The recent unsurprising departure of Mr Tim O’Toole frankly surprised very few, sadly when the dust of history has settled it will not reflect well on his time as the man at the helm of the SS Firstgroup. Some on social media have been happy to gloat and taunt and the likes of Private Eye have not helped with their “Worstbus ‘ column. However for some one like me who gave 20 years of my career to this Company I find it a sad state of affairs.
When I was there i back at the very start, it was an exciting and dynamic time to be part of a business that simply took off. No one had any idea just what was going to happen when the music stopped and just which Groups would still be standing. I doubt very much that those who speculated back in the day just who would end up being the bus barons would have put their money on a bus depot in Aberdeen, and a brother and sister partnership in Perth who began running two double deck buses, but these two groups from tiny acorns took their chances and went for it. There was an expectation that many of the former NBC supremos would be the big winners but looking back very few were successful.
Luckily people like me were some of the winners, those former NBC Companies who did management buyouts, risking everything including the family house to raise the money to own the Company certainly got paid handsome dividends when the share values went through the roof. In my case a 5 pence share over 18 months and three Company purchases later saw the sale price rising 70 fold to an incredible £3.50 pence. The family silver as former Prime Minister Harold MacMilan once famously pointed out was well and truly sold in a once in a lifetime opportunity. Many of the former NBC seniors were too cautious to take the gamble and they lost out. Sir Moir Lockhead and Sir Brian Souter however were both courageous and savvy and they just went for it.
In the case of First Bus when Grampian brought Midland Red West, none of us had a clue that within a few years not only a dozen or so bus Companies would be part of the family but a growing collection of rail franchises would be in the pot. And then low and behold, the iconic Greyhound Bus, First Student with a fleet of over 50,000 school coaches and First Transit would be part of Firstgroup employing over 125,000 people and turning over £7 billion. Amazing quite frankly like a fairy tale, but then things started to change. Crippling debts in massive pension pots and changing economics and demographics began to take their toll.
A change in culture started to take place with more centralised head office and a more aggressive senior management style began to emerge which resulted in the loss of some good people, but organisations of such size sometimes seem to think that this style of management is necessary. My tenure ended in 2007 when I was made redundant as Senior Manager Strategic Recruitment having delivered some 3,000 mostly Polish staff to the group as Bus drivers for the operating Companies. An amazing experience that I really enjoyed and look back on with pride, many of the guys who came across are still in First and they have settled down and raised their families over here.
So, I watch the present crises with sadness, nothing lasts forever I have been around long enough to know that but at the end of the day if you invest yourself into a business and you watch it grow, get some shares and feel a part of it the last thing that you want to watch is for it to sink under the waves and into obscurity. However, such is life we will have to stand back and see what happens. Will a group buy it out, lock stock and barrel? Or will bits be sold off leaving a smaller leaner business that will at least survive and might even flourish, history will decree. As for me I am still a shareholder and I will see what fate befalls my modest collection, I do not think that it will buy me a Ferra