Moir Lockhead: A public transport boss who is driving a green agenda
A day in the life: Fresh from spending £1.9bn on two American icons, Moir Lockhead, chief executive of FirstGroup, tells Susie Mesure of his company's environmental aims
Saturday 17 February 2007
Moir Lockhead, the Aberdeen-based boss of FirstGroup, wakes up in London. Not, as you might imagine, wedged into a berth on one of the bus-to-train giant's Caledonian Sleeper services but instead in the rather more salubrious surroundings of his London club. The RAC club on Pall Mall to be precise, which is at least in keeping with the transport theme.
Somewhat shamefully for the man who built Britain's biggest train operator from a management buyout 20 years ago, he in fact flew down to the capital the previous night.
But within the hour Mr Lockhead is making amends and is on a train out of Paddington bound for Swindon. Seated next to him is John Armitt, head of Network Rail and the man responsible for ensuring the nation's tracks are up to scratch.
The pair are heading west for a meeting at First Great Western's Swindon base, which is the hub for all the train routes to the West Country and South Wales, that promises to transform the network. They breakfast on "tasty" bacon sandwiches, enjoy "great" service, and pull in 56 minutes later, "spot on" timing wise. Clearly someone had a tip- off that the fat controllers were on board.
It has been a big and expensive week for First but it isn't time to put the chequebook away just yet. Last Friday it spent £1.9bn on buying Laidlaw, owner of the American Greyhound inter-city coach fleet and operator of some 40,000 yellow school buses. The transforming deal means the British company will ferry more American schoolkids around than any other company, provided the hostile Teamsters union and the competition authorities don't kick up too much of a fuss.
For now, though, Mr Lockhead's attention is focused on this side of the Atlantic. The topic for the morning meeting is a £1bn investment package for Great Western: £800m from Network Rail and £200m from First. Cue lots of promises to revolutionise train travel west of London and much patting of backs. The word "transform" is bandied liberally around. "We are going to transform the railway and that's going to happen over the next 12 to 18 months," pledges the 62-year-old. The money will be spent on upgrading the trains and the track. "Punctuality will improve, performance will dramatically improve, they will be fantastic to use."
Passengers have heard it all before, of course, but not since Great Western's reach was massively expanded last year to include also the former Thameslink and Great Northern franchises. Mr Lockhead, who worked his way into the driving seat at First after starting out aged 16 as an apprentice mechanic, is most excited about all the new rolling stock.
"They will be cleaner, greener and quieter. In terms of our carbon footprint they will be a significant improvement because they will use 15 per cent less fuel," Mr Lockhead says.
Network Rail's part of the deal will see it invest in new equipment to enable it to keep a better eye on how the track is bearing up. The number of temporary speed restrictions is falling and Mr Lockhead wants to "get the number of delayed minutes down by 20 per cent over the next 12 months".
They've wrapped in time up to catch the 12.59 back to town. The journey gives Mr Lockhead the time to muse on his US deal. He is off to the States the next day: first to Cincinnati, to set next year's budget for First's existing US business and then Chicago, to meet the Laidlaw crew for the first time since announcing the takeover.
Despite getting dragged through the mud during the past 12 months by the Teamsters for various alleged anti-union activities at its US FirstStudent arm, Mr Lockhead isn't worried about any opposition to the deal.
As for any political storm about a British company controlling two such quintessentially American icons, why he'll just gently remind the powers that be that the Yanks "just bought Liverpool football club and bought Manchester United two years ago. It's a two-way thing". He hopes the acquisition will mean he can bring more yellow school buses to the UK, although the decision ultimately rests with the Government and the local authorities. "The kids think they're cool. My grandson [one of eight grandchildren] goes to school on one [in Aberdeen]. He thinks it's fantastic."
Again Mr Lockhead's train arrives on time. He heads to First's London base, which recently spilled across the road from Paddington station.
He is being shown the architects' plans for a new corporate headquarters in Aberdeen. Shiny expensive new buildings and big transforming deals can often spell trouble for a company. But the odds favour the down-to-earth Mr Lockhead's chances of pulling it all off.
First's origins lie in his decision to pre-empt the deregulation of the then publicly owned bus operator that he ran in the late 1980s by leading a £4.5m buyout of Grampian Regional Transport. It later merged with the Bristol-based Badgerline to create FirstBus, which became FirstGroup after Mr Lockhead spotted the opportunity to move into trains. And then there is his family farm, started from scratch eight years ago. Back then the Lockheads barely knew one end of a Highland bull from another - now they are picking up awards for the quality of their cattle's semen. (His wife and daughter manage the farm but he likes to help out at weekends.)
First is also building a new bus depot in Aberdeen. The aim is to make the construction environmentally friendly. "Getting people out of cars and on to public transport is a key part of our move to reduce carbon emissions. We are also managing our energy use and waste disposal better as we build our climate-change strategy. We want to lead as much as we can and help to achieve what we all want to see - the reduction of carbon emissions and to stop damaging the environment."
The keen family man - despite being Durham born and bred, all his offspring now live within 20 miles of his Aberdeen farm - heads back to the RAC club in readiness for his flight to the US the next day.
He grabs the chance for an early night before what will be a bruising couple of days. He has to cram everything in so as to get back for his youngest grandson's 6th birthday and the accompanying family bash.
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