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Stagecoach East's Andy Campbell's next stop

Stagecoach East MD Andy Campbell to retire in December after five decades of service to public transport
Stagecoach East MD Andy Campbell to retire in December after five decades of service to public transport

Bus chief's shift has been characterised by refreshing candour and hard work

Andy Campbell, chief executive of Stagecoach East
Andy Campbell, chief executive of Stagecoach East

He’s been the face of Stagecoach in Cambridge for the best part of 15 years, but Andy Campbell’s time as managing director of the Eastern realms of its business, is nearing the end of its route.

He will retire as managing director of Stagecoach East in December, having made a difference in his 50 years in the transport sector. He’ll be remembered as a plain-speaking man whose clarity of thought verged on bluntness as well as for the many achievements he’s overseen during his time at the wheel.

During his 14 years in charge of the region’s bus system he’s seen the company double its depots to four, adding Fenstanton and Bedford sites to the existing bases at Cambridge and Peterborough. When he took over as managing director in 2004 the firm carried 17 million passengers a year, now it’s 24-34 million including Bedford. The service now extends from Spalding to Luton, and from King’s Lynn to Oxford – and, with the railways in chaos, its role has arguably never been more important.

Thanks to his start as an apprentice mechanic in Leeds 50 years ago, Andy has always had his feet on the ground and the ability to understand how ordinary people feel was never likely to be ironed out by any sort of corporate muzzle.

“My ambition at the time was to get to supervisor,” he says of the start of his career. “And maybe go to night school to teach mechanics.”

But his destination wasn’t teaching. He got a chargehand’s job with Leeds city transport after his apprenticeship.

“Then, three or four years later, I got a foreman’s job and looked around and thought ‘I’m pretty sure I can do better than the boss I was working for.”

He became engineering director, when “the operations director left so I did both roles for a while, I was working for First Group at the time”. Before joining Stagecoach he was managing director at First Bradford.

“Stagecoach was looking for someone with experience of guided buses and smartcard systems,” he says, “and I’d launched the first commercial smart card operation in Bradford, and guided buses in Leeds and Bradford.

Negotiating deals must have taken a lot of stamina, but Andy is apparently nonchalant about his abilities.

“I don’t particularly enjoy it but it’s an essential part of the job, I probably prefer the cut and thrust of negotiating with the trade union – it’s more challenging but also more rewarding.”

Today, Andy has “a very good working relationship with Unite”.

The last 14 years in the job have had their share of challenges, starting with technology.

“Technology has played its part with smart cards and real-time bus information, along with contactless payments – the technology has moved on and it’s been mostly positive from the customer point of view.”

Stagecoach East’s headcount has gone from 600 employees to 1,000 in Andy’s time, and the teamwork involved in delivering 93,000 bus trips a day is clearly something Andy believes is essential to the company’s success.

“I’ll miss the people most without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “I’m very fortunate in that we can have an open debate about how to progress, and the banter at Cowley Road... it’s all about the people.”

Asked about his replacement, he says the process hasn’t started yet. “We’ll probably put an advert out,” he says, “though judging from the letters we get and the ones that get published we have a lot of transport experts in Cambridge that can do the job better than I can...”

Like an armchair football manager except for transport issues?

“Yes, but we last a bit longer.”

If Andy was a football manager, he’d be a Sir Alex Ferguson – develop an indomitable team ethos, look after your own, don’t listen to nonsense from outsiders. It’s a strategy that’s served him – and his team – well. I ask if he has any advice for people starting out in business today.

“I got some useful advice from Brian Souter,” he replies, referring to the man who founded Stagecoach with his sister Ann in 1980. “He said: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’.”

Andy, a rare voice of bespoke common sense in a world of political gamesmanship and transport inertia, has always spoken his mind and cut through the mire of local politics. So does he have any words of wisdom for his successor?

“In terms of the future here’s my advice: try not to get too frustrated in the near future as we seem to have a conflict between the (Combined Authority) mayor and the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP), and until there’s a clearer vision don’t get bogged down, try to do the best you can, in the longer term there will be a plan.”

Not great news for long-suffering road users, perhaps, because we still don’t know which other options will be chosen from an underground railway, guided buses, more railway stations, a new type of driverless bus, or some sort of driverless pod. But you can’t blame Andy for that, his company is one of the very few organisations that actually deliver a service.

“My preference would be, if you want to build tunnels, do it for electric cars, because the smaller a tunnel the cheaper it is to build. That would mean you could get across the city easily. If the tunnels were connected to car parks, that would free up space above for a futuristic transport system. I just don’t think there would be enough commuters to justify an underground train, and the corners involved in navigating around Cambridge would make it difficult for trams.”

More than most, Andy knows there’s no more time to waste.

“If you’re going to build 30,000 more houses the city will get even more congested, it needs some sort of demand management, which means the mayor and the GCP working together.

“The last year has been frustrating because we’re not getting a vision of what happens in future. It’ll probably be OK in 10 years’ time but not from now until then.”

Meanwhile there’s some room to consider a working arrangement to deliver bus services to the villages, but it may need to be subsidised.

“That used to happen in the past but the county council had a funding cut. They have to decide what’s socially necessary.”

There are ways round the problems.

“If there was a congestion charge that money could fund services to local areas. The difficulty is there’s lots of villages in Cambridgeshire, but not the volume of people necessary to run a service from each village. We could run a direct service on the main roads, say from Ely to Cambridge, and community transport could take people to the main road. That should be considered, though it would require a change in legislation.”

That’s the Gordian knot someone else will have to cut. Meanwhile Andy is rightly proud of the shift he’s put in.

“I’m most proud of developing people who have worked for me, and have made good use of the graduate program – two people have gone on to become managing directors, two became operational directors and there’s two general managers, and there’s other good people working for me now who will progress so if, in a small way, I’ve contributed to their development, it’s nice to see that progression. I’m probably not an easy person to work for and they’ve worked hard to get where they are.”

With his home in Northstowe, Andy will probably use the busway.

“I shall carry on making a nuisance of myself on the buses!” he says cheerfully.

One of a kind, his refreshing directness and back-to-basics style will be missed.

“I would like to thank Andy for the excellent work he has done over many years to deliver improvements for bus passengers across the east of England,” said Stagecoach UK Bus MD for England and Wales, Mark Threapleton. “He has made a valuable contribution to the business and to the local area and we wish him well in his retirement.”

And so say all of us.

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