Chief Executive Officer's statement

I am delighted to report our full year results for 2021 which demonstrated continued sequential improvement, and delivered financial results at the top end of expectations.

Ignacio Garat
Group CEO
09 March 2022

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Ignacio Garat

Indeed, we have delivered a steadily improving performance in revenue, EBITDA, operating profit and cash over the year, with the result that:

  • revenue rose by 15.5% in constant currency to £2.17 billion; 
  • EBITDA rose by 60.8% to £300.0 million, an improvement of £113.4 million over 2020; 
  • Underlying Operating Profit improved by £137.8 million to £87.0 million; 
  • Underlying PBT improved by £145.8 million to £39.7 million; 
  • statutory loss before tax improved by £359.8 million to £84.9 million; and 
  • we delivered £123.4 million of free cash flow in the year, an improvement of nearly £320 million year on year, fuelling the rapid reduction in Gearing from 6.6 times at the end of 2020 to 3.6 times.

This performance has been driven by a number of factors. We have seen strong recovery in demand for our services as economies emerged from lockdown restrictions, with vaccination programmes allowing economies to reopen further and mobility increasing. We have benefitted from the management actions taken in 2020, with around £100 million of annualised structural costs permanently removed across the business. The ongoing support of customers and authorities has also contributed towards the improved performance in the year.

I am extremely proud of our colleagues across the Group who have continued to navigate through what has been another complex stop-start year, always ready to adjust to the varying restrictions in place in each of the territories in which we operate. I am also proud of the strong relationships with our customers across every division and how we have worked together to provide service as far as possible, allowing for the restrictions in place.

Maintaining
momentum

Our performance

During the pandemic we saw a short-term shift in transport use back to the private car. If this were to continue as growth normalises, we would see over 400 billion more passenger kilometres per year in North America and the UK alone.

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Over and above this, demand for transport is expected to increase by up to 30% by 2030, putting more pressure on roads, and increasing congestion and air pollution. At the same time, the world needs to cut carbon emissions to achieve our shared climate goals. Private cars are the primary driver of carbon emissions: pre-pandemic, cars generated 70% of surface transport emissions in the EU. Modern diesel cars each produce more nitrogen dioxide than a modern diesel bus full of passengers. More importantly, as we transition to a Zero Emission Vehicle future, a passenger taking a journey on an electric bus rather than in an electric car can save well over 10 times total lifetime carbon emissions, and that bus can take 70 cars off the road, significantly reducing congestion and freeing up liveable spaces.

Modal shift from private cars to public transport therefore remains the single most important driver of reduced emissions and congestion. Governments around the world are increasingly aware of this and are adjusting policy towards greater use of public transport to meet their decarbonisation and clean air targets.

In 2021 we launched our Evolve strategy, rooted in our vision to be the world’s premier shared mobility operator with leading levels of safety, reliability and environmental standards that customers trust and value. This, in turn, is embedded in our purpose, to lead the modal shift from cars to shared mobility. A 1% modal shift from cars to buses would increase bus passenger journeys by 23% and Evolve provides clarity in terms of both the significant potential growth ahead and the path towards it. At our Capital Markets Day in October we set ambitious targets for the years ahead:

  • A further £1 billion of revenue growth by 2027 compared with 2022. 
  • Operating profit margin averaging around 9% over the coming years, with more than £100 million of additional profit in 2027 compared with 2022.
  • Cash conversion averaging over 80% a year, with a target to generate at least £1.25 billion of free cash between 2022 and 2027 inclusive.

Core to Evolve are five compelling customer propositions, each enabled by our focused application of technology, delivering superior outcomes for all our stakeholders. We have already made progress in 2021 in each of the five customer propositions.

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Outlook

National Express had a track record of delivering strong and sustainable financial outcomes in the years before the pandemic and we expect to continue to deliver strongly over the coming years. We have seen consistently that as restrictions are lifted, demand recovers. 

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The majority of our businesses rapidly returned to 80% or more of pre-pandemic patronage at peak last year. We will inevitably see some unevenness over the year ahead, but we now have six quarters of increasingly positive demand trajectory to build from. Whilst the impact on the Group is expected to be limited, we note the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine and our sympathies go to those affected. Fuel prices have risen significantly in recent days, but we had already fully hedged our fuel requirements for 2022 and the increased cost of operating a private car has the potential to drive modal shift into public transport.

We expect to continue to rebuild our revenue base during 2022 as we position the business for accelerated growth going forwards, and anticipate delivering revenue close to 2019 levels in 2022.

 

As set out at the launch of Evolve at our Capital Markets Day, we expect an average profit margin of 9% in the period 2022 to 2027, and to have fully recovered to pre-pandemic margin levels of around 10% in the later stages of that period. However, in the short term we expect the recovery in profitability to lag our revenue recovery, and hence for margins initially to be below our target 2022 to 2027 average, due to the additional investment required to rebuild patronage; the current shortage of drivers we are experiencing in our North America School Bus operations; and an elevated level of cost inflation that has partially offset the structural cost reductions we have made.

We remain focused on return on investment and cash generation, and anticipate free cash flow conversion in 2022 at around the pre-pandemic average of at least 60%, with ongoing actions to minimise maintenance capex and utilise availability arrangements to source vehicles. Over the medium term we are targeting an average free cash flow conversion of at least 80% for 2022 to 2027, as set out at our Capital Markets Day