Kevin Carr: Staying ahead of the game in North East transport

Managing director of Go North East, Kevin Carr, discusses the challenges of a life-long career at the company

Kevin Carr Managing director of Go North East.

As a young lad growing up in County Durham, Kevin Carr thought mainly about football.

“I used to play for Chester-le-Street Boys,” he said.

“I went for trials at county level but was given the bad news I wasn’t quite heavy enough.

“I needed to grow a bit – eat a few steaks.”

At the time, he wasn’t quite sure what the future would hold if it wasn’t the Beautiful Game.

It seems fair to say, however, that things have worked out okay.

As managing director of Go North East, Kevin is now responsible for a fleet or around 700 buses and coaches, operating primarily in Tyne & Wear but also spanning into other parts of the region, including Durham and areas of Northumberland.

The operator faces stiff competition – most obviously from Arriva and Stagecoach, but also from the likes of Metro.

Transporting around 75-78m passengers a year, however, its still going strong, with the last 12 months, in fact, seeing a major investment of around £30m, £22m of which has been spent on new vehicles and £8m on a new super-depot in Gateshead, helping to streamline and modernise operations.

Indeed, passenger volumes have been growing steadily over the last five years, which Kevin puts down mainly to improvements through the likes of comfortable seating and free wifi on a sizeable proportion of its fleet.

“You up the quality and therefore increase passenger volumes,” he said.

“We also have a 90% satisfaction rate – customer service is vital. If you want to attract people, you’ve got to get the product right, make sure they are getting value for money and offer both punctuality and reliability

“More and more people are seeing public transport as an alternative and we want to keep moving forward.”

 

For Go North East, part of the Go Ahead Group, communication plays a vital part in that, the company proving something of sensation on social media like Facebook and Twitter, on which you’d be hard-pressed to find a business quite as open and responsive.

On the surface, it seems like a bold – even risky – strategy as the odd late bus has the potential to provoke public criticism.

In reality, though, it reflects on the business well, leaving customers satisfied that, even if slip-ups happen, at least they’re informed and know action is being taken.

“We’re trying to have direct contact with our customers and passengers and have done that for the last two or three years through the likes of Facebook and Twitter,” said Kevin.

“It’s been nationally recognised.

“It means we can provide an immediate response; we have a customer service department set up to take care of such communication.

“We don’t please everybody all of the time, but we believe in tackling things openly and telling customers what we’re trying to do.”

It isn’t simply Go North East’s day-to-day operations that Kevin needs to handle, however.

At the moment, he’s also firmly focused on securing the future of its services, in the best interests of the business, passengers and the taxpayer.

The great threat, he says, is the quality contract proposals currently being put forward by transport body Nexus, which could mean only council-controlled buses are allowed to operate in the region.

Under the system, firms would have to bid for strict contracts covering routes, fares and timetables.

“We believe the way the contracts are set up is unworkable, unaffordable and totally impractical and we said that through our consultation response,” Kevin said.

“All the operators have said that. And financially this could put a massive burden on the taxpayer.

“I think it’s disappointing this has continued for two and a half years.

“The operators firmly believe that a partnership provides pretty much all the benefits to the customer and would mean more money could that could be reinvested in bus services and infrastructure.”

Go East has itself had to spend considerable sums of money on preparing a response and Kevin says a vast proportion of his time is spent dealing directly with the issue.

“We are told they will make a decision in September,” he said.

“Potentially, it could mean we have no business or that we win all the contracts.”

The shake-up represents the latest stage in Go North East’s evolution, the company having a long history of being able to move with the times.

Originally part of the National Bus Company, Northern General Transport - the first company to become part of the Go-Ahead Group - was purchased in a management buyout led by Martin Ballinger and Chris Moyes.

Early expansion, then, saw the acquisition of some smaller competing bus operators in the North East, before the company was split into five divisions and remained in that form until 1997.

Kevin started there pre-privatisation as an apprentice and quickly excelled in the role, prompting him to set ambitious goals for himself.

The company helped him significantly as he progressed his knowledge through the likes of management and engineering degrees.

“I wanted to make the most of it and people at work helped me,” he said.

“They were great mentors and really encouraged me.

“As I moved forward, I started to get results and they encouraged me to go further.”

Eventually, Kevin, who is based at Gateshead, became both a chartered engineer and a IOD chartered director.

He also rose the managerial ranks gradually, taking on the remit for an increasingly vast proportion of the organisation, before becoming operations director then eventually MD.

“I’ve been with the company a long, long time and I’ve loved working with Go North East,” he said, adding that while he had been poached by other companies, the move had never felt right to him.

Currently, he works closely with finance director Colin McPherson, operations director David Curry and the senior management team beneath that.

The whole business, though, is “pretty close”.

“I know virtually everybody in the organisation,” Kevin said.

“We’ve got a pretty solid structure. It works very well.”

The job, as one might imagine, isn’t without its challenges, and Kevin’s typical working day will run from around 8am to 6pm.

The 55-year-old, who lives in Hepscott, Northumberland, however, finds balance and relaxation through the likes of squash, golf, gardening and spending time with the family.

It’s also motivating, he says, that Go North East – now the third largest private sector employer in Tyne and Wear, behind Nissan and Virgin Money - maintains a strong ethos of supporting employees.

The company, which runs long service awards, is blessed with a low staff turnover and is making efforts to secure a solid workforce for the future through recruiting five to seven apprentices every year.

“We continue to do that and, if anything, want to start increasing the number of apprentices we take on,” Kevin said.

“A lot of engineering staff started in the 70s and 80s and we need to address that.

“If we tried to recruit from the wider market, we wouldn’t get the skills we need, so we are developing them where we want to develop them.

“My view is that you need a good mix of academic learning and experience.”

Indeed, Go North East makes it its policy to identify high fliers, whether they’re rising stars or managers of the future, putting them through the courses they need to develop as far as they wish.

As to Kevin’s management philosophy, it’s fairly simple: “Treat people the way you want to be treated yourself.

“Also, if you can delay a decision overnight, then sleep on it.

“If not, then make the best decision you can based on the information you have at the time.”

“You’ve also got to build trust.”

No hiding place: Kevin Carr
No hiding place: Kevin Carr
 

We find out a bit more about Kevin Carr

What car do you drive? Jaguar XJ.

What’s your favourite restaurant? Sachin’s, on Forth Banks, Newcastle.

Who or what makes you laugh? Jeff Dunham.

What’s your favourite book? The Guns of Navarone.

What was the last album you bought? Rod Stewart - Time

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? A professional golfer, but I know my limitations.

What’s your greatest fear? Height; I work at height but don’t like it at all.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? If you don’t have to, never rush a decision.

And the worst? Trust no one!

What’s your poison? Coffee - drink far too much!

Which newspapers do you read other than The Journal? The Daily Mail

How do you keep fit? Play squash, Scuba dive and golf

What’s your most irritating habit? Falling asleep while reading the newspaper, or so I’m told.

How much was your first pay packet? £17.33

What’s your biggest extravagance? Holidays. I like going to distant places. This year I’m going to the Maldives.

What historical, political or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Margaret Thatcher

How would you like to be remembered? As a team player

Which four people would you most like to dine with? Tiger Woods, Alex Ferguson, Tom Cruise and Richard Branson.

Kevin Carr's working day

6.30am: I usually wake before the alarm, take a quick shower and then have a coffee while watching the early morning news before setting off for work.

8am: I arrive at work around 8ish, and quickly get into e-mail mode, reading, answering and sending as required. I review the daily output to ensure all services are operating and then discuss any particular issues that have occurred with the operations director. Serious incident reports are checked and actions noted.

10am: Mornings then can include meetings, briefings, training sessions, project work and catch up meetings with the other directors and mangers. Recently, these meetings have focussed on our £30m investment in a new vehicles and a new depot.

1pm: Lunch. I don’t really have a specific lunch break, It depends on what the afternoon has in store. Usually, I catch up with paperwork and e-mails at this time and, if I’m able to, I take time for a ‘walkabout’ at one of the busy terminus points or bus stations,

2pm: In the afternoon meetings take place around the region with stakeholders, politicians, advisers and industry colleagues. There is never a dull moment, with lots of new initiatives and innovations to consider, whether it be vehicle improvements, service developments, property enhancement or efficiency improvements, or even environmental considerations.

6pm: As the drive home is around 35 to 40 minutes, I usually leave the office at this time, which ensures I get home at a reasonable hour. The drive enables me to make those last minute calls, then relax and wind down on the way.

7pm: Evening – A combination of catch-up with my wife, a quick look at e-mails, any pressing matters that can’t wait until morning, exercising (squash or golf), socialising, and even some dreaded household chores.  

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