Given their backgrounds growing up in a council estate in Perth, Brian Souter and his sister Ann could never have imagined when they decided to start Stagecoach, running express buses from Scotland to London, that the company would blossom into one of the world’s biggest and most respected transport groups.
Nor could he or Ann have predicted that they might have been honoured by the Queen, with Brian becoming a Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 for his services to Transport and to the Voluntary Sector, and Ann, who became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2019.Read More
Stagecoach started out with two second-hand buses. Forty years later, Stagecoach has 24,000 employees and a fleet of 8,300 energy efficient buses, coaches and trams that carry 3 million passengers a day.
Of course, the foundations for Sir Brian’s business success go much further back than October 9, 1980 when Stagecoach took to the road. They date back to his childhood listening to his dad’s stories of his life as a bus driver which set alight and then kindled Brian’s passion for buses.
Buses were the last thing Brian’s dad, Iain, or Cathy his mother, wanted their young son to focus on. Top of the list was a good education, however, Sir Brian’s early days at school weren’t exactly a roaring success, so much so, that he was warned he would be thrown out if he didn’t agree to repeat a year because of his poor performance.
“I don’t care if you go back to school or not,” warned his father. “But if you do – there’s to be no more messing about!”
Suitably chastised, Brian stopped fooling around, got his head down and began to focus on his studies.Read More
“Changing my timetable from science and maths to include economics and accounts was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he said.
Instead of being the class dunce he became a top performer, easily passing his exams and winning the dux prize in economics and accounts.
“I’m walking proof that you don’t have to be an academic genius to win school prizes. We all have different talents and with a bit of hard work and application, even rebellious pupils like me can succeed,” he reflects.
On leaving school, he studied to become a commerce teacher, before deciding he wanted to be a chartered accountant. This meant going to Strathclyde University and funding his way through a business degree by working on the buses and benefiting from a Carnegie grant to pay his fees.
His performance at university could not have been more different from his early days at school. He completed a joint accountancy and economics degree in two years. A bright future in the chartered accountancy profession lay ahead of him. But that’s not exactly how things turned out.
Brian joined his dad at Alexanders Bus Company in Perth, becoming a student bus conductor as soon as he was 18, whilst he obtained his Diploma in Commerce teaching qualification at Dundee College of Technology. When Brian moved to Strathclyde University he worked full time with Central SMT in Glasgow and studied in his spare time.
He would work early morning split shifts, finishing just in time to sprint into university in his bus conductor uniform to attend lectures, before resuming his duties in the afternoon.
On graduating he joined Arthur Andersen, then one of the world’s leading chartered accountancy firms.Read More
Based in their Glasgow office, Brian was reluctant to hang up his conductor’s hat, so breaking the firm’s rules which outlawed moonlighting, he continued to work on the buses at weekends.
But he was not to get away with his double life forever. Greatly embarrassed, Sir Brian had to admit that he had a dual career when, one Monday morning he appeared at Arthur Andersen with cuts and bruises all over his face and a bloody nose.
He explained to his bosses that he had been attacked by a drunk for insisting he pay his fare on a late night bus journey.
Colleagues at Arthur Andersen would speculate it was diesel, not blood, that flowed through Brian’s veins, so no one was surprised when he set up his own bus business, though many colleagues counselled him against it. He was later to recruit four Arthur Andersen colleagues to assist him in growing Stagecoach.
The idea of cheap and efficient transport serving food on services to London was a revolutionary concept in the 1980s.
In those days, there were no intercity coach services across Scotland, so opportunities to provide new affordable bus services were thick on the ground.Read More
Aberdeen in particular was wide open. On his trips to the city to visit Arthur Andersen’s clients, the would-be entrepreneur spotted that there was untapped demand for intercity bus services with the oil industry expanding rapidly.
By this time, he had made up his mind that his future lay in transport, so using his father’s redundancy money, a mortgage on Ann’s house and his own savings, Brian and Ann bought two coaches and started Stagecoach.
The new services grabbed the imagination of the travelling public and while the distinctive orange, red and blue livery was anything but subtle, it enabled their buses to stand out from the crowd and ensured the brand made an immediate impact. Their “passenger-first” approach generated enormous customer loyalty and Stagecoach grew rapidly.
In those days, bus services across Britain were very much part of the public sector, owned by a mix of council and state-owned transport authorities. Some services were good, but many left a lot to be desired. Brian knew things would have to change.
He was right. In 1985 the Government announced plans to deregulate all bus services outside London and this gave Brian the opening he needed to revolutionise Britain’s transport sector.
A master strategist, Brian was the architect of the growth blueprint that would lead to Stagecoach expanding across the UK and around the world.Read More
One of the early services Sir Brian launched was Magicbus which operated in Glasgow and offered passengers unbelievably cheap fares using old London Routemaster buses.
Organic growth was impressive but, recognising the opportunity for market consolidation and economies of scale, Sir Brian took Stagecoach on an acquisition trail, buying National Bus Company operations in Cumberland, Hampshire, East Midlands, Ribble in Lancashire, Southdown on the South Coast and the United Counties.
In the early 90s Stagecoach bought further bus operations in Scotland, Newcastle and London with Manchester being added a few years later.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, raising money for Stagecoach to fund acquisitions, from private equity would give him valuable experience in helping him to establish the strategy of his own family office when it was created years later.
By 1993, only 13 years after the formation of the company, Stagecoach was one of the UK’s leading bus companies valued at £134 million. Sir Brian calculated it was time to float the business on the London Stock Exchange in order to access more capital for fresh expansion opportunities for not just buses but trains as well.
Following privatisation of the rail network in 1995, Stagecoach bid for one of the new rail franchises – South West Trains – the UK’s biggest rail franchise. Stagecoach’s tender was successful and it became the first private sector company to win a rail franchise.
The company continued to operate South West Trains for many years, adding East Midlands Trains and the East Coast Main Line to its rail portfolio. Stagecoach also had a 49% stake in Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Rail Group which operated the West Coast Main Line where new trains were introduced and passenger numbers trebled. Virgin Trains had the highest customer satisfaction of any franchised UK rail operator when its contract came to an end.
The time was ripe for Stagecoach to develop its interests overseas and the company extended its footprint buying buses and ferries in New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden, Malawi and Hong Kong, as well as a train leasing company Porterbrook. These acquisitions were successful and the Stagecoach share price increased substantially. In 1997 Brian decided to step down from the role as CEO to become Chairman and appointed a professional manager to the CEO position.
In 1998 Stagecoach bought Coach USA, the largest bus and coach operator in America and a major player in Canada, but it transpired the company was riddled with problems that jeopardised the future of the Stagecoach group. The Stagecoach share price fell dramatically and the banking syndicate started to exert pressure on the company.Read More
So Brian returned as chief executive and began selling-off the ailing parts of Coach USA and other businesses round the world, while reorganising the remainder. In this way Brian returned Stagecoach to profit and deleveraged the balance sheet. Back in the UK, Stagecoach’s bus and tram businesses continued to go from strength-to-strength. In 2003 Stagecoach started MegaBus, a revolutionary new express service, selling tickets on its website with yield managed pricing. Although we are all very aware of variable pricing now, particularly in the market for air travel, this was the first time that a bus company had used dynamic pricing.
Brian has never sold a Stagecoach share and together with Ann, they still control 27% of the company.
Sir Brian is passionate about protecting the environment. That’s why he encouraged Stagecoach to start to use green fuel which was produced by Argent Energy from waste by-products - tallow, used cooking oil, fats oils and grease, sewer grease and high FFA products - which have few alternative uses. Paraphrasing a well known advertising slogan… Brian liked the product so much, in 2010 he helped the management team to buy Argent Energy.
Embracing battery power, Brian has ensured that the Stagecoach fleet is among the most energy efficient in the world. For further information on Stagecoach go to www.stagecoachgroup.com.
Over the years Brian has been presented with countless honours and awards including the Scottish Business Achievement Award, the Scottish Entrepreneur Award, the Ernst & Young UK Master Entrepreneur of the Year title and the Businessman of the Year Award.
As a team player, the awards he treasures most are those given to Stagecoach Group. There are too many to mention but they include numerous UK Bus operator awards.
He has also accepted honorary degrees from the University of Abertay and the University of Strathclyde where he graduated.
In May 2017, he was appointed President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland. His greatest honour came in 2011 when he was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List. He received his knighthood at Buckingham Palace with his proud family looking on.
A father of four, Sir Brian relishes nothing more than spending time with his children and grandchildren.