The BBC have recently been showing a rather fascinating documentary series which has selected 4 different individuals from a range of carefully selected categories and then post the show asked viewers to vote for a winner. A simple enough concept, and I have to say from a viewers point of view an intelligent bit of TV that got you thinking about just what greatness is all about. All those selected were worthy people, it included some surprises but nothing wrong with that.
This got me thinking about who would be selected in today’s modern world as Bus Icons and I suppose it begs the question just what is an icon?. Well easy option is to look it up so I did, and the Google dictionary advised me that icon meant “ A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration”. In fairness I think that we can discount the second part as it strays into religious iconism. Super, but not really appropriate to the world of shiny hubcaps and rolled up sleeves that is to me the Bus industry.
So, I will focus in this blog on one man who in my life and times was iconic for me in my career. Some people will know this chap but many will not, but I am sure that every person posing the same question would identify both the well known and the not so well known. Therefore I happily think that my first choice of icon would have to be my first MD with my first proper job. Stand up Ken Mills, the former MD of First Midland Red West, later to become First in the Midlands. Ken was a clever man, a self made man, he never went to University but joined the traffic office of the mighty Midland Red at the age of 16 years old. He was astute, intelligence, had good people skills, he also had an exceptionally dry and hilarious sense of humour, and made me laugh a lot, and with classic self deprecation called himself the “thick Brummie lad”. He was right about one thing, he was a proud Brummie and a life long Birmingham City Football club supporter, but he most certainly was not thick, indeed the complete opposite, a super smart man.
As my first MD, I found him inspirational, and in the formative 7 years that I worked for him, I never once found any grounds to ever criticise the man. He was tough but fair, and he had that common touch, he could walk into a canteen and the drivers would respect him and like him. He could talk to them as one of them, he was one of the lads but always the “gaffer”. He had a care for people as we discovered when he lead a Company buy out and he encouraged and included everyone in the business to be part of it if they wanted, unlike many other NBC Company buy out teams. Reflective of his deeply held socialist and humanitarian beliefs.
He taught me and others a lot, he became a millionaire but never let that change who he was, every Thursday he played crib at the Red Lion in Droitwich members of his life long team included bus drivers who worked for him, who he had known for years. He could walk as they say with Princes and Paupers, and I was lucky he took me under his wing from the start. I always enjoyed his Company, even when he almost sacked me over an unprofessional error of judgement that made my Depot in Hereford loads of money when I sneakily put the fares up, but did not tell anyone which required me to deceive him and the rest of the management team. Looking back now after all these years anyone else would have given me the bullet. But, as said to me, make sure you learn from this second chance Young un, as he used to call me. He also, I later learned stood up for me when others were sticking the boot in behind my back, as happens in life.
Tragically the man with the big heart died far too young, he passed away at the age of 61, from a sudden massive heart attack. I always felt this was a great shame, he still had a lot to achieve, but as I have learned myself recently, life and death are indiscriminate when it’s your time, it is your time. Looking back as I reflect on my 36 years in this industry, I owe Ken a lot, as do many people. I sometimes wonder just what he would have made of my checkered career in the bus industry, probably a wry smile and and you did not do too bad son.
One of great strengths was his brain, he was a mathematical genius, he could work things out quicker than a calculator or a computer. As a result he was a genius at budgets and financial management, coupled with the common touch that resonated with every one at all levels from cleaner to Chief Executive. He was also courageous and would fight hard for his Company and the people in it.
So, in summary, I was lucky, he was a great bloke who was very good to me and many others, buying out the Company was a huge gamble but he remortgaged his house to show willing and lead from the front, along with Dougie Ross, the FD, John Wooley the Engineering Director, and Roger Hutchins, the Finance Controller. Together a great team and as for the other 6 Managers including me who were invited to join the buyout team well he changed our lives. ( He even lent me the one thousand quid required for me to join the team interest free).
But maybe his biggest contribution was inviting all the drivers, engineers, and cleaners, indeed everyone in the business, the chance to buy shares in the fledgling Company, a huge leap of faith. He believed that all employees should have that one chance , he wanted it to be all inclusive. In most cases it did not cost them a single penny, as he encouraged them to use their holiday pay as collateral. And on the famous day when he announced that he had sold the Company to Moir Lockheed at Grampian Regional Transport ( which went on to create First group) and that from that point on the everyone’s 5 pence share was now worth £3.50 pence, a staggering 70 fold increase in the value of the share. So with the lions share of the staff having 500 shares each, overnight they were worth a life changing £35,000 each. And trust me back in 1987, that was like winning the lottery. What a top bloke, what an icon.