The former Arthur Andersen accountant saw the price of the company’s shares drop 9% last week as confidence in the transport group continued to fall following another profits warning. This was followed swiftly by downgrades by ratings agencies and analysts.
The situation is so precarious due to troubled times for the company in the US that Souter – whose family controls a quarter of the shares – is rumoured to be considering taking the company private.
Stagecoach has denied the rumours, although it is understood that he wants to get rid of as much as possible of its US business.
Since its formation back in 1980, Stagecoach has grown from a small Scottish firm with just two second-hand buses bought with his savings, to one of the world’s leading transport operators.
Although buses and coaches remain its core business interest, Stagecoach has spread over the past few years to include train, tram and toll road operations across the world. Such has been the expansion of the business that the group’s activities are now spread over nine countries in three continents.
ICAS-trained Souter took over as acting chief executive of the company following the resignation of Keith Cochrane this year. Stagecoach announced last week that US operating profits would be £20m-£30m lower than the £41m reached last year.
Whatever his critics say, Souter has come a long way and has always shown initiative but often flouted conventionality in a world founded on the conservative. In his early days training as an accountant, his dislike of conventional garb did not go down well with his employers.
In 1977, when he started as a trainee working with Arthur Andersen, working around Scotland on audits, he soon fell foul of the firm’s dress code.
He recalled: ‘I got into trouble for wearing a jumper under my jacket.’
He had, however, been used to wearing one on the buses where he worked as a conductor to pay his way through university, a job he continued to do on Saturdays for the two years of his accountancy traineeship, unknown to Andersen.
Whatever plans Souter has for the company, it will be largely dictated by customers – many of whom have abandoned the rail network since the Hatfield crash – and investors, who are moving out of the company’s shares.
A review led by Souter and due to be published in December will reveal its long-term future. And if the initiative and strong work ethic he has so far shown in his professional career is anything to go by, whatever the future holds, Souter is bound to learn lessons and not forget them.
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