Richard Bowker: Off the dead man's handle and back on the right track
The chief of National Express is in his element again after his dark days as the Government's railwayman, finds David Parsley
Sunday 02 March 2008
Poacher turned gamekeeper then poacher again. That sums up the career of Richard Bowker over the past decade. "Yes, it can get very confusing sometimes," he admits.
Bowker, the one-time government rail enforcer, is a graduate of the Sir Richard Branson school of management, his natural style being casual clothes and an easy-going manner. After rising through the ranks of Sir Richard's empire to become co-chairman of Virgin Rail, Bowker moved over to the dark side in 2001 as head of the Strategic Rail Authority, the government quango that managed the train-operating companies. When the SRA was abolished in 2005, he built schools for the Government as chief executive of Partnerships for Schools. That lasted only a year, before Bowker returned to his transport roots by taking over from Phil White as chief executive of National Express, the bus, coach and train giant.
Last Thursday he unveiled an impressive set of full-year results, the first he can claim as all his own work, and with a number of things to boast about, he is in an upbeat mood. But the last time I met him, in his days at the SRA, we did not get on too well. He'd taken to political power and forgotten the issues that really concerned the rail industry – the same ones that concerned him at Virgin Rail. Many rail stalwarts suggested he had betrayed the sector that gave him his career.
Of course, he sees his time at the SRA somewhat differently. But perhaps all that needs to be said now is that the organisation was abolished after his tenure and any strategic thinking is these days the responsibility of the Department for Transport. In reality it always was, and Bowker was simply a civil servant dressed up as an independent authority.
"I had not intended to return to the transport business," he says, "but National Express was too good a role to turn down."
Bowker has changed. He does not appear suspicious of everything and everyone any longer. The job of running one of the nation's largest transport groups clearly suits him. And, at the still tender age of 41, he's actually looking younger and fitter than he did in those dark days as the Government's agent. He's back where he belongs in the real world of business – a nice bloke again, dispensing with the need to deny anything put to him, as was the norm in his SRA days.
Of course it helps that he's just revealed a sparkling result for 2007. There's a 13 per cent jump in profits to £177m, a dividend rise of 10 per cent for the next three years, and an expansion programme that is likely to result in National Express regaining its crown as the UK's largest train operator.
I had assumed this would be a difficult conversation, given some of the things I have written about him in the past, but Bowker's enthusiasm for the task ahead is refreshing and makes me question why on earth he was ever in the public sector.
"Yes," he says, "it's gone well over the last year. We've had some great growth in Spain and really consolidated our position there. America has also seen some strong growth. We're very pleased to be giving our shareholders a dividend increase."
Bowker made his first substantial acquisition last year by snapping up Continental Auto for £459.8m to make National Express Spain's leading coach and bus operator. This followed his predecessor's buyout of Alsa in December 2005 and means the group now runs over 2,100 vehicles carrying 142 million passengers a year all over the country. But this is merely the beginning for National's start in Spain.
Bowker reveals he is in talks with Renfe Operadora, the state-owned train operator, on managing a number of commuter and inter-city franchises as Spain edges towards a partial privatisation of its railways.
"It's hard to say how the opening up of the Spanish rail market could work," he says. "But we're in conversation with the authorities in a number of regions. I expect the model could work out with us bidding to manage train franchises while Renfe and the government retain ownership. Regions such as Catalonia could come up first and cities such as Madrid or Barcelona."
It's a bold ambition for a company that has plenty to fight for back home. Later this year, the Southern rail franchise will be offered to potential operators, and National Express is the front-runner after agreeing a deal with the Government to give up its Gatwick Express operation, which will form part of the expanded London commuter package. Bowker is on a mission to make his company the most recognisable name in transport.
"The great thing about National Express," he says, "is its brand potential. When I arrived, there was nothing that needed fixing as the business was already strong. But I have perhaps taken things in a slightly different direction. There was a lot of change in 2007 when I looked at the business with a fresh pair of eyes. We're unlocking the potential of a brilliant brand."
That's very Virgin, is it not? Brand this, brand that. Bowker is also keen to borrow another of Sir Richard's favourite messages and let us know how good his company is for the environment. Without National Express, he explains, the UK would be pumping out 600,000 tons more in carbon emissions as the group's passengers would instead take to their cars. Of course, this is a ridiculous boast: if National Express was not here, then someone else would be running those trains, buses and coaches. However, Bowker makes a fair point when he says the nation is beginning to realise the benefits of public transport.
"The environmental issues are huge for us," he says. "People are using trains, buses and coaches more and more, and that can only be good news. We're also working on our own emissions and looking into some quite neat stuff such as wind turbines and rainwater harvesting."
So if he's so determined to help make the world a greener place, why does he, and other operators, keep hiking up fares? His response is the weakest of the interview and the one typically delivered by transport bosses. "There are many cheap fares available," he says. "But I understand the fares system should be easier to understand and cheap fares made easier to find."
It's a point that has been made for more than a decade and still few people understand how to find the cheapest fares.
Away from the green argument, he is back on solid ground. Last week's £14m fine of Network Rail, the state-funded rail infrastructure company, for its poor maintenance record was justified in Bowker's opinion.
"If you started with a blank sheet of paper then no doubt we'd arrange the management of our railways somewhat differently," he says. "But to try and rip things up and start again now would just mean nothing gets done for two years. The trick is to treat Network Rail as a supplier, and when they slip up, make sure they know it and don't let them get away with it again.
"We are very clear with where we stand with Network Rail. They are not in charge and we let them know that. As a result, we work well together most of the time. Those train operators that simply criticise Network Rail for everything and beat them up in public every five minutes are really not dealing with the situation properly."
He denies he's alluding to his former employers at Virgin Rail, but here is one company that blames anything and everything on Network Rail.
So Bowker is a changed man. He's friendly, open and makes a great deal more sense than he ever did working for the Government. It's like someone has taken his brain off a Whitehall shelf and put it back in.
Family: married, two children
Home: near Birmingham
Education: Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, Blackburn; University of Leicester, BA (Hons) Economics
Hobbies: Blackburn Rovers FC, hill walking, canal boating, wine, reading
September 2006 to present: chief executive, National Express
2005-06: chief executive of Partnership for Schools
2001-05: chairman and chief executive of the Strategic Rail Authority
2000-01: commercial director of Virgin Group and co-chairman of Virgin Rail
His first job was at London Underground, where he rose to become head of its Private Finance Initiative Unit. He also worked at investment group Babcock & Brown and as a rail consultant at Quasar Associates.
Honours: made a CBE in 2005 for services to the rail industry
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