Gary Waits, Chief Executive, Student Transportation, North America
Judith Crawford, Chief Executive, Transit and Shuttle, North America
|Year ended 31 December 2019||2019 £m||2018 £m|
|Normalised operating profit||£123.0||£96.9|
|Normalised operating profit||US$157.0||US$129.4|
* Revenue and normalised operating profit at constant currency, adjusting for Canadian Dollar to US Dollar foreign exchange rate movement in the year.
North America has again delivered a record performance, with revenues up by 11.1% and a profit increase of 21.4% to $157.0 million. This performance has been secured through a combination of disciplined bidding, a consistent focus on operational excellence and efficiency, strategic acquisitions such as WeDriveU (WDU) and the disciplined disposal of Ecolane. We have also invested in the leadership team and now have, we believe, the most experienced senior managers in the industry. This approach has helped drive margin improvement in year, up 90 basis points to 10.0% (or up 50 bps on an underlying basis, excluding IFRS 16). This is despite the growth in lower margin transit work. With important contract renewals secured in 2019 – the full benefit of which we will see this year – important excellence and efficiency programmes and a strong pipeline of opportunities in place, we are confident of continued progress in 2020. The North America division continues to diversify away from its traditional school bus focus. In 2010, our North American operations were exclusively school bus. In 2018, the revenue split between school bus and transit was 80%:20%; by 2019 it had moved to 69%:31%. This shift will continue as we deliver on our target of transit with WDU becoming a $1 billion of annual revenue business.
|2018 normalised operating profit||129|
|Exchange movement (CAD to USD)||-|
|Operating profit at constant currency||129|
|Growth from continuing business||25|
|2019 normalised operating profit||157|
Operational excellence: the foundation of sustained growth
Securing and sustaining a reputation for operational excellence is crucial to our ability to continue growing our North America business. We believe we have the best trained drivers, subject to the strictest monitoring system, driving vehicles equipped with the most advanced safety technology in the industry. Customers appear to be recognising this. Particularly pleasingly, our programme to increase the number of school bus customers rating our services as five-star has grown consistently. From a base of 32% when the programme started in 2017, the proportion increased to 48.2% in 2018 and reached 55.4% last year. As well as a crucial part of the drive to be seen as a trusted partner consistently delivering excellent services, five-star customers are more willing to pay a premium for the quality operations they are receiving. This programme will remain a priority. The benefit of this focus on excellence and customer service was also seen in the retention and expansion of our two largest transit contracts. In Boston, our second largest transit contract was renewed for 7.5 years, with total revenue nearly doubling to $420 million. In Chicago, our largest single contract in North America was renewed for at least 7 years, securing at least $400 million in revenue over its life. The full annual benefit of these new contracts will be felt in 2020, providing positive momentum. Equally, as significant contracts they are important credentials with strong customer recommendations to aid further growth. Our WDU acquisition has successfully integrated and exceeded its revenue target for the year. Its revenue increased by over 30% in the year with growth in all of its key markets as well as expansion into new segments, such as its first university and non-emergency medical shuttle contracts. We will continue to combine its industryleading reputation with National Express’ breadth of operations to help enter new shuttle segments and markets. While already a business with nearly $550 million in annualised revenue, we expect transit with WDU to grow to a $1 billion annual income operation. The school bus bidding season has not yet concluded, but the early signs are encouraging. We have continued with a disciplined bidding approach, prioritising returns. The current retention rate is 92% and we have won important new contracts, such as our first in Alaska. This is our first 10-year school bus contract and provides a base for further growth in the state. Last year’s bid season concluded with an average price increase on bids or renewals of 5.9%, or 3.9% across the whole portfolio. This compares with an average wage increase of 3.4% in 2019.
With the ongoing industry-wide challenge to driver recruitment, we are reviewing and revising our driver training and certification processes to find efficiencies while maintaining our industry-leading training standards. By way of example, working with the relevant authorities in Ontario, Canada we have been granted the right to bring the accreditation of driver certification – a key delay in the process – in-house. Rather than waiting on a third party to provide the accreditation, we are able to grant it through designated internal authorities. This new approach is already suggesting important efficiencies to come. This process does not threaten the quality of training: we will still have the industry’s best trained drivers and the number of training hours remains the same. However, the external accreditation bottleneck often meant it took up to 60 days for a group of 50 drivers to finally receive their licence; this new process can now complete it in 12. We will look for similar efficiencies across North America, aiding driver recruitment and making us more agile in responding to organic growth opportunities.
Technology investment to underpin excellence, efficiency and innovation
Our investment in technology to enable everimproving service excellence, cost control and efficiency is delivering clear results. A Master Schedule programme – which through enhanced central controls forensically analyses the running time for every route and then assures that the associated driver time allocated is accurate – has delivered both real-time savings and service improvement in 2019. This programme started in the second half of the year and has already identified significant annualised savings. It has also seen ‘on-time performance’ of our school buses improve by 2.6 percentage points year-on-year. This programme remains a key strategic priority, with further efficiencies and improvements to be secured in 2020. DriveCam is now installed in nearly 21,000 vehicles. Speed monitoring equipment is now so comprehensive that 99.08% of drivers were covered last year. Alongside strict management and driver coach programmes, these investments are delivering clear results. Both the DriveCam risk score and the incidence of speeding declined significantly in the year. While this is the correct thing to do in its own right, the benefit is also seen in a significant reduction in legal and claims risk: by the end of 2019 we had 20% fewer open injury claims in the USA. Further, benchmarking data from our US claims handlers shows that our average cost per claim, for those settled in 2019, was almost half that of a pool of 13 other peer organisations in their portfolio of passenger transport clients. During 2020, we will invest to further enhance our systems and processes to drive operational efficiency and innovation. We have taken a stake in a company, ByteCurve, a pioneering technology that will combine – amongst other things – our dispatch, operations and scheduling software. Combining the data will help identify new areas for service improvement and cost efficiency, as well as enable greater central management oversight.
Targeted growth through strategic acquisition and market diversification
North America remains a very attractive market for further acquisitions. We made five acquisitions during the year, with the majority again outside of school bus. As well as the major WeDriveU investment, we made four other small acquisitions: two small transit operations; a small charter, shuttle and coach company in the Boston area; and a small school bus business in Baltimore. All of the acquisitions are either ‘tuck ins’, that can be operated or managed from an existing National Express location; or provide entry into a new strategic segment. For example, a UK coach manager has moved to the USA to grow this segment, building on our recent acquisitions and expanding our operations organically. Similarly, we continue to expand our Charter School operations and now operate over 650 buses in this segment. We are also piloting a new approach to the charter market, with a Charter Contact Centre established in Los Angeles. This centre provides a dedicated resource to grow our presence as well as direct the response to customer requests. It is already seeing a good stream of new work, including operating shuttles for event staff at the recent Super Bowl. Transit also added 11 contract wins in the year, all in the Connecticut and New York areas, building out from existing hubs. Our Trinity acquisition (made in 2016) is another interesting example, as it makes good progress in ambitious expansion plans in Detroit, to grow in the school bus, coach, shuttle and paratransit segments. This model of multi-modal services operating from a hub location in a major conurbation is one that we continue to pursue and grow. We take a disciplined approach to acquisitions. We continue to target 15% returns and our acquisitions have proved strong assets to the business. Equally, however, this approach requires us to assess whether stronger returns can be secured through disposal. This is precisely the reason we sold our Ecolane technology business during the year for $42 million in cash, plus a $10 million equity stake in the acquirer’s rapidly growing technology fund. The sale consideration was a significant multiple of the original purchase price, only three years earlier. With our rapid growth in transit, especially with the WDU acquisition, our expansion in segments such as Charter School and coach, plus a renewed focus on charter work, we continue to diversify our North America business away from what was almost solely a school bus operation less than 10 years ago. We retain a strong pipeline of both acquisition and new contract opportunities, with WDU opening particularly exciting avenues. When combined with our continued focus on operational excellence and efficiency, we look forward to another successful, record, year in 2020.