10 Questions: Martijn Gilbert

June 4, 2019

Martijn Gilbert is managing director of Go North East, the largest bus operator in the region. Having started as a trainee scheduler for London Underground, Martijn moved into bus operations, working at Arriva PLC for seven years. He moved to the North East to take up his current role eight months ago having been CEO for Reading Buses

What was your first break in business?

My first break in business came when I was 19 years old. A former employer closed down and I had an opportunity to start my own small business with two friends to bid for some of the contracts. We won around half and started to build a respectable small transport operation in Surrey. We sold the business two years later.

What did you want to be growing up?

I’d always wanted to work in transport. I’m the first person in my family to drive a car so, growing up, we went everywhere on public transport. I initially wanted to be a train or bus driver but later I found an interest in business and finance.

What attracted you to your current role?

Go-Ahead, which owns Go North East, gets that transport is truly local. As a company, it also empowers the leadership teams of its subsidiary businesses to deliver the right solutions for each regional market. Opportunities to join the group at a managing director level are rare so I’ve been very fortunate. I really liked the North East from previous visits and I was attracted to the size and scale of the opportunity, as well as the enormity of the challenge leading 3500 people operating 1000 vehicles from 14 sites across the North East and Yorkshire.

What is your company’s mission?

Our mission is ‘journeys taken care of ’. We set out to provide sustainable and affordable journey solutions through our network of local bus services and work directly with employers on corporate travel packages from bus passes through to dedicated staff shuttle bus services. Transport is essential to connecting local communities and keeping the region moving. Put simply – we move people.

How do you get the best out of your staff?

By being a visible and engaged leader who leads from the front. It’s not unusual to find me driving a bus occasionally. It’s a great way to get close to our customers and our drivers. I try to get out to our depots frequently and I am also easily accessible on social media. I want to hear what people think about how we can make the company even better for them and our customers and unlock the power of their ideas. I hate hierarchy and bureaucracy. Ultimately, we’re one team trying to achieve the same things and all benefit from the collective success.

What has been your career highlight?

My previous role as CEO of Reading Buses is a notable highlight. The company was, and still is, regarded as one of the best bus companies in the UK. To get the job in the first place was fantastic but so was working with the team to take the company to even greater heights winning the coveted ‘UK Bus Operator of the Year’ award, as well as achieving big improvements in employee engagement and delivering sizeable growth. Landing the Go North East job is equally a highlight and I’m set on making similarly impressive feats in this role.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Saving part of the transport operation for the 2012 London Olympics. With a number of areas not quite right, a former employer recruited me in three days into the start of operations. Essentially, the IT booking and job card system didn’t work, meaning the drivers didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing and, to add to the problems, no one had kept a log of what mobile phone they’d given each driver! After two sleepless days and nights, we’d re-built the booking system on Excel spreadsheets, found all the drivers and their phones and started to get everything back on track.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m inspired in equal measure by success or doing things outside of the box. I like to see what works, but also consider how it could be done differently, be that easier, better or just solve a new problem that no one else has tackled. The world around us is changing rapidly. We shouldn’t be afraid of doing things differently – while also being respectful of tried-and-tested methods.

What are your company short and long-term goals?

At Go North East, we must ensure that the region’s bus services provide a compelling alternative to driving the most common commuting, shopping and school journeys. To do that, we must tackle congestion. It seriously undermines the cost and viability of our services and brings our towns and cities to gridlock for all road users. We must also embrace the environmental agenda. Journeys by bus are up to ten times cleaner than by car and each bus can take around 70 cars off the road. Long-term, our focus should be on providing environmentally and economically sustainable transport.

How do you achieve a good work/life balance?

Being new to the region I’m not sure if I do at the moment. I’m often out and about exploring the area and experiencing our services from a customer’s perspective. I also enjoy exploring the wider area east to the Coast, west to the Pennines and north to Northumberland. Newcastle Airport also brings some great holiday destinations – even if it’s only for a long weekend.

Go North East

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