Fifty years after he joined the bus industry as an engineering apprentice, Bob Dunn is in charge of Rotala’s greatly expanded business in north-west England. He has been in conversation with ALAN MILLAR, looking back over past experiences and achievements, and considers what the future might bring
As Rotala’s regional managing director for north-west England — Diamond Bus North West and Preston Bus — Bob Dunn is responsible for more than half of the 1,566 staff employed by the Alternative Investment Market (AIM)-listed group and has been leading the integration of the former First business in Bolton, Rotala’s biggest acquisition since it was formed 15 years ago.
While some notable contemporaries have already retired or have announced that they soon will give up their current day job, this is just the latest challenge that Dunn has taken up in a 50-year career in the bus and coach industry. One that took him from engineering apprentice to ownership of a large regional independent while also over a period of 10 years in middle age finding time to study and graduate with three business-related university degrees.
Like the registration numbers of his first coaches, the date when he started in the industry — Monday 17 August 1970 — is seared in his memory. That was with Midland General Omnibus Company at its garage in Langley Mill, where he joined as an apprentice diesel fitter. The company had been in state ownership since 1948 and was part of the National Bus Company from its formation in January 1969.
He had attended grammar school and says some of his family gave him a hard time for not seeking a white collar career and leaving while most of his classmates stayed on to study for their A-levels. But several of the family ran their own businesses and he loved taking mechanical things apart, finding out how they worked and putting them back together. He was itching to work and it was probably inevitable that this would be in road transport, eventually with his own business.
He had already worked for his father and two uncles who ran Dunn Bros, a bulk haulage business based at Woodlinkin to the north of Langley Mill. ‘I quite enjoyed working on the coal lorries,’ he says. The hours were from 04.00 until 14.00, leaving the rest of the day to indulge his passion for bikes.
‘I like to be direct and honest with people’
We are talking of both the pedal variety and motorcycles, and he smiles as he recalls dismantling Sturmey Archer gears — the product of a legendary Nottingham manufacturer — to improve his pushbikes’ performance.
‘As an apprentice, I wanted to be as good as I could be,’ he says. In his first year, he scored the highest marks in the UK for motor vehicle craft standards and was among the highest placed in his second and third years.
When he turned 18 in 1972, he supplemented his fitters’ wages by getting a conductor’s badge and worked on busy routes like the B1, B2, B6 and B7 linking Ripley with Nottingham and Mansfield with Ilkeston and Ripley; most Midland General routes were identified with a single letter and number, a policy begun 50 years earlier to distinguish them from competitors’ services. ‘Conducting has got to be physically one of the hardest jobs I’ve done,’ he says.
Progressing with Trent
By then, NBC restructuring was changing the company where he worked. Midland General was placed under the control of Trent Motor Traction — a former BET subsidiary — in January 1972 and was absorbed completely by Trent four years later.
Also in January 1972, NBC sold most of North Western Road Car to Selnec PTE and split its remaining bus services between Crosville, which took the Cheshire garages, and Trent which in March that year took over the Derbyshire garages at Buxton and Matlock. That would provide him with his first rung on the management ladder.
He completed his apprenticeship in 1974 but went to college until 1977. By mid-1976, he began applying for vacancies. One was for a work study assistant, helping develop the processes by which engineering functions were managed across NBC, a role being performed by another of Trent’s engineering trainees, Barry Hinkley, who rose later to be chief engineer at Cumberland and went on to head Stagecoach’s bus operations in the 1990s.
Instead, ‘straight off the spanners’ as he puts it, Dunn went to Matlock as garage foreman, responsible for maintaining 24 buses. He believes he did a good job, but did not feel appreciated by everyone higher up the command chain, particularly the then chief engineer, and made his feelings clear.
‘My job was never threatened, but I like to be direct and honest with people. Those traits have determined how I manage a business and good people appreciate that. They welcome a straightforward approach.’
One colleague he greatly admired was Malcolm Hitchin, who had joined Trent as an engineering apprentice in 1950 and was garage superintendent at Derby in 1976 when those premises, and many of the vehicles inside, were wrecked by a disastrous fire. ‘He was a good guy who led from the front. You can go through your career fixing buses or managing people. Everyone contributes. Some shape you for negative reasons. Others give you ideas and snippets to build upon.’
Dunn began looking beyond NBC. That could have been the end of his life with buses, as he was offered the post of fleet engineer with Wass Transport, a haulage business in Stoke, but instead moved into coaches as chief engineer with Skill’s of Nottingham from November 1977.
That was a job title that meant different things in different places. ‘A chief engineer at NBC had a flash office with a whisky cabinet and was not fixing buses, but I did everything at Skill’s,’ he says.
Like most coach fleets, it ran mainly lightweight chassis: Bedfords, including twinsteer VALs, and Fords. There also were heavy duty Leyland Leopards and early Volvo B58s with Volvo’s own K19 five-speed gearbox; the most prestigious work was providing the team coaches for Nottingham Forest and Mansfield Town football clubs.
‘Everything was time critical,’ he recalls, not least looking after the coaches on Continental shuttle journeys to destinations like Lake Garda in northern Italy or Barcelona. He helped generate third party revenue for the workshop from truck operators and other coach operators.
When he became a foreman, Trent had put an end to his part-time platform staff work, even when Matlock was short of drivers, but there were no such boundaries at Skill’s where he was frequently behind the wheel, often driving long distances on French day trips or Lake District weekends. Driving the Forest team coach with manager Brian Clough aboard is a memory he cherishes.
He remained with Skill’s until 1984, interrupted for six months in 1979 by an overseas job with BET, heading its East African Road Services subsidiary in Nairobi and connecting Kenya and Uganda. This was a sister company of Kenya Bus Services, which Stagecoach owned from 1991 to 1998.
His appointment followed what he recalls were numerous interviews, but his youngest son became unwell and he also was worried about his children’s education. He returned home after six months, met at the airport by a Skill’s coach and the opportunity to continue where he had left off.
The birth of Dunn-Line
As with many family businesses, there were limits to how far other employees could progress with Skill’s as younger generations filled their parents’ and grandparents’ shoes. The latent entrepreneur in him was pushing inexorably towards the point of owning and developing his own family business.
He and his wife Carol came close to acquiring Bowers of Chapel-en-le-Frith, the north Derbyshire business acquired much later by Centrebus and which today forms the nucleus of the High Peak Buses operation owned jointly by Centrebus and Trent Barton parent Wellglade, running the remnants of the Buxton network that Trent had acquired from North Western in 1972.
Founder Eric Bowers was terminally ill and his wife was selling the business. He agreed a price with her and put what he calls ‘a sort of business plan’ to Barclays, his bank, but while it considered whether to put up the money, Mrs Bowers decided against a sale.
Second time lucky, they instead purchased a 10-vehicle Nottingham operator, Netherfield Coaches. Owner Vic Fuller had died and his widow did not know what to do with the business. He made an offer that included the terraced house used as an office — he converted part of it back into a flat — and a freehold garage with a rather decrepit garage.
Most of the coaches were Fords and Bedfords. The oldest was a 1971 Ford R226 with Duple Viceroy body while the newest and best was a 1981 DAF MB200 with Plaxton Supreme body. Lombard agreed to finance his purchase of the DAF while NatWest financed the property and an overdraft for working capital.
He wanted his own name on the coaches and thus was born Dunn-Line, with each coach repainted in a slightly different version of the livery so that people did not think this was a one-vehicle operation.
Dunn-Line tried to enter the London bus market
There was much to learn and to learn quickly. ‘I felt I was competent as an engineer and that I could drive buses and coaches, but I had to learn a lot about finance, selling and marketing, and business planning.’
At this stage, Dunn-Line was purely a coach operator. Netherfield already was National Express’s chosen operator for duplication work from Nottingham. There were council contracts and the start of the year-long miners’ strike generated work, while there was good money to be made from selling English seaside holidays.
The purchase of a fairly new Bova Futura, available as a finance repossession, generated a lot of interest, but the Fords remained a backbone of the fleet, being operated as far away as Spain.
Such was the growth that neighbours began to complain about the increased activity at the garage. He negotiated a deal with Gedling Borough Council to sell the land and move to a nearby site with four times the space, plus a shop for selling the tours, then in 1987 acquired a former truck repair facility on Nuttall Road in Nottingham, nearer to the M1. That came with a house that became the new family home. In 1995 it moved to a 4.5acre site at Basford, Nottingham.
Buses and expansion
Deregulation in October 1986 provided the opportunity to expand into local bus operation. Dunn-Line won the contract to operate the City Nipper service in central Nottingham, initially with a Dormobilebodied Freight Rover Sherpa new in December 1986; it suffered from weaknesses that plagued the type in many fleets and an MCW Metrorider replaced it in February 1988. It also registered commercial routes, in-fill journeys for contract vehicles, mainly in competition with Trent.
As the business grew, the aim was to have a balance of work, earning one third of income from contracts, one third from predictable sources like football supporters and one third of it speculative, such as big football matches.
It was carrying 10,000 people a year on its tours, and between 1987 and 2001 provided transport, at different times, for around 30 football teams and their supporters at home and into Europe. However, the coach holiday market became more competitive by the mid-1990s, with smaller operators establishing themselves in this sector.
Dunn-Line’s answer was to expand and to diversify into new markets. It acquired several businesses, including Lamcote Coaches at Radcliffe upon Trent, a successful operation with 25 coaches, and the Ilkeston depot of Erewash Travel from Nottingham City Transport; it had previously been part of Stevensons of Uttoxeter.
For three years from 1995, it was a substantial operator of taxis with around 130 in Nottingham and Eastwood. ‘We wanted to diversify and we were having a problem getting reliable taxi services to feed into our tours,’ he explains. He also wanted to raise the standard of service, with smartly uniformed drivers helping secure business from major employers. Part of the attraction was the opportunity to trade at East Midlands Airport, but passenger numbers there fell short of expectation.
In 1998 it established Xtranet Solutions, an IT company to provide technology support for the business.
The focus was moving back to coaches, but well beyond the East Midlands. The purchase of Wolverhampton-based Executive Travel was soon followed by SSS — Spanish Speaking Services — and its small yard at King’s Cross, London, and Seamarks in Luton along with its property. His son Simon, nowadays Rotala’s chief executive, ran the London area business, which relied on incoming tourists; good money in good years, but no revenue was guaranteed.
Required to vacate the King’s Cross yard, it moved south-east to Greenwich and an expensive site for 30 vehicles near what then was the Millennium Dome and today is the O2 Arena.
One way of guaranteeing some revenue at Greenwich would have been to secure tendered bus contracts from Transport for London. Dunn-Line tried to enter this market but was unsuccessful. ‘We got close but missed out,’ he says.
Then the roof fell in on the tourist market in 2001. The foot and mouth epidemic shut down much of the countryside in February and then on 11 September — 9/11 — coordinated terrorist attacks in New York and Washington halted much international tourism, especially from North America.
This was bad for all London coach operators, but especially for a relative outsider lacking other work to fall back upon. ‘We were the new kids on the block,’ he says. ‘People like Clarkes, Redwing, Tellings [Golden Miller] were already there.’
He needed to rethink Dunn-Line’s business model, changing the one-third/one-third/onethird revenue mix to one in which 75 to 80% of revenue was guaranteed. Assets were sold to return a positive cash flow. Reluctantly, that meant selling the freehold site in Luton.
‘There were 13 union reps in Gdynia — none spoke English’
Flights and Veolia
Despite that, there were two notable acquisitions during 2002. The first, at Easter, brought the Birmingham-based Flights Coach Company into the group, retaining its separate identity but as a new company, Dunn-Line (Flights) Ltd.
Scott Dunn, his eldest son, was its managing director and after a period his brother Simon became MD.
Scott lives in Australia today, heading his Custom Denning bus and coach manufacturing business that has developed its own electric bus; he also founded Your Bus, the East Midlands company that traded from 2009 until October last year.
Part of the attraction of Flights was its 10 buses — low-floor Dennis Darts — on car park shuttles at the National Exhibition Centre. It also operated National Express diagrams that were able to use some of the underemployed London coaches once they were refurbished with rear floor-mounted toilets in place of their centre sunken originals.
The other major purchase, in November, was of the coaching assets of Durham Travel Services, which had gone into administration in August. This became Dunn-Line of Durham, which acquired the freehold of the depot at Hetton-le-Hole, 12 coaches plus two open-top double-deckers based at Whitby.
This was Dunn-Line’s 19th acquisition since 1984 and took what had begun as a 10-vehicle fleet up to 250 with 10 depots. It had shrunk to 130 vehicles when the business was floated and began trading on AIM in December 2004 with Dunn as its chief executive.
The biggest disposal shortly before that was of Flights, sold to Centra — Central Parking Services — which earlier in the year had purchased the Hallmark Coaches operations in the West Midlands, Manchester and the London airports. ‘The main reason for selling it was we were running out of cash. I have to give the honest version,’ he explains. Simon Dunn stayed with Flights and in 2005 Flights Hallmark became the foundation of AIMlisted Rotala.
Dunn-Line grew again to over 200 coaches during the next 12 months, acquiring the Lincoln arm of MASS Transit and Hull-based Alpha Travel, but in spring 2006 Dunn-Line was itself acquired for £9.7million by Veolia Transport, the French group that was on a buying spree of coach and bus operators in England and south Wales.
Scott Dunn became managing director, while his father stayed with Veolia for seven months in a non-executive capacity, helping it identify potential opportunities for expansion in Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Hungary and Poland.
Bob Dunn spent a long time negotiating the acquisition of a business in the northern Polish city of Gdynia that became Dunn-Line. pl with a purple and white livery similar to that of the English original. The takeover happened one week after Veolia acquired Dunn-Line.
The fleet included Mercedes-Benz O303s new to the German military but possibly his most lasting memory of this venture was of the people. ‘There were 13 trade union reps, none of whom spoke English. But the use of a translator gives you more time to think of your answer. It was certainly different.’
The Rotala opportunity
The Dunns had built up Dunn-Line over 22 years. It had been his life and he wanted it to last forever, but equally he did not want to run it for a new owner. ‘When they came to buy us, I wanted Scott to do it. You know who you are. We were never going to fit.’
Catering for health-conscious diners
Being a bus conductor may have been his most physically demanding job, constantly going up and down stairs collecting fares and issuing tickets, but Bob Dunn reckons it was run a close second by the three years that he owned a restaurant and assisted with table service and washing up.
He and his wife Carol enjoy good food and in 2010 collectively lost six stone with Slimming World. ‘We struggled to find restaurants that served diet-friendly meals,’ he says. His answer was to establish one of his own, which opened in August 2012 in Nottingham Road, Eastwood, birthplace town of the author D. H. Lawrence.
For the founder and former owner of Dunn-Line, the name of the establishment — serving low calorie food from breakfast to evening meals — just had to be: Dunn-Lite.
His work with Veolia done, he nonetheless was left pondering what he to do next, and in August 2007 his son Simon told him that John Gunn, Rotala’s non-executive chairman and principal shareholder, wanted to talk to him. ‘Did I want to work for them?’
He helped with Wessex Connect in Bristol, which had been set up earlier in the year, looked at other acquisition opportunities and in January 2011 took on a greater handson role as MD at Preston Bus when Rotala acquired it from Stagecoach for £3.2million at the start of the group’s move into north-west England.
The Competition Commission had instructed Stagecoach to sell Preston Bus, which over the 24 years since deregulation had been owned by the council, its employees and then Stagecoach. At the time, it was reported that Arriva had withdrawn from a deal to buy Preston Bus and the commission had turned down an employee buy-out led by a former MD at Network Warrington.
‘The key thing in Preston was to stabilise it,’ he says. ‘We’d got people who had been through all three phases of ownership. It was a case of take it carefully, modernise some of the fleet and get people to think of change.’ It needed to make efficiencies, change some working practices and leverage the overheads by winning additional work.
His role grew with the March 2015 acquisition of South Lancs Travel from D&G Bus, part owned by Buses Inside Track columnist Julian Peddle and rebranded as Diamond Bus North West. That was the start of a move on Greater Manchester where franchising was in the air, presenting possible opportunities for new players.
Dunn admits that it has taken longer than first expected to build on this purchase, as the opportunities for subsequent acquisitions were limited. ‘We spoke to various bigger players but no one wanted to exit.’ He says the South Lancs workforce was good, its premises at Atherton were ‘okay’ and the fleet was a mixed bag that was partially replaced.
Starting on a modest scale gave Rotala time to learn about the market, the causes of delays and how to avoid them, and crucially how to give Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) what it wanted. It went on to acquire Go-Goodwins’ bus operations at Eccles in September 2017.
All this was preparation for the purchase of First Manchester’s Bolton depot in August 2019, taking the Diamond North West fleet up to 253 vehicles — around the size of Dunn-Line at its peak — and making it the second largest operator in the city region after Stagecoach. The modern depot has absorbed the vehicles based in Atherton.
An early priority was to replace the Bolton fleet. Rotala bought the property and the business, not the vehicles. None were newer than five years old and it leased 125 of them until it could source new or nearly new replacements. It also wanted to run as many routes as possible with double-deckers.
In at the start were 13 new Wright StreetDecks originally intended for First West Yorkshire but caught up in the confusion that led to Wrightbus going into administration last autumn. These were bought ahead of a £30million order from Rotala for 163 Wright Euro6 diesel vehicles — 128 StreetDecks for Bolton, four for Preston and 31 StreetLites for the West Midlands and Heathrow — that was agreed before the manufacturer collapsed in September.
The deal was honoured by Wrightbus’s new owner, Bamford Bus Company, but with production at the Ballymena factory halted until the start of this year and then disrupted by the coronavirus lockdown through April and May, deliveries did not begin until July. By October, the four for Preston and 70 of the Bolton buses were in service (some of the latest are branded for Bury-Manchester service 163 which competes with Go North West), leaving a significant if diminishing number of First vehicles on lease.
‘Electrification must make financial sense’
‘We were expecting those new vehicles straight away, so had to go through the winter with the leased fleet,’ he says. ‘And then we had Covid.’
The pandemic has brought challenges like no other in his 50-year career, nor one that many could have anticipated when buying the Bolton business. ‘When Covid first came along, I got our team of 12 together and we went through every aspect of the business.’
With services reduced in the lockdown — typically a 7/8min service reduced to half-hourly — the implications of delays or cancellations were acute, especially for key workers depending on them potentially to save people’s lives. Vehicle breakdowns were to be avoided, their causes established and recurring defects identified. Scheduling needed to take account of changes in traffic volumes.
With fewer vehicles in service over those first two months, it used the newer ones which generally are more reliable, but Dunn is not complacent. ‘My problem is that I want perfection. I don’t want to accept second best,’ he says. Maybe this is something that rubbed off from his coach driving days and hearing Brian Clough addressing the Nottingham Forest team.
He also expected the focus on reliability to continue once operated mileage built back up to around 98% of pre-Covid levels by late summer, and is equally focused on encouraging his staff to keep as safe as possible in the health emergency, for example by cleaning the tools in the workshop.
While the pandemic has had an unwelcome impact on all public transport, and Bolton has been subject to some of the tightest restrictions, he remains upbeat about the future. ‘I am an optimist,’ he says. ‘I have gone through life thinking that problems bring opportunities. We need to get through this opportunity.’
He also is realistic. ‘Will passenger numbers return to where they used to be? I doubt it.’ He recognises that the government’s Coronavirus Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG) cannot continue indefinitely and that all operators will need to take difficult decisions.
‘Fundamentally, there will always be a need for buses, but we will probably need to reduce frequencies. We need to be creative with our products and develop the technology so people know when the bus will be at the stop where they want to get on.’
He wants Diamond to develop commercial partnerships with local businesses, rewarding passengers who use a bus to reach their shops and visitor attractions. In other words, provide an incentive for people to travel.
Diamond is part of the OneBus partnership of Greater Manchester operators which has been arguing for partnership working with TfGM, but there is a growing view that the tide is turning in another direction. ‘I think franchising is a possibility,’ he says.
There are many questions to be answered about how it would be implemented, including the level of funding and whether the operators delivering it will be today’s PLCs or foreign investors from Europe or the Far East.
Also to be addressed is future investment in new vehicles. The Wrightbus order reflects his belief that bus manufacturing must survive in the UK and he is still weighing up the options to replace Diamond’s oldest Optare Solos.
While all of its new vehicles are clean diesels with the latest generation of low carbon micro-hybrid technology, he recognises that bus drivelines will soon become zero-emission.
‘I think it will be a mix of electric and hydrogen,’ he says, but he worries about the high cost of mid-life battery replacement and like many in the industry who are attracted by the promised range between refills of hydrogen fuel-cell systems, he wants their price to fall well below their current prohibitively expensive prototype stage.
Diamond inherited a £2million Ultra Low Emission Bus Scheme (ULEBS) grant awarded to First towards the purchase of 12 buses — a peak requirement of 11 plus a spare — to electrify single-deck route 582 (Bolton-Leigh).
It evaluated a Yutong E10 battery electric demonstrator over a lengthy period but has yet to order any vehicles or decide whether to take up the grant. ‘It needs to make sense financially,’ he says.
He may be showing caution over the choice of emerging technology, but is not averse to taking brave business decisions. ‘You’ve got to be ambitious and a bit crazy,’ he says.