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'Staff are the key to a successful business', says Epsom Coaches boss Steve Whiteway
Steve Whiteway, now the MD of Epsom Coaches, started in the company as a trainee coach driver 33 years ago
Thirty years after a shy coach driver's life was transformed by an "act of kindness" by his company, he is now the boss and says caring for staff is his number one priority.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, Steve Whiteway, managing director of the iconic Epsom Coaches, believes looking after your staff in tough times such as today is even more important "because when the chips are down, they will reward you with that loyalty".
It is a far cry from the approach taken by many companies who seem to see success as a dog-eat-dog race to the bottom where staff are paid a pittance and rewarding loyalty is regarded as an unaffordable luxury.
But last year his company made a £1m profit on an £18m turnover, took on another 100 staff and invested £2.5m in expanding its fleet.
It was also voted the best employer in Surrey and Mr Whiteway reckons it will contribute £17m to the local economy in 2013 through its 340 staff and its use of local contractors - something the company tries to do whenever possible.
Famous for its Quality Line slogan, the firm was founded in Epsom by Herbert Richmond in 1920.
A family-owned company until it was bought by French company RATP last spring, it not only runs bus services around Epsom and coach holidays abroad but also runs bus services for TfL through Kingston, Croydon, Wimbledon, Richmond and Sutton.
The company is currently repainting its Epsom buses a traditional shade of cream to differentiate them from the services it runs in London.
Mr Whiteway, said the company has never lost the family ethos which has produced such high standards - something he demonstrated himself earlier this month when he drove the wedding car at the marriage of two of his employees, Gary Punter and Laura Beney, who met at Epsom Coaches.
The 55-year-old said: "I’ve got a 1960s Rolls Royce so I said I’d do the wedding car for them.
"People find it very strange that the MD would be doing this, but I’ve always had that ethos that people are people.
"It’s about how you treat them, their working conditions and their pastoral care. If somebody has a problem, we’re here to sort it out."
He said the little things make a difference and "it’s not the value of what you give staff, but the value of how you give it to them".
In the past, he has babysat for staff members, visited them when they are off sick, lent them money and telephoned the council on their behalf to settle council tax issues.
Two funerals have even been held at the site, in Roy Richmond Way, because, "Epsom Coaches was their life".
All staff members are offered free membership at the Rainbow leisure centre, receive vouchers and personalised cards on a milestone birthday, and, along with their families, can enjoy regular trips to the theatre or abroad.
Although he does not describe his staff as "friends", Mr Whiteway said "looking after people is just what you do".
He said: "A member of staff is not just an individual, they have partners and children. Two to three thousand people depend on us for a living".
Mr Whiteway, who left school at 16, started as a 22-year-old trainee coach driver at the company "with no licence and who didn’t have a clue".
He said: "I worked my way up and I won’t forget what it was like to do the job the vast majority of our staff do.
"We’re not them and us, we all work together."
He said staff committees elected annually for the engineering, administration, bus and coach driving departments of the business, meet with the management and are presented with the company’s yearly budget, with the "transparency helping to manage expectations as to pay".
At the start of the recession, the business took an 80 per cent dip in profits but nobody was made redundant - in fact, Mr Whiteway honoured a pay increase he had already promised his bus drivers.
He said: "A lot of companies would take the view that they can get staff very easily because during a recession unemployment is high so they can treat them how they want and keep turning them over. But, there’s a cost to that.
"Our staff turnover is virtually negligible and 95 per cent of those who leave want to come back - one did, within four days.
"Bus drivers are normally just numbers. Here they’re not - they’re the most important ingredient. You can’t automate driving a bus or a coach."
Mr Whiteway said his "human" approach to business was inspired by the Richmond family’s kindness to him as a young driver when he suffered with depression and was spending long periods alone driving his coach.
He said: "Because of the family ethos here they thought ‘let’s get Steve off the road and he can help out in the office’. It took me out of my shell.
"I remembered that act of kindness. From there, I evolved into the general manager and then became the only non-family member director of the company at the time."
Mr Whiteway believes drivers are not regarded highly enough, but this is often the fault of the driver for not acting or looking professional enough.
He said: "I’ve tried to drive up standards so when people see a bus driver they think of them as a professional in the same way as you would see an airline pilot."
He said being a coach driver was a "wonderful life" which offered the "the best seat in the house, with the best view, travelling to many different places and staying in the best hotels and getting paid for it".
Mr Whiteway said his confidence as a manager developed from meeting "a lot of people and clients in very high positions" and a "willingness to learn" which nurtured pro-activity and initiative.
He added: "I had a lightbulb moment at a council meeting when I decided I was going to participate rather than just sit and listen.
"I was president of our trade association for two years, giving speeches to 700 people, and 50 per cent of driving a coach is showmanship.
"I’m also a great believer in fate."
My Whiteway, who works from 7.30am to 10pm most weekdays and does extra at weekends, said he intends to reach 40 years’ service at Epsom Coaches, which would coincide with its 100th birthday, and "then take a view" on his future.
He added: "30 years ago I was considered to be normal and now I’m considered eccentric and I haven’t changed - the world around us has. I’ve not gone with the times.
"Epsom Coaches is a stable factor in a very flexible world."