I hadn’t lived in Reading properly since 2010 when I moved back in 2015. Throughout university in Cardiff, I regularly came home. One of the comfort blankets of home was the buses. I lived in both Cardiff and Bristol between my spells of being back in the ‘ding, and I can tell you something categorically: we have a very good bus service in comparison to elsewhere.
If you spend any time in Bristol, you would wince at the rudeness of some of the drivers. You would scorn at the frustration of the First Buses sewn-up monopoly and you would step on a bus and wonder if it had ever seen a mop and bucket. Add to that, a really chaotic traffic system and it’s just a big mess. We might have our own congestion in Reading but we seldom have to contend with dirty buses anymore, but this hasn’t always been the case.
Reading Buses are a council supported and public limited company. It is a monopoly really, but one with a very high customer satisfaction rating, almost unparalleled within the industry. It is also worth noting that the success of Reading Buses isn’t without rhyme or reason: a lot of hard graft has gone in.
I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to transport and Reading Buses. I am openly preoccupied with the mass transportation of people and love nothing more than waffling on about the “Backbone of Reading”, number 17. I see the movement of people as a huge part of the connections we make as human beings: how we get to work, how we begin a night out and how we get home. I love it, and I always have.
Cometh the hour…
When I permanently moved back to Reading, I wanted to reconnect with my town. I jump-started my almost unused Twitter account and searched the #rdguk hashtag. I noted that Reading Buses had massively upped their social media game and amongst this, I discovered Martijn Gilbert, the then CEO of Reading Buses.
Martijn wasn’t only tweeting about his day job, he was also tweeting about the stuff he loved: he was tweeting about new transport initiatives, about buses, trains and coaches. Martijn was tweeting about local businesses and the food he loved in Reading. Martijn tweeted about his team of drivers and those making him and the company proud: those on the rail replacement services, those staying late, those out fixing a bus that had broken down etc, etc. Just from the small snapshot of tweets I happened upon that afternoon, I knew one thing: Martijn understood the power of social media, and how to engage people. Guess what? Martijn still does this now, but in the north east of England, for Go North East.
Martijn was clearly somebody in love with his job. I remember thinking we were lucky to have this individual at the helm of our bus service. Martijn, it was clear to me, was an innovator and a leader.
This bit is crucial: Martijn wasn’t a leader because he was CEO, and he wasn’t a leader because he had the keys to the depot. Martijn was a leader because he innovated, he loved what he did and he believed in it.
People and teams will buy into sincerity. Martijn loves transport systems and connecting people to that framework. Martijn is satisfied by getting a person from A to B and building a community that love and use their network of buses. Martijn loves having a team of drivers who are respected for delivering a public service.
I remember Reading Buses as a child, and with my bus bias aside for a moment, I was aware of one thing, even then: in the 1990s, Reading had a really old fleet. That is not to say that the rest of the country didn’t, because I’m sure they did too and I’ll spare you the political rant about that.
I’d sit on the bus and take in the smell of the old Leyland fleet that trundled along the number 63 to Woodley. I remember seeing the Optare fleet start to arrive around 1994 and I remember being impressed by how clean and new it was. True story: those old Optare buses are still in operation in Bristol now. It can be slow times in bus-land.
As technology enveloped us as a nation, and as we signed up to dodgy dial up and then broadband, things changed at Reading Buses, too. The Reading Mainline retired and it was a goodbye to the Routemasters. The Bristol VR designed fleet that had flooded most winters were removed from service. The fleet was updated, with the old centre exits removed. A website arrived, a hopper was fitted to each bus where no change was given (oh, the fuss on the bus the first Monday that began). There were route changes and colourful branding and an app.
… cometh the man
Martijn arrived at Reading Buses in 2014 and he would tell you that his predecessor James Freeman made a huge amount of headway there. Within 12 months, the team won bus operator of the year. I noted at the time that the map of the Reading routes looked similar to Henry Beck’s London tube map, still the blueprint of customer understanding and the perfect union of design and user experience.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to meet Martijn for an evening. I discovered that one of his first roles was as a timetable and route planner for London Underground. Martijn was 20 years old at the time. Next stop was work for Arriva Trains Wales, which was no small feat and anybody who has used that service would understand why.
Martijn’s move to Reading Buses had, he tells me, felt like a ‘sideways step’, but it soon transpired that there was a lot to do and a lot to enjoy doing.
“I always thought I would spend more time in rail, over bus” he told me. It turns out, this isn’t the case so far.
Martijn realised that he, with his team, could add impact to Reading Buses almost immediately. “We had such an opportunity with comms”, he said.
I had seen Martijn grow frustrated on Twitter when finding himself stuck on a train out of Paddington station with no driver and no communication as to why: “and that station [Paddington] has all the resource, there is absolutely no excuse”, he told me.
When the CEO of Reading buses can’t get home after a night out in London, I felt somewhat vindicated. I felt that if Martijn had been in charge of GWR, it might have been different.
“What I will say, though, is that rail is a very different beast to bus. The two need to be able to work more closely together.”
“But how difficult is it to just communicate?” I asked him.
“The truth is, it’s not” was his reply.
I drew up a list of questions to ask him. The news had just broken that he would be leaving Reading Buses to go and look after Go North East. I viewed the meeting as an opportunity for Martijn to have a reflective send off.
What had been Martijn’s vision? What had frustrated him? It turns out the answer to the latter was simple: “traffic.” And, what was he most proud of in his tenure? Martijn’s answer here was enlightening: “the team, it has to be the team. Our comms have got better and better, the buses are better, the visual standards are better. I love the charity work we have done and how we have innovated.”
Martijn’s leadership style is quite something. There is a real amalgamation of broader vision, values and principles that meet an eye for detail and sound awareness of what’s happening on the ground, keeping the wider team on their toes. It is quite remarkable to watch.
I had a feeling that Martijn viewed Reading as zone seven on the TFL map, so it didn’t surprise me when he said “you know, many people living in Reading do work in London of course, and it’s important that the transport set up feels smooth. I really feel like Reading misses out by not having a bus station. Most towns and cities have one. People step off a train and out the front of a station and expect to find a bus station there. Imagine you don’t know the town, where do you go next?”
The Reading Buses open day
A week after our meeting, I was very lucky to get a tour of Reading Buses HQ on their eleventh open day, with Martijn and my partner. The comms set up blew me away, with big screens of various Twitter threads and access to Reading’s traffic CCTV.
“Sometimes, a tweet will come in and it will be ahead of anything else, in telling us about a potential issue. Twitter is an invaluable tool for us” said Martijn.
It was here, at the depot on a scorching hot July day, that I learned the most about Martijn Gilbert. He is never off duty and never away from coupling vision and detail. I expect a CEO to be able to espouse vision, but all of the detail? Isn’t that usually delegated to somebody else?
He talked us through the importance of visual standards and ‘wheels Wednesday’ – the day of the week all the bus wheels are cleaned. Interestingly, Martijn said “I think they should be cleaned everyday actually, but we’ll get there.”
As Martijn led us through the forecourt with the tables decorated in bunting and transport memorabilia, food and tombolas, there wasn’t a soul there that he didn’t know by name. There were countless drivers eagerly approaching him to introduce their partners and young families to their boss. Martijn was as gracious as could be. On one of the stands there was a chap selling bus books – somebody who Martijn had known from years before. The gentleman had put together a book on Reading Buses specific fleet and it had, of course, sold out.
“I knew he’d come good with that book” Martijn told us.
Reading Buses had been supporting an autism charity for the past year or so, and Martijn was open about why. “A lot of people that are really into this transport stuff, may also have autism. We know this, it made sense to bring that together and it’s been a great partnership.”
There was a moment where I was kindly introduced to a couple of young lads who were putting peoples names up electronically on the front of a bus. One of them was learning how to timetable, and the other was working in an operational career experience. To say I was excited to have my name up on the bus is an understatement: this is part of the brilliance of somebody like Martijn.
Martijn knows his own people, he knows what it is to be a transport enthusiast because first and foremost, he is still in love with it himself, and he wants to celebrate that.
At the event that day, Martijn’s very own open-decked Routemaster was present, immaculate and ready to take people for rides around Reading town.
“Are you going to take your bus with you to Newcastle?” I asked.
“I have been lucky and I have a friend who is kindly going to look after it for me down here” he said.
As we walked through the offices, a young lad ran up to Martijn to ask to have his bus book signed with an autograph. It was the most joyous thing. Martijn will remember the excitement of wanting to get his hands on all things rail and bus, and that enthusiasm was right there. There was huge sense of community and camaraderie that afternoon at the depot.
Our expectations as customers have evolved with the times too. We expect more now than we did in the nineties, and so we should. Technology has us all expecting things to just work. Martijn has taken a very manual and blue-collar industry and been at the helm of moving it into the 21st century in this town, complementing the work of James Freeman before him. Communication had being right at the centre, inviting the public to join in the conversation and collaborate.
From the outside, and to the public, Martijn and the team he worked with at Reading Buses had made things look and feel very simple. The innovations had worked so well, that there had been room for the fun stuff.
There’s been a sense of joy for running Fernanda the opened decked bus, on the 17 routes during the summer. There’s been space for Reading to trial the red ‘Boris’ bus to gauge whether it was worth a go here. There’s been room to allow drivers to dress up as Father Christmas in December if they’re up for it.
But don’t be fooled: there was also laser focus on rewards for positive behaviours celebrated through public social media. There have been awards for careful drivers, awards for not scuffing your bus on the curb stones, overtime for those who want it paid at premium rates, communication to teams in forms of newsletters galore in house.
At its core, Martijn only wanted to run a bus company if it was in good shape and was one he could put his name too: on time, honest, strong at communication, clean, customer friendly and team focused.
A tough act to follow
I asked Martijn what would be the challenges for the next boss.
“The relationship with the council there are challenges there with traffic and signalling, some of it is really basic, like traffic light patterns and sequencing. Getting the utilities to communicate what they are doing and when, and talk to one another, the impact this has on us is huge.”
While I knew that all of the above was true, the one thing Martijn would have never mentioned – because of his humility – was the one thing that I couldn’t help but feel was staring us all in the face. The biggest challenge was whether the next boss could carry on what Martijn had started and built: a team that was proud to work for Reading Buses, proud of the innovation and proud of their standards. So much of how this came to be is because of who Martijn is as a person, and that is a rare thing.
It has been nearly 16 months since we bid farewell to Martijn Gilbert as CEO. His successor Robert Williams seems like a nice enough chap. He responds to my tweets that are probably a bit on the moany side of things, he tweets about the buses in increasing regularity, he posts pictures with his colleagues when they reach and accomplish particular awards, he’s a local boy and he’s really experienced. He recently celebrated his one year anniversary and was reflective in doing so.
You’re waiting for the ‘but’ though, aren’t you?
There is an assumption that to be a leader or a CEO, you’re meant to be brimming with charisma. That weird and tangible personality-thing that lurks and only captures the lucky few. The assumption says, that as the leader, you should know all the answers and everybody should look to you as being the one and only person who can save the organisation.
It’s a myth though. You do not have to be charismatic to be a successful leader, but you do have to be dynamic and able to spot opportunities, and you have to innovate. At its most basic, you have to set expectations and standards, and stand by them. If you can do all of the aforementioned, the chances are, you’ll have something about you.
It has felt like a quiet year since Martijn departed. There have been awards and accolades and rightly so. I didn’t particularly or immediately notice a change in how things felt. But for the past six months, I have. And this is where Robert has to pay attention, because things add up and they matter and he might be more introverted than Martijn, but he’s still head and face of that business.
I had hoped that I almost wouldn’t notice the departure of Martijn. I hoped that I could almost bury my head in the sand and wish for the best. That dream was dashed when in October 2018 I took what should have been a pink-branded 25 to Peppard Common on what I now refer to as “one of Bob’s blue-blunderbuses”. I know it’s a bit mean, but so is being made to breathe in petrol fumes at 9am.
Attention to detail matters. Communication matters. Dirty buses matter. Old fleet stock and football buses running on what were carefully branded lines, matter. Old buses on the wrong lines that smell of petrol, matter. Not communicating this stuff openly ahead of time, matters. Re-painting things but denying its a U-turn on line branding is foolish when we can all see it happening around us. Do you know what? I could forgive most of this if I felt there was some honesty.
Reading Buses has, at its core a great established team, fleet, social media setup and experience. It doesn’t need a carbon copy of Martijn (I believe different people can bring different and useful perspectives), but it does need a leader who can talk to people, push for dynamism and innovation, communicate effectively and celebrate without feeling embarrassed to do so. It also needs a leader that doesn’t assume everybody knows what the expectation is, because when people can get away with caring less, the standards drop and we end up in a vicious cycle.
Running a bus operator isn’t an easy job and there are challenges in this town that many would try to shy away from. I have no doubt that Robert faces some real practical, financial and political challenges. These can’t be solved solo: he needs to listen and then follow up with the team he has around him. Engage with them, set goals, follow up, celebrate success and share and tell us what’s happening.
Following Martijn was always going to be a tough gig, we all knew that. Robert, this is for you: we love your company, we have been so proud of it, and we are on your side. Don’t let a drop in standards be the first step back in time. Nobody wants that.
A version of this article also appears on Zoë Andrews’ own web page.