Fifty years ago today, on 10 April 1972, Fred Wood, in his 100th day as NBC Chair, took the General Managers’ annual conference by storm. Revealing his vision and plan to revive the fortunes of the bus and coach industry, he put the business’s new identity stage-centre – along with its creator, Norman Wilson.
It’s 100 days since Frederick Wood took up his appointment as chair of NBC, and this evening, at the annual conference of the General Managers of the local subsidiary companies, he will set out his approach for reviving NBC’s commercial fortunes.
At 4-5pm, the delegates begin to arrive at the conference centre at a Leicester hotel, which will be the venue for three days of discussions and planning. And at 5:30pm, Wood is due to give his opening address. Mysteriously, ahead of everything else on the following day’s agenda – planning, marketing, cost and operations management – pride of place on the opening evening is given to a talk on something called “CORPORATE IDENTITY”, led by an outsider to the group – Mr N Wilson, a design consultant.
The mystery doesn’t last long once Fred Wood is on his feet. He sees a bright future for NBC and its subsidiaries – but only if they can improve and manage cots and reliability on bus services (around 85 per cent of the business), and develop a profitable national coach network based on express services, tours and holidays, car rental – and anything else to which NBC’s resources and talent can be profitably deployed.
A national network requires a national identity. Wood argues that developing ‘a sound constructive ‘National’ image is central to successfully marketing a national product; drawing attention to NBC’s progress and performance; and to raising staff morale and commitment.
“I must here declare an interest and say frankly that I have been a lifetime “image” man. I was therefore a bit disturbed on my entry on the N.B.C. scene, to find the existence of a policy of virtual anonymity… . this cannot apply now in the light of our proposed policies and in fact this conference is being conducted under as large a glare of publicity as we can generate as a first move of the N.B.C. out of its chrysalis into the broad light of public view.
“We are convinced that the only way of maximising return on activities like Express is to operate a National system and in consequence we must develop as rapidly as possible a sound constructive ‘National’ image.
“The livery of the Express Coach which you will see shortly is only one expression of the new corporate identity programme which will eventually permeate all the visual aspects of N.B.C. such as uniform, literature, tickets, public signs and booking offices.
It is left to Norman Wilson himself, speaking at 6pm, to set out the logic, the symbol, and the new National identity he has developed in concert with Wood. In line with Wood’s vision of operating companies acting solely as contractors to a new Central Activities Group, which is to run the new coach network, the names and brands of the operating companies will disappear entirely from their own vehicles. Whatever the merits of a National brand, it is this that grates with the General Managers of the operating companies in the room.
Norman Wilson’s session is billed as leading to a ‘discussion’ – but in the end this is not what happens. Instead, the General Managers are led from the room, through the lobby and outside onto the hotel forecourt – where the prototype White Coach is waiting for them to inspect -in full National livery with the red and blue symbol and logotype. And – with no local company name. The evening continues with dinner. There is enthusiasm for Wood’s bold optimistic vision and sense of purpose in reviving the fortunes of an industry in trouble. But as for the loss of local identities from the industry’s flagship project – there will be murmurs over the next two days of the General Managers’ conference, plotting, and opposition.
Sadly we don’t have a copy of Norman Wilson’s remarks at the conference – though you can get a good idea of his thinking here. But, from the Bus Archive, we do have a full set of Fred Wood’s notes, setting out his views on the business’s commercial prospects, the way ahead for stage bus services, and his vision for expansion of the express coach and holiday travel businesses. Throughout, it is clear that the corporate identity was central to his model of how to progress. The fact that he gave the most prominent speaking slot at his first conference with his General Managers to Norman Wilson is testament to that.
Here in full is Fred Wood’s speech setting a new course and ambition for NBC, and spelling out why corporate identity is central to it.
Frederick A S Wood, Chairman, National Bus Company: opening address to NBC General Managers’ Conference, Leicester, 10 April 1972.
Some of you may have felt a sense of dismay when you heard last summer of the intended appointment of another non-busman as Chairman of NBC. You may have wondered why the Minister should decide to nominate an unqualified businessman who has made his career in the chemical industry to succeed a chartered accountant who had spent most of his working life in the electrical industry. And, if there was this feeling of dismay, I sympathise. I have in the past often stoutly maintained that the best businesses are run by full-time professionals. However, as you might imagine in this case, I have to suggest that there may well be special factors which modify the general rule and make a team of part-time Chairman and full-time Chief Executive the best one to cope with the job at hand.
Suffice it to say that I commenced in office on 1st January and on the same day Jim Skyrme took over from Tony Gailey as Chief Executive. I was glad to have been able to contribute to the selection process from which Jim emerged as the unanimous choice and I know it has given general satisfaction that we selected not only a life-time busman, but also a leading executive from N.B.C. itself.
In January, the new partnership of myself and Jim Skyrme began, supported by a reconstituted Board and the first one hundred days of the new regime expired at midnight last night.
The first hundred days smacks of a definite programme in the Kennedy, or even Wilson, tradition and I must therefore make clear that I do not believe in quick off-the-cuff solutions to major problems. When I discussed my appointment with John Peyton, I asked for and was specifically granted a five-year term instead of the more normal three years, because in my view three years is not a long enough period to accomplish the task of getting N.B.C. firmly on the road to long term viability. With these points in mind, you will not expect me to produce a list of definite objectives accomplished in this period. Rather we have been contenting ourselves specifically with reorganising and restructuring N.B.C. so that the company will be in the best possible shape to achieve the objectives that we have set.
You will by now be familiar with most of the details of the restructuring, but here are a few of the salient points.
1. We have taken steps to break down the schism between the part-time N.B.C. Board members and full-time management and also to allow Board members to contribute more to the work of N.B.C.
2. We have reduced the number of regions to three and modified; the regional structure so as to develop a more direct and dynamic chain of responsibility running from Chief Executive through Regional Director (and Executive) to Chief General Manager and then to General Manager.
3. We have introduced major new executive functions for vital areas such as Central Activities, (of which I shall speak more later), and Property.
As I have said, these and other changes are all designed to move N.B.C. as a whole into a better shape to tackle the very real problems and to enable us to fulfil our objective.
Before going any further, I must therefore give you my idea of what I see is our object. I have done my best to put this simply in one sentence and this is the result.
MY OBJECTIVE FOR N.B.C IS THAT WE SHOULD BE ABLE CONTINUOUSLY TO PROVIDE THOSE MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC WHO WANT IT A GOOD RELIABLE PUBLIC ROAD TRANSPORT SERVICE AND MAKE A PROFIT FOR THE NATION IN DOING SO.
Now if this was a free-for-all instead of being the well-behaved gathering that it is, half the audience would be on its feet shouting me down and providing better alternatives as to what they consider our aims should be. I can hear the ghostly voices now:
- “Who said you are supposed to make a profit? The 1968 Act says such and such…”
- “Everyone knows that buses cannot be run out of the fare-box.”
- “You should cut routes and services back relentlessly.”
- “Jam up the fares so that every route pays.”
However, my view is that the only reasonable course open to us is to settle for a straightforward aim of service with profit and to get on with the job.
Before going on to say how I think we can achieve this aim, I should mention some of the background factors, good and bad, that I have taken into account in planning our strategy.
1. The major minus factor which faces us quite clearly is the persistent decline in stage-carriage passengers as a result of the public’s obstinate insistence on the delights of the private motor car.
2. Another is a serious erosion in the standard of performance, particularly as regards return on capital, in some parts of the company.
This can partly be attributed to the sometimes inevitable institutionalisation which often accompanies being part of a large group, whether nationalised or not. One of the great dangers of national ownership is that it removes the final sanction of bankruptcy. I feel reasonably sure that the results of some of the companies in the Group over the last three years would have been considerably different if they had been privately owned.
3. Despite the fact that most of the companies have been grouped together for years before the formation of N.B.C. in 1968, the degree of standardisation in vehicle and engine purchasing achieved to date cannot be regarded as satisfactory. Computer development has similarly been on a completely decentralised basis and even now we cannot decide whether it is best to brush or spray paint a vehicle.
4. I suggest that the industry at large has become far too complacent and used to citing the manifest difficulties that surround bus operations as reasons for indifferent results. An example of this feeling is the general attitude to the poor results of 1970. These are dismissed as being exceptional, when in fact it might be argued that any poor result for whatever reason arises at least in part out of some error or omission of management and that the disaster of 1970 could have been foreseen and partly if not completely averted.
5. Bus companies are controlled and to a considerable extent hamstrung by local authorities, traffic commissioners and government departments. Changes in government policy, regional planning and city development all affect us strongly.
All public services, and the bus is no exception, tend often to become very convenient political footballs and N.B.C. suffers from this at the local and national level.
On the plus side:
1. The bus remains throughout the world the most flexible and adaptable means of moving people about in bulk. Railways, mono-rails and similar devices must have a track, which in this century usually proves to be prohibitively expensive. Air travel is ineffective inside the U.K. as a means of public transport. And as campaigns by successive government against the private car proceed, the bus must eventually come into its own.
2. We have a monopoly or quasi-monopolistic position in many areas and however you like it that must have good points. Furthermore most of our companies are household names in their particular locality.
3. There is a prodigious amount of talent (not all of it fully used) in N.B.C. Our human resources in terms of management and labour are very real and very considerable.
4. We have excellent engineering facilities, maintenance centres, bus depots and much real estate capable of considerable development.
5. We are adequately capitalised for our needs (if we accept the rather quaint debt structure in which we work under the Exchequer).
Having outlined our main aim and listed plus and minus factors, I propose to explain to you our planned strategy to achieve our objective.
The strategy is two-pronged.
- STAGE-CARRIAGE STILL CONSTITUTES THE VAST BULK OF OUR TRAFFIC AND EARNINGS. WE PROPOSE TO MAINTAIN AND IMPROVE OUR SERVICE IN THIS AREA BY WHATEVER MEANS·IS AT OUR DISPOSAL, SPECIFICALLY INCLUDING VITAL AND ENERGETIC MANAGEMENT AND METHODS, MARKETING, ECONOMIES AND RATIONALISATION.
- WE INTEND VIGOROUSLY TO DEVELOP ALL OTHER LEGITIMATE AREAS OF GROWTH IN PUBLIC TRANSPORT TO WHICH OUR ASSETS IN HUMAN RESOURCES AND EQUIPMENT CAN BE APPLIED. SPECIFICALLY WE WILL EXPAND ON A NATIONAL BASIS INTER-CITY SERVICES, EXTENDED TOURS AND POSSIBLY DEVELOP INTO SELF-DRIVE CAR HIRE, TRAVEL AGENCY AND OTHER ALLIED ACTIVITIES.
Now to explain these.
As I have said, the great bulk of our business (say 85%) is still in stage-carriage. We must therefore continue to maintain pressure in this main area. It will, for the time being at least, continue· to be operated on a company basis, although of course, we shall continue the policy of merging companies where appropriate. The traditional liveries and names will continue although we expect to propose a linkage via a common emblem for all N.B.C. companies.
We must ceaselessly pursue all possible avenues of profitable service in this area. We must examine bus and mini-bus franchise schemes for country areas. We must consider jointly with the Post Office and National Freight a return to the village carrier for some areas. In every possible way we must seek out what the customer wants and try to fulfil his requirements at a profit.
I believe that in a few years, enough pressure from governments here and abroad will bring counter-legislation against the car which will bring the bus into its own, but we shall be realistic and assume that that is not going to happen for the next few years and that in that period the car will continue its relentless progress.
In which case, we may well be faced with further declines in passengers on stage-fare business however hard we try to fulfil the public’s requirements. If that is the case, how do we tackle the problem? The classic answer often thrown at us is (a) increase fares and (b) reduce service.
It always seems to me that this is advanced by those without hard business experience, who completely fail to understand the unique problems and disadvantages of a declining market. Raising prices may cope with inflation but when applied to a diminishing volume of business, the effect is to produce nasty side-effect of driving away even more customers. Eliminating routes leaves existing overheads with less business to service them and valuable facilities only partly used. I believe if we were to try and solve the problems of N.B.C. by increased fares and reduced routes alone that we might well be out of business before my term is up.
What is the answer?
You must, of course, increase fares and reduce routes as circumstances dictate, but I believe the key to the problem is to find profitable growth areas for all these resources of human talent and physical facilities to be used on as the decline in stage-carriage proceeds, so that the slack may be taken up.
This reasoning lies behind the establishment of the Central Activities Group, about which I now propose to speak in some detail.
As you will know, we have set up the Central Activities Group and the Chief Executive has nominated David Glassborow as the Director in charge. This Group will have a growing number of divisions. The first two of these will be (1) Inter-City Express Operations and (2) Extended Tours.
As far as Express is concerned, I believe that this is an area where we can improve on a necessary and popular service to part of the public to a very real extent. This can be a growth area and one in which we can work profitably. I visited Greyhound in the States last year and some of my thinking on Express has been influenced by their experience. At any rate, we propose to follow very broadly the recommendations of the Garratt report, which run briefly as follows:-
(a) All Express operations of N.B.C. companies will be run as one service under one management as a division of the Central Activities Group.
(b) There will be a common livery for all the coaches concerned and naturally common working systems, tickets and general conditions.
(c) Those companies concerned only with coaching will be absorbed into the Central Activities Group.
(d) Those stage carriage companies that presently run Express Services will continue to own, operate and maintain the vehicles under a leasing arrangement with the Express Division.
Next we shall consider Extended Tours. This again is a potentially profitable area which we shall operate in future as a centrally-controlled function.
Self-drive hire cars present a growth area in transport to which some of our facilities may be usefully applied. Our network of booking offices suggests that there may be good grounds for us considering a national chain of travel agencies and there are other areas that we shall be exploring as the months pass.
In addition to the Central Activities Group, we shall strive to maximise our return from our substantial property interests and to this end a Property Department has been set up under the direction of Mr. Womar.
Broadly speaking therefore our policy is to continue to press the traditional stage-carriage business through the three new regional groups and to apply new and strong effort on our centralised activities.
So far I have told you of our reconstruction, told you of our main aim, listed a few plus and minus factors and explained our principal strategy.
Before I conclude I would like to deal with a number of specific points which may help you to understand the thinking behind some of the more obvious tangible aspects of this policy.
I must first give you my views on corporate identity or if you prefer, image. I must here declare an interest and say frankly that I have been a lifetime “image” man. I was therefore a bit disturbed on my entry on the N.B.C. scene, to find the existence of a policy of virtual anonymity. Tony Gailey and others explained all this to me and I accept that in the past, with all activities being conducted by the companies, there was an active disincentive to a central image. However that was in the past, it cannot apply now in the light of our proposed policies and in fact this conference is being conducted under as large a glare of publicity as we can generate as a first move of the N.B.C. out of its chrysalis into the broad light of public view.
We are convinced that the only way of maximising return on activities like Express is to operate a National system and in consequence we must develop as rapidly as possible a sound constructive ‘National’ image.
A concern for the outward image always brings with it the accusation that one is more concerned with window-dressing than making real progress. I strongly refute this, however, and will list a few specific reasons why I believe in a strong corporate identity programme.
- It is obviously absolutely necessary to the successful marketing of a national product.
- To focus public attention on oneself is to provide a constant and irremovable goad towards progress, better performance and growth.
- Internal morale at all levels is automatically stimulated and inspired.
The livery of the Express Coach which you will see shortly is only one expression of the new corporate identity programme which will eventually permeate all the visual aspects of N.B.C. such as uniform, literature, tickets, public signs and booking offices.
The second specific subject I wish to refer to is performance.
As I briefly mentioned, it is my view that the performance of many companies has been extremely poor particularly in terms of return on capital. Although we are owned by the Government, we are a commercial concern and we must be judged and judge ourselves on performance. High performance is the goal-scoring of commercial football. It is the tangible sign of all those virtues which make the good businessman and which when employed make the good business.
We must reduce and contain expense, not only operating expenses but also any form of unnecessary expense or expenditure. We must maximise returns by marketing, hard selling, persuasion or whatever means are at our disposal. However we do it, the criteria must be success.
Finally I would like to answer the hypothetical question – Is there a good future for the N.B.C. and for management in the N.B.C.?
For the last twenty years I have followed the commercial fortunes of many ventures of all shapes and kinds in the U.K. and elsewhere and from this accumulated experience I drew the firm conclusion that despite the many obvious difficulties that confront us the National Bus Company and its subsidiaries have not only every chance of viability, but that we can, if we really harness all our resources., become one of the nationally-owned enterprises that regularly provides a good service and makes money at the same time.
My vision for the National Bus Company for 1976 runs as follows:-
- We will be a leaner, tougher organisation than now in terms of men and vehicles. Attitudes will have changed so that performance and profit will be key factors.
- Our capital employed will be much the same as to-day, but we will be making a substantially better return. Say £20,000,000 before tax and interest.
- 60% of our revenue will arise from stage-carriage traffic, which will conducted by fewer companies, still working under many of the old names but clearly linked together as part of a national service. The other 40% of the business will be in Express, tours and the other central activities which will all be working under a by then familiar ‘National’ image.
- N.B.C. will be able to claim simply that it is as efficient and as profitable as commercial concerns of comparable size in similar industries.
I believe that a vital performance-orientated exercise of the sort I have described must offer enough posts of challenge and responsibility to all those in the industry who wish to strive for them. My vision of 1976 may not be exactly to everyone’s taste, but I hope it will commend itself to you. I invite you to join Jim Skyrme and me and the whole Board and management of the National Bus Company in turning this vision into a reality.
There’s more to follow on the design and launch of the NBC Corporate Identity. Do you have memories of the adoption and roll-out of the NBC Corporate Identity? If so get in touch using the form on this page, or the contact page here: https://nationalbusmanual.com/contact/