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Featured Business: GoBus
Name: Jim Burke, Managing Director, GoBus
Early retirement isn’t for everybody, as Jim Burke found out when he sold his established business in 2003. Missing the buzz of business after a few years, he got the opportunity to establish a new venture in the form of GoBus in 2009 and jumped at the chance.
Prior to his early retirement, Jim had worked in all aspects of the transport business since his parents, the late Eileen and Tony Burke, established a minibus business in the 1960s. As a teen he helped out by cleaning and washing buses before getting a licence to drive them in 1976.
In 1994 he left the family business to set up his own very successful coach company, before selling up to a multinational company in 2003. While Jim was trying to adjust to retirement, Galway city was being brought closer to Dublin with the construction of the M6, which was rolled out in phases between 2006 and 2009. Liking what the newly constructed motorway had to offer commuters in terms of a shorter journey time, Jim spotted an opportunity for a new non-stop public transport service connecting east and west.
However, the issuing of licences for public transport routes in Ireland is tightly controlled. So when Jim initially applied for a non-stop service between Galway and Dublin he was told that there was already adequate services on the route, as the motorway was still under construction. Three years later, with the motorway complete, the GoBus route application was first in, and was awarded a licence.
Following on from the success of GoBus, Jim applied for, and was granted, a new licence to offer a similar non-stop service between Cork and Dublin along the M8 Motorway in 2012. For this new venture, Jim entered into an association with Bus Éireann, under the brand name GoBé.
From the beginning, GoBus has focused on luxury and now has a fleet of up to 25 top line coaches. Although the company is currently planning its 2015/2016 fleet, its current coaches already offer reclining seats, toilets, WiFi, CCTV and charging sockets. The company’s offering is an appealing alternative to business people, who can work en route and arrive pleasantly refreshed.
Jim firmly believes that at the heart of any business is the people behind it, and he is full of admiration for his employees, both frontline drivers and the administration team that continually strive to fulfil their customers’ expectations 24/7, 364 days a year.
Interview with Jim Burke
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
The introduction of the motorways into Ireland and the commencement of the M4/M6 motorway between Dublin and Galway. We got the idea for our non-stop service in 2007, but it took almost three years before we acquired the first non-stop licence in the country. By summer 2009 the motorway was finished and GoBus was the first company to operate a fully licensed service offering passengers a much shorter journey time between cities.
How did you initially fund your business?
As the business started at the height of the recession in 2009, we chose to lease a number of coaches. Then as the business grew, we used bank borrowings along with cashflow to invest in our own fleet, and we have continued to do so ever since.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Yes, I believe you always have to be looking out for new opportunities. In 2012 we applied for, and were granted, a non-stop licensed service between Cork and Dublin using the M8 motorway, which we now operate in conjunction with Bus Éireann under the brand name GoBé.
What have been the highlights to date?
I guess one of the best highlights for me was seeing my first GoBus coach on the motorway and knowing that something I had worked so hard to achieve was finally up and running. In 2013, and again in 2014, we won the “Best Service Provider” category of The Best of Galway Awards.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
It has to be the people I meet – you never know who you’re going to meet on GoBus. When I left the business for a while I missed the public connections and the whole buzz that came with the business. No two days are the same – from the people you meet to the issues that arise. I can’t imagine not being in this business.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
That’s only something I’m recently achieving. As a business owner, you have to be involved in every aspect of your business – especially when it runs 24/7. There was a time I used to work 24/7, but I’m lucky that my sons are now working in the business with me, meaning I can take more time off. Between my own lads and the excellent people in GoBus, both in the office and on the road, I can relax a bit more by delegating a lot of work that I used to do myself.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
I am a huge fan of Michael O’Leary of Ryanair. I think it’s a fantastic operation and he’s a fantastic business man – what he has done with the airline business is just amazing. I use Ryanair a lot on business and leisure to see places we would never have the opportunity to visit only for Ryanair.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
The internet and social media. We have taken on marketing people for that, and we have found social media to be a wonderful tool for connecting with our passengers, allowing us to respond to feedback immediately. We have always embraced technology: anything that makes the running of the business easier, and better to control, is worth investing in. We have invested heavily in CCTV cameras to give passengers peace of mind, free WiFi to entertain passengers while travelling, tracking software to know where our coaches are at all times, and our online driver checking software means we are aware of any necessary maintenance before issues arise.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
Not many people know this but you’ll often see me at the coach station in Galway or on George’s Quay in Dublin helping to load the coaches. And from time to time you’ll even see me behind the wheel. This allows me to talk to customers and listen to their feedback. I’m out there and I’m meeting people.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Obtaining a route license can be very difficult. Although things have improved, it is still difficult to get a license for certain routes.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
The cost of finance is prohibitive in a lot of cases.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I’m so long at the business that most of it comes naturally at this stage: reading the market capabilities, looking to the future, looking at what people are going to require in two years’ time. We are already planning ahead for bus requirements for 2015/2016.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Naturally financial reward is important, but that’s not the best reward. We have about 60 employees between Galway, Cork and Dublin, and even during the recession we kept taking on staff. During those years we got a lot of people from other industries who had lost their jobs. A lot of people came to us, changed careers and remained with us. It’s very much a family environment with everyone proud of the success of the company.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
The introduction of the motorway. Being able to offer a quick, reliable service – using luxury coaches at a reasonable cost – meant our business grew quickly year on year. Our fares stayed the same for five years [up until April 2014] and more and more people travelled with us because of the great value. People stopped taking their cars and the train because we were more affordable.
How did you scale/grow your business?
With demand. The more demand we got, the more services we put on. All our staff members, both in the office and on the road, have been the catalyst behind the success. We’re a people business. There’s no point in having new buses if the drivers don’t look after the people when they’re meeting, greeting and driving them. It’s very important for us to have good staff on the road and in the office dealing with people before they ever get to the coach to travel. Our staff is probably the biggest advantage we have.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
Primarily licensing. Trying to grow further in a country like Ireland with a relatively small population is difficult. The market is slowly opening up but it will probably be another five to ten years before it’ll be open enough to generate more growth for companies in the private sector.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
We have looked at other areas but, because of the low population, we’re running out of ideas as to where to go next. There are new routes you could open but there wouldn’t be enough demand from the public to make them viable without PSO [Public Service Obligation] subsidies.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
Success, and the fact that my family is now involved.
What’s your vision for the future?
Continued success, which has to be nurtured all the time because we’re dealing with the public and the public are very demanding. We and our staff have to keep on top of all these things. Our vision is to keep doing what we’re doing, do it well and not stand still. Nothing stands still, you either go up or you go down. At the moment we’re striving to keep on the up.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
Not really, apart from my own dad who worked hard his whole life. He passed on that ethic to me –not to be afraid to work hard, and you’ll get your rewards.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Not to be afraid to take the risk. If you have a dream or a plan, go for it. Do your best to make it work. If you fail the first time, try again and again.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I don’t think I’d do a whole lot differently to how I’ve done it.
Phone: +353 91 564600
Interviewed by: Web Content Partners
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