When you hop on a bus or see one on the street, do you ever stop to think about who owns that bus, or what it takes to run a bus company? Peter O’Driscoll was introduced to Collins SBA and has become a valued client of our business. This month we’d like to share his story and insights into owning and running a highly successful bus company.
1. How many privately-owned bus companies operate within Tasmania?
There over 180 private bus companies in Tasmania. It can range from someone owning just one bus through to someone owning over 90 buses, so it’s quite broad. Over 730 buses operate in Tasmania.
2. How do you differentiate your bus company?
When dealing with government contracts, there is not much scope for differentiation. Government contracts are very prescriptive when it comes to service delivery and vehicle and operating standards. We have specialised in the school charter space where we can focus on customer service and innovation. We are the first-choice provider to over 45 Hobart schools. We have been successful in this market by providing well trained and presented drivers, clean, modern vehicles and the flexibility to react quickly to our customer’s requests. All our vehicles are GPS tracked to allow quick response to last-minute changes, whether congestion related or customer requests.
3. How long have you owned Derwent Valley Link and how did you come to purchase it?
We purchased Ace Coaches from the Creswell family in 2006. It was the first time the business had been offered for sale since its establishment in the 1940s.
4. There is a lot of talk about driver-less cars and buses being used in the future. What are your thoughts about that?
That’s an interesting question. There are already trials being conducted in Australia. It’s hard to imagine the technology working in the school bus space where the driver has many hats. He or she is a counsellor, behaviour monitor, protector of lost children and a friend. Driverless buses are inevitable, but I think not in my working lifetime. It will be in high-density urban areas in very tightly monitored environments. I can’t see them running up and down the road between Bothwell and Hobart any time soon.
5. The bus industry is highly regulated; how does that impact the running of your business?
The bus industry is subject to the same regulatory environment as the wider heavy vehicle industry by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator. The NHVR focuses very heavily on the trucking industry and not every regulation translates easily to the bus industry context. Then there are the recent changes to the Chain of Responsibility (CoR) which means everyone in an organisation from a driver right through to the GM can be held accountable for one person in the chain making an error or not complying with NHVR regulations. Complying in such a highly regulated industry comes at a cost to the business, a cost that needs to be passed on to the end user. Government Service Contracts are also highly prescriptive, and another layer of regulation. Failure to meet the stringent operating standards can incur financial penalties or potentially even loss of contracts.
6. What are the biggest challenges that you face in your business?
One of the biggest challenges we face is finding drivers. Unfortunately, it’s not a 9-5 job and hours can vary from week to week depending on demand. A potential driver faces many hurdles to obtain the necessary licences and permits. It can take up to 3 months, and then they need to be trained, and at the end of it, they may only get 10-20 hours of work per week.
7. Who inspires you at work?
We have around 40 employees. They all inspire me in different ways at different times. They range in age from 22 right up to 75. They have many life experiences. Each one has something unique they bring to the table, and they’ve taught me a lot over the journey.
8. Derwent Valley Link is a family owned and operated business. What advice would you give to others about working with family?
Leave work at work. Don’t discuss it at home. Something we haven’t been able to adhere to, unfortunately!
9. How would you describe the work Rob Cameron has done for you?
It took a critical financial point in our business to convince us we were no longer a mum and dad business that knew more about running our business than our accountants. Collins SBA was recommended to us as a business that offered more than just preparing your annual tax return. In only 18 months Rob and the team have helped revive our business, albeit with some favourable contractual changes. The team at Collins SBA were able to identify some significant weaknesses in our company structure and mapped a clear way through a complete financial and company restructuring. The work they were able to deliver to our banker has been invaluable in ensuring the current and future viability of our business. They provide us with a quarterly business health check that has empowered us to make informed business decisions moving forward. Our next project is the succession planning involving our children hopefully taking over the business in the not too distant future.
10. People often think of bus trips as short; however, you offer some longer trips. Where are those to and why?
Our core business is providing route service and school bus services to the Tasmanian Department of State Growth. It makes up 70% of our income. Our two longest school runs are from Bothwell to Hobart, a round trip of about 160km and Ellendale to Glenorchy which is around 140km return. We also regularly take groups to the north of the state on day trips and also have a few regular mainland school groups that come to Tasmania every year for 4-5 day extended tours around Tasmania.
11. What are the characteristics of a good bus driver?
The bus driver is the public face of our company. They need to have excellent customer service skills, patience and pride in their appearance and their buses. A good sense of humour helps. A route service driver will encounter many different people each day from all walks of life. Some of those people will challenge their sense of humour and patience. And above all, they must drive safely and deliver their precious cargo undamaged.
12. What are the other roles that you have in the business?
Up until our recruitment drive, I was driving most days. Recently I have found the time to lock myself away in my office and “run” my business. I’m currently working on updating our IT and communication systems to find more efficiencies. I’m also working closely with Rob Cameron on other contract acquisitions and a fleet upgrade programe.
13. What’s the one piece of advice you have received along the way that you’ve never forgotten?
An industry colleague once told me never to scrimp on getting good advice, whether it be legal, financial or HR etc. Unfortunately, I was in this business for 12 years before I took heed of his advice. Now I live by It.
To find out more about Peter and his business or to book a bus charter please click here.