Trevor Smallwood OBE

Doctor of Laws                                                                                   

10 July 2009 - Orator: Sir James Tidmarsh

Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, Trevor Smallwood

It has been said that the fuel of the bus industry runs through the veins of Trevor Smallwood’s family. His father, grandmother and numerous other members of his extended family have worked for local bus companies for generations.

Born in Rotherham, he had a grammar school education in South Yorkshire and in 1966 Trevor joined the Yorkshire Traction company in Barnsley as a management trainee. The position was to give him first-hand experience over a wide range of roles in the bus company’s operation.

Over the next 17 years he worked his way through the management structure, developing an understanding of operations within the nationalised bus industry across the country. His work first brought him to Bristol in the 1970s to be in charge of the Bristol City Services. Subsequently he returned here as managing director of Badgerline in 1983.

With denationalisation of the bus industry high on the political agenda of the time, Trevor put together the team that led to the buyout of Badgerline in September 1986, supported by 70 members of the staff including bus drivers and fitters. For £2.3 million these individuals bought the company from the Government, taking over ownership of 400 buses and employment of 700 staff.

Following a short period of planning and consolidation, Trevor’s feet scarcely touched the ground during the time that followed, as he acquired bus companies across the country from Essex to South Wales and Cornwall to the Midlands. In all, nine companies were acquired in seven years with the company’s turnover reaching £200 million. Badgerline floated on the stock market in November 1993.

At this stage the opportunity came for the new transport group, confident in its ability, to take a 24.5% stake in the rail operator Great Western in 1996 – a stake that later increased to 100%. This was followed by further rail franchise successes and international acquisitions. Having become Chairman of FirstGroup he one day found himself on a train that was both slow and late. At Didcot a gentleman got into the train exclaiming loudly to all and sundry that he would like to get his hands on the man who was running the railway. Trevor folded his paper and granted an astonished passenger his wish.

The group also diversified in 1997 with the purchase of a 51% stake in Bristol International Airport – Trevor was the chairman of the Airport for four years during the building of the new terminal.

When he retired from FirstGroup in 1999 at the age of 52, the Group, under Trevor’s leadership, had built a business with 40,000 employees, turning in an annual profit of almost £90m. Today the company has a revenue of £4.7 billion and over 105,000 employees – it is the UK’s largest bus operator, runs 20% of the UK rail network, and carries over 650,000 students every day in 11,000 vehicles across 26 states in America. For services to the transport industry he received the OBE in 1994.

But life has had its hazards for Trevor and his family. They had a holiday in Rome and parked their hire car on the street outside the hotel in which they were staying. In the morning when he came to use the car, the street was empty except for his car which he now discovered he had parked in a place where it attracted a penalty – a place close to Trevor’s heart – a bus stop.

But to return to the point when Trevor decided to retire from the First Group back in 1999. Many in a comparable situation would have taken the opportunity to live a life of ease, but not Trevor Smallwood. He set about involving himself in a number of charitable activities. Together with his wife Mary, he set up the Bramble Trust which has been most generous to a wide variety of worthwhile causes in the Bristol region.

He became a very active chairman of The Greater Bristol Foundation – subsequently to be called Quartet – and is currently its President. He became Chairman of Colston’s Girls School, and has guided it into becoming an Academy – seeing the successful transition of the school from the private to the state sector. He became a Trustee of the St Monica Trust, one of the largest charities in the country seeking to provide accommodation and care for older people, and he became the President of the Dolphin Society, a Bristol charity raising funds – an activity in which the president is always particularly involved himself – for older people in need.

Trevor does not always become involved in large enterprises. The organisation TMTV which stands for Traffic Management for The Villages would be one such example of his concern for the well-being of others. Ten years ago he formed this group to aid a number of villages east of the M5. Large lorries threatened an area that was not physically suited to the insupportable volume of constant traffic it was receiving. He drew together the Mendip Society and representatives of the Council for the protection of Rural England to very good effect in reversing the situation.

All these various and significant activities might be considered to be enough for one active man to undertake, but that would be wrong in Trevor’s case. Added to all this he is a Deputy Lieutenant for Somerset and this year is the Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers – Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor – a Bristol Society which has enjoyed a very long and deep association with this University.

At the same time as involving himself in charitable activity he launched himself back into the industrial and commercial world. For nine years he was a director of the Bristol Water Company. He became the Chairman of UKRD, a large commercial radio station group. He became Chairman of LDJ Design and Display, a company centred in Skipton making over £5m worth of Christmas decorations on an annual basis for over 80 shopping malls in the UK. The company also makes most remarkable lifelike animals. He has become a director of a company which organises tours for floral visits to Holland.

But perhaps the most exciting involvement that Trevor currently has is with the innovative transport solution designer, Advanced Transport Systems. Trevor Smallwood is Chairman of ATS, a company which has developed, in association with the University of Bristol, a personal rapid transport system to be installed in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in December – passengers will be transported in pods each holding one to four people. It is safe to assume that this revolutionary method of transporting people will make a significant difference to our lives in years to come.

How does someone with so many activities relax? Trevor is an enthusiast for Association football and cricket. At one time he owned Rotherham United Football Club. Each week since 1983 he has played five-a-side football in Weston with virtually the same group of friends.

What of the philosophy of someone who has given so much of his time and effort to the community? He seeks to enjoy life and has no wish to dwell on yesterday. He would aim to appreciate his lot, and is thankful for the fact that he was brought up in a council house in a mining village in Yorkshire. He is grateful that his father worked, and relishes the example his father set him. He is fortunate to have a remarkable wife, Mary, who gives him wonderful support, and at the same time keeps his feet on the ground.

I asked a mutual friend of ours to sum up Trevor Smallwood in one brief sentence and he said that Trevor always gets the best out of himself, and in turn as a result of this, he gets the best out of those with whom he engages, thereby securing enduring benefit for any organisation with which he becomes involved.

Madam Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Trevor Smallwood as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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