Much more than a paint job
Now local control is not something that First’s local managers have been used to experiencing under the founding directors, so it will be interesting to see how the new approach beds in and whether it unleashes the potential that is surely evident amongst First’s managers. There is no reason to believe that First managers are any less capable of making decisions than their counterparts from other groups who are able to exercise a greater degree of local control within the overall structure of a major company; but it is not something that First’s leaders have subscribed to. Until now.
Fearnley is on a mission without doubt. He is not the kind of leader who sits on high and issues edicts; he is clearly more comfortable in a more collegiate atmosphere and one that harnesses talent through empowering people rather than subduing them.
The visual element of the new strategy will be seen in a revised livery approach that will gradually be rolled out across the fleet, apart from London. The incorporation of city names, route branding and depot identification is designed to get across the new localism. But Fearnley points out that “the livery is a consequence of the changes, not a cause”.
Indeed if the changes are to have a real impact, they need to take place under the skin of First, rather than being a gloss coating on top.
The Better Journeys for Life tag line is described by First as a brand promise and is crafted with all its stakeholders in mind including customers, staff and external partners. But as far as customers go, telling them there is a new ‘brand promise’ doesn’t really mean much. They will judge First bus services from their own experience and whilst First is naturally keen to express its new approach in terms of all of its audiences, the principal target must be its own people.
This is implicit in the glossy brochure which accompanies the new campaign: “We believe our people are the key to satisfied customers. We aspire to be the employer of choice in our business sector.”
Now that is quite an aspiration. First may not want to admit it, but essentially that equates to moving from the bottom to the top in terms of being the “employer of choice”.
But there is clearly a new “listening ear” at the top of First. Indeed one section of its new document is titled ‘Developing the Art of Listening’.
And as First points out, the group is not just a transport provider, it is a major local business and employer in each of the areas where it operates.
So Fearnley is not wrong when he says that the livery is just the outward expression of a much more fundamental programme of change.
How far the new localist fervour runs will remain to be seen of course. If some enterprising wag in the south west decides that a badger would be just the thing to adorn their local buses, would that test the limits of the new strategy?.