Who pays the ferryman?

When Stephen Maycock decided he wanted to get away from England to spend some time working over-seas, he did not think he would find his dream job as close to home as the Channel Islands.

His emigration fantasy had involved uprooting his family and travelling to Canada or Australia. While searching for a position, however, Maycock was stopped in his tracks by an advert posted by a family business which runs ferries from the south coast to the Channel Islands.

The job – finance director at Guernsey-based Condor Ferries – sparked an immediate interest for him. Transport held some appeal for Maycock, and the position had the added interest of being in the service sector and away from manufacturing, the area he was working in at the time.

Maycock saw the job as a way of getting into business management – something which his previous role was unable to offer him.

Condor Ferries first acquired rights to Channel Islands routes in 1986, sailing Hoverfoils – craft which carry passengers only. The company then pursued and found an investor to back the purchase of wave-piercing catamarans capable of carrying cars, as well as passengers, at much faster speeds.

This backing helped to deliver Condor’s early success. Once the car carrier came into service in 1993, Condor’s share of the Channel Islands routes rose to between 40% and 45% within a few weeks.

‘We were delivering something of a revolution in that our service halved the journey time to the Islands,’ Maycock says of the success. By 1994, British Channel Island Ferries, which ran similar services, was struggling to maintain market share, and Condor subsequently took over its routes. Within three or four years, turnover had quadrupled.

At the time, Maycock was mainly involved in financial protection work.

But, as Condor only had two major shareholders, he found himself taking a more general role alongside the managing director – a position which gave him greater managerial scope. With the constant need to adapt operations and the success of Condor’s service, he found this to be ‘management through a fairly aggressive period of change’.

His early days at the company will have stood Maycock in good stead for the challenges to come. Condor is currently looking to expand its services further by exploiting what it sees as gaps in the UK-to-France routes.

Its traditional route was Portsmouth to St Malo, and the company wants to resurrect this service. ‘This is a new sphere for us and feedback so far has been positive,’ Maycock says.

But customer comments have not always been so encouraging. In 1997, Condor ran into a major problem that almost caused it to lose its agreement with the Channel Island Authorities to run services to the islands.

The difficulties emerged when Condor purchased a new vessel for the route.

Problems with the new craft’s engines caused serious delays to the running time between ports. And the company had no equivalent high-speed craft to use as a back-up.

To fix the engine troubles, Condor would have to suspend the service – a move it could not afford to take as it had already invested in the order of #50m to #60m in vessels alone.

The Channel Islands authority, which chooses which operators can service the islands, was unhappy with the level of service and decided to put the routes out to tender again. Despite being resident service provider, Condor was obliged to re-tender along with other ferry operators.

‘While we accepted criticisms for the late arrivals, we found it very difficult to solve the technical problems,’ Maycock says. ‘We put up a tender which we felt was superior to anything the larger ferry companies could come up with. But there were many people in the Islands who perceived there was more credibility in the bigger company names. ‘Our problem was that we became judged not on our tender but by the fact that we were running late.’

Eventually, Condor got over the negative perception of its service provision and gained renewed support in the Islands. ‘There was a bit of New Labour and “a time for change” feeling which we drummed up. It was an opportunity that may never present itself again,’ says Maycock.

Following the success of its tender, Condor has now been tied into a service-level agreement which it hopes will help address some of the weaknesses that the authorities identified.

The company has control of the route for three years from 1999. The island authorities then have to make a decision on whether the new service is satisfactory. Maycock is determined that the service level will not be surpassed this time around.

Fresh starts seem to attract Maycock. Having started out in manufacturing at Simon Vicars, he made the shift to the service sector – a move he admits was tough at first.

‘Initially the move was a step backwards. Engineering was very structured.

Condor was a lot smaller and required more of a hands-on role. But I was happy to do it,’ he says. Once he had found his feet, Maycock found he thrived on a role that brought much greater involvement in the day-to-day management of Condor.

Maycock is passionate about his job and feels he would never have found a corporate job as challenging. ‘If I had gone into a bigger organisation, my impact would not have been the same. I would not go back to that now unless it was in a consultancy role.’

‘I never have the same day twice here. I even find it difficult to go home sometimes,’ he says. As a finance director, Maycock’s brief is unusually wide. Some days he deals with bankers, the next a treasury issue in relation to the US dollar or a legal complication to do with Condor’s vessels. ‘The average accountant does not get to deal with such a diverse range of issues,’ he says.

His broad remit allows him to appreciate the working of the whole company.

He can talk to colleagues at the ‘nuts and bolts’ level, and is as likely to discuss problems with technical and engineering staff as he is to discuss financials with other members of the management team.

He does have complex issues of his own to deal with. He is keeping a close eye on the changes to duty-free laws – set to continue on Condor’s routes. Maycock believes the absence of duty free after 1999 will put pressure on those ferry companies operating routes to France, for instance.

He believes that bigger companies running cross-channel services must be operating at a loss and compensating with revenue from duty-free sales.

Without that income, they face a tough challenge to survive.

The Channel Islands, he says, have been perceived as an expensive destination. But Maycock is confident the duty-free situation will make the Channel Islands routes more competitive and more attractive to tourists.

For Condor, and Maycock, the focus for the next three years is achieving improvements in customer care and strengthening its image in the market.

But Maycock believes the company can do it. ‘We have got very capable people and we think, without exception, that everybody has reflected on what has happened, and we are all conscious that we can do better.’

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