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Privately-owned Aussie firm eyes S'pore bus deal

Busways among more than dozen parties keen on inaugural public bus contract

Busways managing director Richard Rowe - (above left) with son Byron (centre) and brother Stephen - says the firm's management can operate freely as they're not beholden to public shareholders.


MORE than a dozen transport companies from all over the world are eyeing Singapore's inaugural public bus contract and they are all expected to put in a bid along with the incumbent operators SBS Transit and SMRT Corp when the tender closes on Jan 5.

Under the government contracting model, the first package of bus services comprises 26 routes to be implemented from the second half of 2016 for a period of five years, with a two-year extension for good performance. The buses are to be operated out of the new Bulim Bus Depot.

Interest is strong because under this model, the government bears the revenue risk, not the operator. The government also provides infrastructure such as depots, and operating assets such as the buses and the fleet management system.

Prospective bidders range from European giants to local private bus operators. One of the smaller foreign players, though, is Busways from Australia. A family-owned Sydney -based company operating in New South Wales with 750 buses, it was founded in 1942 by managing director Richard Rowe's father who started a hire car service before buying his first bus four years later.

Today, apart from majority shareholder and managing director Rowe, only three other people have a stake in Busways, his 91-year-old father, his brother and his son.

For 72 years, Busways has not ventured outside New South Wales, much less Australia. So it seems unusual Mr Rowe is now focusing on Singapore, even committing to posting a total of 50 staff here over the last two-and-a-half months to understand the local scene.

According to Mr Rowe, Busways is interested in building a long-term presence in Singapore.

"The transport challenges in Singapore align well with our core strengths, which is focusing on delivering reliable, customer-centric bus services,'' he explains. "From our research into the Bulim Bus package, the LTA is an authority we believe we could work effectively with to deliver a high quality bus service for Singaporeans.''

Despite being one of the smaller bidders, Mr Rowe believes his corporate culture of efficiency and "unleashing learning'' is the advantage that Busways has over bigger rivals.

"As a family, we have never been interested in growing just to be bigger. It is not the size of an organisation that leads to quality and efficient operation. In fact size often has the opposite effect.''

Busways' key motivation is "the satisfaction of our customers - through service delivery - and employees - through job fulfilment''.

"And we have the freedom to operate that way because we're not beholden to shareholders.''

To prove that Busways is more than capable of delivering the goods, Mr Rowe refers to a contract awarded to it last year in Western Sydney, called the Metropolitan Bus System Contract 1 or MBSC1, the largest by area of the Sydney Metropolitan contracts and now the largest by population and overall growth.

Prior to this, Busways had been operating MSBC1 for seven years in partnership with a unit of Singapore's ComfortDelGro, SBST's parent and the world's second largest land transport group. But when the MSBC1 contract came up for tender in 2012, Busways was able to win it on its own as the sole operator.

Upon commencement of the new contract, Busways more than doubled its operations in the area with fleet size increasing by 130 to nearly 300. It also built two new state-of-the-art bus depots in under 18 months.

Busways adds that since becoming the sole operator in the region, it has the highest on-time running results in Sydney at 97.8 per cent, according to the NSW Auditor General Report on Transport.

"This shows that not only are we worthy competitors but we also deliver on our promise of quality and service above all.''

But can an Australian management team work effectively with a local crew?

"Singapore and Australia are very similar in terms of its cultural diversity. Our practice is to listen to all stakeholders - employees, unions and government - and respond to their feedback and needs,'' emphasises Mr Rowe. "Many of our management team started their careers behind the wheel of a bus.''

He adds that Busways' culture of promoting from within means the company's decision makers have an understanding of front-line employees' needs.

"We believe the secret to our success is our willingness to empower our employees and entrust them to make the right decisions for our business as though it were their own.''