It’s the question everyone is asking. So we asked Nigel Featham, the new boss of Go-Ahead Group’s Greater Manchester operation

 
Nigel Featham joined Go North West a month ago after 10 years with Arriva

 

Eyebrows were raised when it was confirmed in February that the Go-Ahead Group had agreed terms to acquire First Manchester’s Queen’s Road depot in Cheetham Hill.

The £11.2m deal took the group into Greater Manchester, Britain’s second-largest urban area, for the first time. The 163-vehicle operation was named Go North West.

Eyebrows were raised again four months later when Go-Ahead announced that it had lured Nigel Featham away from his senior role at Arriva to take charge at Go North West.

It has been widely assumed that Go-Ahead must be planning something big. Surely one depot is not the extent of the group’s ambitions in the region? And surely Featham wouldn’t walk away from a role as Arriva’s regional director for Yorkshire and the North East, overseeing 14 depots and annual revenue of £130m, to take charge of a single depot start-up? So what is the group’s long term strategy for its new acquisition?

We had the opportunity to ask Featham. One month into his new role, he has given his first interview to Passenger Transport.

Featham says it was three ‘Ps’: – persuasion, possibility and potential – that led him to end his 10-year journey with Arriva and take on a new challenge with Go-Ahead.

Persuasion came from David Brown, Go-Ahead’s group chief executive. “[He] was highly influential in my decision with his championing of a commercially driven, people-focused philosophy that believes in empowerment and innovation,” says Featham.

Possibility was the chance to come in to a new venture and build a business vision from the ground floor up.

And lastly, the potential. “Manchester is at the centre of huge changes taking place in the UK bus industry at the moment,” he explains. “And where there is change there is opportunity. Manchester is the right place at the right time for Go-Ahead and for me personally.”

The acquisition of Queens Road and its network of 20 routes was concluded on June 2. A team led by Go-Ahead London operations director David Cutts, who had previously overseen the integration of Go-Ahead’s Singapore business, addressed the usual post-acquisition operational challenges.

In July, Go-Ahead announced plans to invest £3m in reinvigorating Go North West’s fleet and historic Queens Road base over next 12 months. The group committed to replacing Go North West’s oldest single-deck buses with 24 newer vehicles of between five and seven years of age. In addition to introducing greener buses, a new bus wash was purchased and the iconic depot clock was repaired.

In just four short months … the effort is already beginning to bear fruit

“In just four short months … the effort is already beginning to bear fruit,” says Featham. “We have introduced the Go-Ahead brand to the city, we’re engaging positively with our new colleagues and we are evolving stakeholder relationships at the same time as improving delivery standards and injecting fresh investment into the fleet. It’s only the start, of course, but a strong one.”

There are still plenty of tasks in Featham’s in-tray. “We still have a high proportion of buses in the livery of the previous owner so we need to speedily work through a vehicle refurbishment and repaint programme,” he says. “The depot is 118 years old and requires renovation work. And we need to ensure service delivery continues to shine. Then it’s networks, marketing and digital.

“The dynamism and impetus of the first four months has given us plenty to build on and we recognise this can only be achieved by engaging our people, which is why we are working with colleagues at Queens Road to build a positive culture that is open and ready for change.”

Featham has recruited experienced managers to work alongside him at Go North West. Jon Croxford, who worked with him previously as area managing director for Arriva Yorkshire, has joined as operations and commercial director. Meanwhile, Steve Appleby, formerly engineering director at First Manchester, has joined as head of engineering. Appleby’s experience also includes three years as head of production at Chiltern Railways.

This is a serious line-up of talent for a single depot operation, especially when you consider that First Bus spent many years without an MD for its multi-depot Manchester operation. What’s the masterplan for Go North West?

“Well, we need to get Queens Road up and running as well as it can in the first instance – that’s a given,” responds Featham. “It’s a sound business opportunity where we can definitely add value through stronger customer focus, commercial development and efficiency improvements. A more engaged workforce will also take the business further than in the past.

“Strategically though, a successful Queens Road depot can demonstrate first-hand to stakeholders in Manchester how an innovative, progressive approach and willingness to invest can revitalise a sizeable chunk of the city’s bus operations. For a city currently considering plans for bus reform that could be very important.”

Is it reasonable to assume Queens Road won’t be Go-Ahead’s last acquisition in the region?

“There is no ‘dash for growth’ as such but in an era of tightening margins all UK bus operators have to take a rigorous view as to what markets they want to be in,” he says.

“Divestments and acquisitions are an ongoing reality. Where opportunities arise for Go North West to add value we will be prepared to invest. Of course, Go-Ahead’s growth opportunities go way beyond the North West and any opportunities will have to be weighed against other options for Go-Ahead. A move to a franchising or partnership model will inevitably throw up its own set of risks and opportunities.”

Greater Manchester is gearing up to be the first city region in England to hold a public consultation on the introduction of a bus franchising scheme, using powers available under the 2017 Bus Services Act.

Transport for Greater Manchester argues that the deregulated bus market means that “there is no oversight of co-ordination between buses and other modes of transport, a lack of integrated ticketing, no consistent branding, often confusing travel information and differing standards for customers”.

Backed by Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester’s first directly-elected mayor, the pursuit of bus franchising is a central component of a suite of projects and policies intended to create a simple, integrated and convenient London-style transport system.

Greater Manchester’s largest bus operator, Stagecoach, is unequivocally opposed to the plans. It accuses Burnham and TfGM of “keeping taxpayers in the dark about the massive bill they would have to pay for a London-style bus system”. But Go-Ahead has so far adopted a neutral stance (it already operates buses in the regulated environments of London and Singapore). So, while some believe that the timing of the group’s arrival in Greater Manchester is unfortunate as a transition to franchising will disadvantage operators, Featham disagrees.

“Not at all. Quite the opposite,” he says. “Go-Ahead has considerable experience of operating under both franchise conditions and non-franchise conditions so has a valid contribution to make to the ongoing consultation process. It’s important for operators and transport authorities alike to constantly review provision, and passengers should always remain the primary consideration – who wouldn’t want to build a better bus service?

I’ve done extensive work in other parts of the country exploring both franchising and partnership-based bus transport schemes … TfGM’s bus reform consultation can be seen as an opportunity as much as a threat.

“I’ve done extensive work in other parts of the country exploring both franchising and partnership-based bus transport schemes. It’s vital to thoroughly evaluate all options and outcomes before making a final decision. TfGM’s bus reform consultation can be seen as an opportunity as much as a threat.”

So what will success look like for Featham and his Go North West team?

“Short-term, turning Queens Road into a profitable operation,” he says. “Longer term, widening that success out across the region and being best placed to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in a dynamic marketplace.

“The Go-Ahead culture places emphasis on the quality of the local team, and that’s a major motivation for my management team and me. Accountability and innovation to the fore, the way we like it. It’s all go, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.”

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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