purpose is at all times to supply the company’s operation with enough buses, of the right types, in the right brands, in the right condition, on time, so that we can carry customers who pay all our wages as per the timetable we advertise to them.

There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. I’ve worked with engineers who ‘get it’ pretty much 100%. I worked with one long-standing engineer who knew exactly what was needed. We never ran out of buses. Yes, we had 30% spares, but if that is what it takes to keep 100% of the buses required in service at all times, then that is what was needed. He took pride in his (our!) buses. They were generally free of accident damage – admittedly, if one that had just been painted was mauled by a bollard between the wheels, he would often leave it so for a few weeks as a mark of disgust and protest – and they were always cleaned. When we had problems such as road closures, or we had overloading issues, one quick call to his office (in the heart of the depot), and we’d have a bus ready for us to add to service.

When he left, the contrast was great – I realised just how good we had had it. Dirty buses, missing service, and a refusal to send more that the requisite number of buses the timetable required, even when there were buses available in the depot that could have gone. I spent one period of months on end being summonsed to County Hall to explain the constant lack of buses on journeys that carried schoolchildren, before finally telling the engineering director that his staff could go instead of me next time!

And so a further ingredient must be the knowledge that at TrentBarton, the customer is king. The organisation I am reliably told is focussed entirely on running buses for the convenience of its customers, not at the convenience of anyone else!

 

In conclusion, what is clear is that TrentBarton has a purpose, a clear focus for its role in life. It doesn’t do things the way ‘they have always been done’; it is driven by people with passion and enthusiasm for everything that they do – it does nothing half-heartedly; and it has the ability to really run itself – this is not local autonomy on a piece of elastic – its destiny is its own!

 

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