Sir Brian Souter: expect the unexpected

Sir Brian Souter
By Rob Outram, CA magazine

16 August 2017

Sir Brian Souter CA, ICAS President and Chairman of multinational transport business Stagecoach and of Souter Investments, is one of the speakers at the ICAS Conference on 20 September.

The theme of the Conference is “Expect the Unexpected” and we asked him how his CA training and experience have helped him to deal with the unexpected, in the course of his career building one of the UK’s biggest public transport operators.

In your current role, what are the kinds of factors that can present unexpected challenges?

My multifaceted roles as Chairman of Stagecoach Group and Souter Investments (my family investment office focussing on unquoted investments), and Trustee of the Souter Charitable Trust mean that I am presented with a huge variety of unexpected challenges on a regular basis. Some of the most difficult decisions are in deciding which of the many charities doing great work in the communities should receive our funding.

How are the nature of challenges, and responsibilities, different once one reaches the FD/CFO “C-suite” level?

There is no change – I mainly behave as an owner-manager recognising a responsibility to all stakeholders.

Either in your past or current role, can you give examples of an unexpected challenge and how you dealt with it? How did your experience and CA training help you to deal with it/these challenges?

To give just a few examples:

  • The Gulf War in 1991, which led to fuel prices increasing by 133% and sparked a recession.
  • The 9/11 terrorist attacks, which had an immediate and dramatic impact on the fortunes of airlines, including Scot Airways where I was a major shareholder.
  • The outbreak of the SARS virus, which revenue at Stagecoach’s bus operations in Hong Kong and its toll road company in China.
  • Stagecoach’s ill-fated acquisition of Coach USA, a quoted company whose performance did not match its reported numbers.
  • Technological change, especially the Internet and the rise of the smart phone.

In these situations, my CA training allowed me to DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control). It is critical to react quickly to the challenge, and entrepreneurs often see each challenge as an opportunity.

Do you think the environment for business is more uncertain and unpredictable these days, or are we just more aware of it?

Business is more uncertain. Technological advances mean the rate of change is much faster, mainly as a result of the Internet and smart phone apps. The growth of social media means that trends can develop much more quickly, and governments increasingly appear to struggle to determine how best to react quickly to these developments.


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