Business & Economy
Interview: Through Thick & Thin Blue Line
January 2, 2023
One of the North East’s best-known taxi companies celebrated its 60th anniversary before the pandemic. And like so many businesses, Wallsend-based Blueline had to adapt to the unique challenges caused by COVID-19. The family-run company emerged stronger and more resilient to change after helping entire communities and thousands of customers – not least its own drivers – pull through the last couple of years. And as the industry tries to cope with post-pandemic, post-Brexit pressures and legislation for a carbon-free, greener future, Colin Young goes on a journey with the descendants of Blueline founder Colin Shanks to learn more about its colourful past and find out why it is primed for an equally bright future.
Turn right off the A186 Station Road before the Segedunum Roman Fort & Museum into Buddle Street, second right into Carville Road, then take the first exit on the roundabout at the back of Wallsend Metro station…
You have arrived at Wooley Street, NE6.
It’s here that Blueline, one of Newcastle’s oldest and most successful family firms, first operated.
Tom Shanks, 28, parks behind the bus stop and toilet block.
This is the company finance director’s maiden voyage to the first Shanks home and company base, where his grandparents Colin and Audrey lived and worked and expanded their family and their business.
“That’ll be a fiver, please,” jokes Tom, who, tomorrow, has wedding duties to perform in the Rolls Royce, one of the family’s most treasured possessions, preserved, in its own unique way – as Tom discovers later when he leaves a thumbprint on the paintwork – by company director Paul since it was purchased more than half a century ago.
The original houses are long gone, but somewhere among these rebuilt packed terraces in Wallsend, former prisoner of war Thomas Colin Shanks started a taxi company in 1958.
Based in London after the Second World War, Colin, as he became known, returned to Newcastle to run a tobacconist in Northumberland Street – now the Marks and Spencer building – before jointly forming the original taxi firm NODA and eventually setting up his own operation.
“My grandparents were still running the tobacconists, and they just saved and saved and saved,” says Tom.
“My grandfather bought an Austin Morris, which had a thin blue line across the side, made it his taxi and ran it from home, in this street.
“People started to recognise it as the ‘blue line taxi’, and it just grew and grew.
“That was when the expansion started, and he bought the offices in Wallsend to operate from there with two cars.
“When he died, suddenly, in 1990, Blueline had 60 to 70 cars.”
Last year, the business carried more than ten million passengers across the region.
Turn left out of Wooley Street into Carville Road and left again into Buddle Street before taking the third left on to the A186 Station Road. After a mile, take the third right on to High Street East and first right into Sycamore Street…
You have arrived at Blueline HQ.
In the 1950s, the one-door, front and back office operation was a bench for two drivers, a telephone operator and a small office for Colin Shanks.
Blueline owns most of the properties on this block now, including the garage over the road where Colin’s son and company partner Paul still tinkers to his heart’s content – his son Cody has followed in his footsteps to become one of the firm’s senior mechanics.
Behind the darkened glass of the corner unit is a labyrinth of offices and rooms, which host 20-plus staff including the taxi support team and call centre operators.
Nothing illustrates the progression the company has made more than the newly-refurbished directors’ suite upstairs.
Once a small cubbyhole for admin and endless reams of paperwork, it’s now an immaculate shrine to Colin, Audrey and the business.
A huge portrait of the couple on their wedding day dominates the room, and when you study other items on the wall closely, you see the original documents from the company’s formation and a well-worn, framed Newcastle Gosforth rugby shirt.
And a Mickey Mouse watch.
Tom says: “Walt Disney’s daughter Diane came to the North East in 1978, and my grandfather drove her and her husband Ron W Millee, who was a Disney vice-president, all over Northumberland and Scotland for a few weeks.
“At the end of the trip, they tried to give him 20 quid, which was quite a lot of money then, but he refused to take it.
“A few weeks later, they sent a watch from the States, and a letter from Ron, because he had refused to take any money from them.
“It’s an unusual piece of history.
“I always like to think they had a conversation back in the States with Walt Disney about my grandfather, and someone decided to send him a Mickey Mouse watch in the post.
“We wanted to create a directors’ lounge, which is like an operational hub where you can chill or hold meetings, but also pays homage to our history.”
Downstairs in the call centre, it’s noisy and slightly frantic to a newcomer; no surprise to those who know him, that Ian Shanks is the loudest voice in a room where 12 people are working in pretty close proximity.
Busy among them is Tarpit, from the London-based global tech firm E9, who is helping implement a new app for drivers which, in the long-term, will prove more efficient for them and their customers.
There are inevitable teething problems, and North East Times Magazine visits during a particularly challenging week.
The company has also installed digital screens in the back of 200 cars for adverts promoting local restaurants, hotels and attractions; fleets in Manchester and Liverpool are watching developments closely.
“I was on a flight from New York and there was a screen in front of me, which showed a Coca-Cola advert,” says Tom.
“I was totally locked in.
“We’re probably even more engaged with the customer in the back of a cab, so we just thought, ‘can we develop this and have more engagement with our customers when they move around the city?’
“And we were actually helped by the pandemic because QR codes became really popular, so we include those in the adverts.
“My old man backed it.
“He’s fantastic. He’s very old school, a proper Geordie, but he has this knack and this gut feeling of knowing what’s right, and will happily take a punt on technology.”
During the course of the afternoon, only once does Tom refer to his dad, his boss, as ‘dad’.
It’s a line that has rarely been crossed, and the pair clearly thrive on the closeness and conflicts in the relationship.
“I’d been in the business for about four months,” recalls Tom.
“We’d been talking in this office and when we’d finished I started to go into the bathroom, and he said, ‘what are you doing? You don’t use that bathroom when you work here’.
“And I was like, ‘are you joking?’
And he said, ‘use the bathroom downstairs like everyone else.’
“The funny thing was that throughout my childhood, I’d been in that office and used that toilet.
“The day I walked through the door as an employee, it all changed.
“That’s always been the way from day one.
“It can be tough. All relationships are tough, and there’s that line between father and boss which is very blurred.
“And it has challenged both of us in the way that we talk to one another in certain scenarios.
“And we get it wrong sometimes, but it has made us stronger.
“He has a fantastic knack of being right and is the most generous man I know.
“He’s worked round the clock, throughout his life, for his family.”
In the kitchen, Ian takes a break from one of his 500 tasks and offers a cup of tea.
There is a lot to fast forward to get from two taxis and a tiny office to an empire which covers more than 200,000 passengers a week, drivers with apps, and television screens and adverts in the back of their seats.
Divided equally with brother Paul and sister Jane – a former mental health nurse who works in the specialist transport department – it now stretches to more than 60 properties and 21 limited companies.
The former Newcastle Gosforth prop, with the handshake of a friendly bear, was 27 when he took over the business. Because he had to. His father died of a heart attack aged just 67.
“I wanted to be a policeman,” says Ian, who also had to look after his increasingly frail mother.
“I got knocked back after the first police exams – only two from a class of 26 got through.
“And I was keen to be a farmer; I’d worked on a farm as a kid, but that all fell through too.
“So I ended up working in the taxi business alongside my dad, and I’m so glad I did.
“He died suddenly in 1990.
“We’d been to the town hall for a meeting and went for a bit of pork pie on the way back.
“I went to the office, he went to James’ Shoes, because he loved his handmade shoes, and then he was going to the bank.
“And he never came back.”
After father and son have posed beside Colin and Audrey’s portrait – arranged by the family, with great difficulty, without Ian’s knowledge – he reflects on the growth of the business from this very room.
He recalls the conversation which proved hugely inspirational.
“I was sat about here,” Ian says, stretched out alongside his son on a lovely suede settee.
“My dad had just died, I was going through the paperwork, wondering to myself how I was going to pull this off.
“And I heard two of the drivers downstairs, outside the window, saying, ‘well that’s it, the company’s finished – or words to that effect – there’s no way the young lad will cope, we’ve nee chance’.
“Well, that was all the incentive I needed.
“I’d left school at 15, dyslexic, not a qualification to my name, I was young, I was naive and I didn’t know what I was doing.
“But I knew I was going to work bloody hard to make the business a success.
And I did. I had to. We had two young kids to feed and drivers, most older than me, to keep in employment.
“The pressure was absolutely huge. Any wrong decision could affect so many lives.
“The only sanctuary I had was the rugby pitch, where my fellow players would look after me and I could forget about everything.”
Turn left out of Sycamore Street and stop in one mile; look to your right.
You have arrived at the Blueline Development Centre (with adjoining taxi fleet and vehicle rental yard).
First, we take a mile detour to the Wills Building for the final photo shoot.
It all makes sense on our return to the purpose-built offices.
A huge landscape painting of the famous landmark in the pouring rain overwhelms the space where Tom and cousin Ben Bell spend most of their working lives, Tom’s trusty two-year-old black lab Ruby and Baxter, Ben’s miniature dachshund, never far from their feet.
“Our grandmother always said if she won the lottery she’d buy the Wills Building, turn it into a hotel and call it ‘The Embassy Hotel’,” Ben says.
“I think it harked back to the tobacconist days and Embassy cigarettes.”
And it’s here the Blueline generational transformation is taking shape – Ian’s son Tom is finance director and his daughter Pippa is executive transport co-ordinator; Jane’s kids Ben and Jack are operations director and head of drivers, respectively.
And then there’s Paul’s son Cody, the senior mechanic.
Ben is at the firm’s Hartlepool compound – one of many remote sites alongside Consett and Stanley – and joins us online.
He helped guide the company through the pandemic and early lockdowns, which naturally had an immediate impact on drivers, co-ordinating the transport element for the entire North East COVID-19 vaccine roll-out at its height, while all the family worked with JR Holland to deliver groceries to homes, hospitals and schools across the region.
“Every day we were on site at the vaccine centres, from seven in the morning, in the freezing cold, in high-vis jackets; all the family and staff were there,” says Ben.
“The camaraderie was just brilliant.
“And we were seeing all these frail, old people, who had been locked away in their homes, who were just so grateful to get out and talk to someone and get their jabs.
“It was amazing.
“It was really nice to get out there and speak with drivers every single day, and see them at the vaccine centres.
“It sounds bonkers, but we were probably a bit busier than normal, not with journey numbers, but in terms of trying to be creative with different approaches and new projects, putting them together and delivering them quickly.
“You had to think on your feet.”
And that continues today.
As well as expanding on corporate contracts, which include Emirates, Tom wants to launch a podcast.
He says: “The diversity of our customers fascinates me.
“Where are they going? Why are they in Newcastle? What are their plans, and who are they meeting?
“Everyone has a different story. And most people like to talk to our drivers, so I’d love to do a podcast from one of our cabs and tell the world why people come to the North East.”
There are many challenges facing taxi firms in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit, Uber, carbon free(ish) era.
There is a severe shortage of drivers, particularly from Eastern Europe, and many retired during the lockdowns.
Taxi driver licences in the Newcastle area are also significantly more expensive than other parts of the country.
Tom, who is completing his PhD in management at Newcastle University, is keen the industry has a voice in Newcastle’s – and the whole of the North East’s – future, with both local and national government proclaiming ambitious public policy plans to deliver improved, greener transport systems.
He says: “Green legislation for carbon-free cities is going to have a huge impact on all drivers, not just taxi drivers, but it needs to be clear and constructive changes, not just change without considering the true implications.
“So why not consult with the industry that uses the roads and engages with people in the region more than anybody else?
“This is not about business, this is in everyone’s interest.
“We have to get these decisions right.
“Government and councils think, ‘you’re just a taxi operator’, and they won’t listen.
“We’ve wasted so much time trying to get round the table; it was part of the reason for doing the PhD.
“If we can demonstrate this to them with the powerful data we have, then surely they’ll listen to us.”
Go straight on…