Global chief has never forgotten early lessons

FirstGroup chief executive Moir Lockhead today heads a global transport business boasting 135,000 employees and leading brands such as America's famous Greyhound buses.

FirstGroup chief executive Moir Lockhead today heads a global transport business boasting 135,000 employees and leading brands such as America's famous Greyhound buses. But, as he tells Andrew Hebden, he has never forgotten the lessons he learned as an apprentice bus mechanic in Darlington

Moir Lockhead

AMID the warren of corridors that comprise FirstGroup’s unassuming headquarters housed in a historic building next to the Aberdeen bus depot, you eventually find Moir Lockhead’s office.

Over his desk towers an imposing oil painting of a rugged Highland beast and the chief executive, who cuts a distinctive figure with his dark, bushy eyebrows, drinks tea from a bone china mug decorated with the corporate tartan. Pictures of First ScotRail trains wending their way through majestic Highland landscapes decorate the walls.

If it is a surprise to find these modest surroundings act as the global headquarters for Britain’s newest FTSE100 company, then it’s perhaps just as unexpected to learn the man sat behind the desk of this proudly Scottish business is a North Eastener who learned his trade in garages in Darlington, Stockton, Hartlepool, Newcastle and Sunderland.

Well, that’s if his softly-spoken North East accent hasn’t given away the secret.

As we meet on a chilly Aberdeen morning, snowflakes pepper the skies above the Granite City, but Lockhead says he is grateful that it has not been a harsher winter. In fact, it has been one of the least disruptive on record – and not just for his beloved Highland cattle back home on the farm.

It has also been good news for his train companies, including First Great Western, the troubled operator in the South West which has been plagued by bad news headlines.

Lockhead is regarded as a formidable adversary by his peers – you don’t transform a small regional bus company into one of the world’s largest public transport businesses without ruffling a few feathers – but during our chat he proves to be a hugely affable character, speaking passionately about his business, customer service, Scotland and his early days in the North East.

He’s plenty to be proud of, of course, as the architect of FirstGroup’s very existence, creating the company following an employee/ management buy-out of the former Grampian Regional Transport business in 1989 before snapping up bus companies around the country in the privatisation era. He then turned his attention to trains when the rail network was sold off by the Government, and nine years ago – after short-lived excursions into airport ownership and Hong Kong buses – moved into the American market, a venture which has truly catapulted FirstGroup into the ivy league of UK businesses.

The company was admitted to the FTSE100 index of leading companies in December last year following its £1.9bn purchase of Laidlaw, the American company which owns Greyhound buses. FirstGroup also operates 62,000 yellow school buses in the States, carrying 2.9 million students every day.

The American deals also saw FirstGroup acquire various support services which means the Scottish company can now boast it owns police cars in Washington DC and fire engines working at an air base in North Carolina.

It is literally thousands of miles away from the relatively modest MBO in Aberdeen, but those roots were key to the firm’s rapid expansion in the early years when it out-fought rival transport companies to win a dominant share of the UK bus market.

It is hardly surprising the 62-year-old, who grew up in the mining village of West Cornforth, near Sedgefield, County Durham, says he never imagined such a truly global business could have been created from such modest beginnings.

“No, we didn’t – I think the buyout was driven by the staff wanting, if they were able, to prosper from the privatisation of the industry,” he says.

“There was a determination from the drivers and the mechanics that we shouldn’t be victims of the privatisation, we should be the beneficiaries. The employee base was very important to us. The workers had a third of the company, we were committed to their pension plans and preserving their conditions of service.

“When we went to see other companies (to buy), we would take people from here and get them to tell the story. The trade unions were very supportive and it was just a good structure of employee ownership – we have an employee director on the board even now – I don’t know any other plc that does that but that was the legacy of the buyout.”

The pace of expansion was fuelled by the company’s listing on the Stock Market in 1994 and the following year’s merger with Badgerline which grew revenues to £350m, before the firm’s move into the more regulated world of the railways after 1996. Today FirstGroup has 135,000 staff and global sales of £5bn.

Lockhead says that two core principles have guided the business through the years – ensuring the safety of its own staff and an obsession with delivering the highest quality public service.

“The most important thing is to deliver the service that you promise,” he says. “You have to make sure that you have enough manpower and enough vehicles – whether it’s buses or trains – to deliver the service that you promise. It’s quite simple – although we do our best to make it complicated!”

If the company’s ascent to the upper echelons of the business world has been relatively recent, Lockhead has no doubt that the lessons he learned in his early years have continued to guide him.

His career in the transport business began at the age of 15 as an apprentice at United Autos in Darlington.

“It was a really important part of my life,” he recalls fondly. “Going out of school and immediately into work at such a young age, you learn all sorts of values such as a good work ethic and the importance of attention to detail. I always remember people cleaning up after themselves – you don’t have to be covered in oil all the time to be a good mechanic. You can be organised and clean – that was the clear message.

“It is also important to understand how things work. There are people who can diagnose what is wrong and can correct the fault first time rather than taking three times – we still value those people in the business today.”

Lockhead – who was made an OBE in 1996 – is a passionate advocate of the apprentice system. He attended Darlington College one day and a couple of evenings each week to learn the theory but says he was always desperate to get back to the garage to put it into practice.

His four-year stint at United was also important for another reason – it was where he was to meet his wife, Audrey, and they have now been married for more than 40 years.

He got his first taste of being a boss at just 19 when he moved to freight business Econofreight in Stockton as a management trainee.

“It taught me an awful lot about the commercial world,” he explains. “It was a tough, price-sensitive, competitive business; back then those long and short-haul trucks had to work hard to make a return. I enjoyed it but I always felt that I wanted to get back to doing the engineering.”

After Stockton, Lockhead moved back into public transport with a job at Hartlepool Transport, where he held the glamorously-titled post of rolling stock superintendent, before heading north to Byker with Tyne and Wear Transport, where he was head of engineering for the north division.

“They were just starting to build the Metro at that time and, although I wasn’t much involved in that, it was great place to be working and I enjoyed the role very much,” he said.

Lockhead moved to Glasgow in 1979 to become chief engineer of the city’s bus and underground network and, six years later, headed to Aberdeen as general manager at Grampian Regional Transport.

Today, he lives on a farm in Royal Deeside where he breeds Highland and Aberdeen Angus Cattle, surrounded by his four children and eight grandchildren who all live within a 20-mile radius.

Just 12 months before Moir left the North East of England, his brother had emigrated to Australia, and their parents followed him to the other side of the world.

They would probably have stayed down under, he said, but his father could not tolerate Australian television and the couple swiftly returned to the UK and settled just 15 miles south of Aberdeen in Stonehaven.

“My three sons still retain their North East England accents but the grandchildren are definitely Scottish,” jokes Lockhead, who retains his affection for his home region and Hartlepool United in particular. He was delighted to see the regeneration that has taken place in the town on a recent visit to watch the team.

It’s a touch ironic then that, given his company now runs more than 9,000 buses and five train franchises in the UK, one of the regions it is least well represented is the North East, with just the TransPennine Express rail services travelling through the area. Is that something which might change one day?

“Maybe,” he says. “The whole of the area is a bit like this area (Aberdeen) and the central belt with its high usage of buses and trains which is historically because there was not a high level of car ownership. Things have now moved on but people are still big users of bus services and the whole industry is showing an upturn, especially with issues such as $100 oil and climate change all making public transport more attractive.”

Don’t rule out spotting one of his firm’s distinctive white, pink and violet liveried buses on the roads of the North East before Moir Lockhead retires to concentrate on tending his Highland Cattle.

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Linking the region with other major cities in North

:: FIRSTGROUP’S main business in the North East is the First TransPennine Express rail service which links the region with other major cities across the North including Leeds and Manchester.

:: The company has recently created a new £40,000 base in Newcastle for nine conductors who work on trains operating out of the city, having previously used taxis to get staff to Tyneside for early morning services.

:: The year-to-date performance for TransPennine Express is 91.65% of services arriving within 10 minutes of schedule, an improvement of 2.45% on last year.

:: The company is currently examining the possibility of running direct services between Newcastle and Liverpool.

:: The morning service between Chester-le-Street and Newcastle was once named the most overcrowded in the UK. TransPennine Express has now added an additional carriage to this train but it is still very busy.

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Moir Lockhead: The CV

Born: Sedgefield, County Durham, April 1945

Education: West Cornforth Secondary School

1960: Apprentice mechanic, United Autos, Darlington

1965: Management trainee, Econofreight, Stockton

1967: Rolling stock superintendent, Hartlepool Transport

1969: Engineer, Tyne and Wear Buses, Byker, Newcastle and Sunderland

1979: Chief engineer, Glasgow City Transport

1985: General manager, Grampian Transport, Aberdeen

1989: Led employee/ management buyout

1995: Merger with Badgerline to create First. Lockhead becomes deputy chairman and chief executive

1996: Made an OBE

1998-2001: Chairman, Scottish Enterprise Grampian

2000: Awarded Honorary Doctorate from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen

2004: Awarded Honorary Chair at University of Aberdeen

2007: Named Scotland plc Chief Executive of the Year

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The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Range Rover.

What's your favourite restaurant?

Silver Darlings, seafood restaurant, Aberdeen.

Who or what makes you laugh?

David Jason in Only Fools & Horses.

What's your favourite book?

Four Days in June by Scottish writer Iain Gale.

What was the last album you bought?

Abba – Grandchildren.

What's your ideal job, other than the one you've got?

Engineer – it's where I started my career and I still love understanding how things work.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you would teach it to say?

Customer service!

What's your greatest fear?

The weather – poor conditions can often cause transport companies major headaches.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Stay close to the action and be meticulous. Attention to detail is crucial.

And the worst?

Maybe not a management phrase, but "it will be all right on the night". Alarm bells start ringing when I hear that phrase. I automatically think that things are being left to chance. Good planning and attention to detail is essential in every walk of life and when I hear "it will be all right on the night", I fear that the night will be a disaster!

What's your poison?

Real ale.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

Press and Journal (Aberdeen).

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

£9 per week as an apprentice mechanic.

How do you keep fit?

Walking and farming – there is always so much to do, but I love it!

What's your most irritating habit?

I am afraid I am a stickler for attention to detail, which does tend to irritate the family a little!

What's your biggest extravagance?

My farm.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel – one of the finest engineers that ever lived.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Ali, Peter Alliss and John Thaw.

How would you like to be remembered?

As making a positive difference to the transport industry.

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