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A Singaporean who keeps London on the move
RUNNING a successful transport company is not just about getting commuters where they want to go. Journeying with staff is equally important, says Jaspal Singh, chief executive of Metroline - transport giant ComfortDelGro's London subsidiary.
Metroline, London's second largest bus operator, operates a fleet of 1,700 buses plying routes mainly in North, West, Central London and Hertfordshire. It runs over 18 per cent of London's scheduled bus mileage and carries over one million people each day.
"You've got to invest in your people to train them. Anyone can drive a bus, but not everyone can be a bus driver," says Mr Singh, who has been named Outstanding Overseas Executive Of The Year in this year's edition of the Singapore Business Awards. "Like other businesses in the service industry, the lifeblood of Metroline is its people, and what motivates them. In Metroline's case, it is the 5,700 ordinary hard-working men and women who work conscientiously around the clock to keep London on the move, reliably and comfortably." This means investing in staff is key. When employees feel valued and cared for, they are motivated to go the extra mile, Mr Singh notes. "To create a great company, as opposed to just a good company, you need people who are driven by their values and passion, not just by rules and the need to comply. If you have such people you become unbeatable. The key values in my view being trust, mutual respect and fairness. These values help people meet their deepest basic needs."
As part of efforts to invest in staff, the company runs an in-house apprenticeship programme to train its own engineers. "We are proud of our engineering capabilities, and prefer to train our people to keep up with new technologies so as to do as much in-house engineering work on our buses as possible, as opposed to contracting it out," he says. "This minimises cost and downtime, which in turn reduces the size of our spare fleet."
By the end of this year, Metroline will likely be the only London bus operator to undertake all bus engineering work in-house - including complete bus refurbishment and major accident repairs. This approach has paid off. The company was named Bus Operator of the Year at the 2016 London Transport Awards, for providing consistently reliable service.
"A major factor underlying our success in London is the tremendous support we get from Transport for London (TfL) - the local government body responsible for the transport system - all the way from the Transport Commissioner Mike Brown down to all his staff," says Mr Singh.
He also credits "huge support" from the company's board members, management team and staff. "The strength of the ComfortDelGro culture is that we are a close-knit team, despite being dispersed across seven countries on three continents."
Mr Singh, 64, moved to Britain to assume the role of CEO, ComfortDelGro (UK and Ireland) in 2004 after 27 years in the civil service. As part of his appointment, he is concurrently CEO of Metroline, which is ComfortDelGro's largest single investment in the UK, and CEO of CityFleet Networks, which holds together all of ComfortDelGro's taxi and private hire operations in the UK. Prior to his retirement from the civil service, he was Deputy Secretary at the Transport Ministry.
"I came out to the UK in 2004 to find myself facing an incredibly steep learning curve," he says. "It was tough going in the early years, and honestly, I don't think I could have made the transition...without the unstinting encouragement, guidance and steadfast support of Mr Kua Hong Pak, who was at the time group chief executive of ComfortDelGro. "The man is a tower of strength, and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude."
Mr Singh's other mentors include permanent secretaries he worked with during his time in the civil service - JY Pillay, Ngiam Tong Dow, Lee Ek Tieng, Lim Siong Guan, Teo Ming Kian, Peter Ong, Alan Chan and at the very start of his career, the late Sim Kee Boon. These mentors taught him a great deal about leadership - for instance, the importance of a well-chosen management team and keeping chains of command short.
Metroline's senior management team comprises about half a dozen people - "all first-class individuals who help me sleep easy at night". "A small team makes everyone feel more valued and avoids ambiguity over 'turf'. It forces everyone to roll up their sleeves to be hands-on, and promotes teamwork. As a small group you have no choice but to work together." Making sure team members understand what they will be held accountable for is also key, he notes. "The cardinal principle of good management and corporate governance is accountability. Every man and woman must know what they are accountable for."
At the same time, leaders should also empower their teams to act. "Mr Pillay once told me, you cannot hold someone accountable for some KPI (key performance indicator) if you deny them the freedom and authority to get on with the job. It's not fair, and if you do not give a person freedom to act, they will also stop thinking. And without thinking there can be no innovation or productivity growth."
A tightly-run team is essential in the face of intense competition for route contracts - there are seven major bus operators in London and Metroline has to "compete aggressively" to retain routes when they come up for renewal every five to seven years. "The challenge is to price your bids shrewdly, while continuing the search for cost savings and productivity gains," Mr Singh notes.
In addition to running the day-to-day business, ComfortDelGro is looking for opportunities to ramp up its bus and coach operations in Britain amid bright prospects for the sector. Further acquisitions in the London market could prove tricky for competition reasons, so the group is looking further afield, Mr Singh says.
For example, ComfortDelGro acquired New Adventure Travel (NAT Group), a bus and coach operator in South Wales, in February for £13.4 million (about S$24.6 million). "With the recent passage of the Bus Services Act, which will allow local authorities to introduce London-style franchising in major conurbations in other parts of England, there will be opportunities ahead to expand in the UK."
Besides organic growth and acquisitions, the group is also exploring partnerships. "Our businesses in Ireland and Scotland, which are modelled on contracting out the delivery of services, are a good example of where we have succeeded in building strong businesses based on collaborative working."
Mr Singh says Britain is an "enormously satisfying place to do business", having lived and worked there for more than 13 years. "The rule of law is paramount, and while I feel very welcome, there is no favourable treatment given to foreign investors like ComfortDelGro and neither is there any discrimination against us. It's a very level playing field. "The British have an in-grained penchant for fair play, which is very gratifying."