Peter’s life on the buses

PETER O’Driscoll laughs as he remembers his advertisement in the Derwent Valley Gazette from a few years ago. The company was looking for local bus drivers able to handle the school run. “Must love children,” said the ad. This is a man with both a sense of humour and the toughness necessary to turn a small coach service into a 34-bus operator with multiple government and private contracts. His first act back in 2006 was to double his fleet size to more than 20 coaches.

“It was a serious financial risk, but we got support from the bank and the business case stacked up,” he says. “With that, we were able to double the number of services between New Norfolk and Hobart.” It was a statement about how O’Driscoll felt about the role of a business in the Derwent Valley. It was also about family, a strong thread running through the business. Today, his wife, Erica, along with his daughter and son-in law are hard at work elsewhere in this workshop and admin centre in New Norfolk. Family connections also run through the roster of about a 45 staff.

He looks for local suppliers to underpin the business, too. “When we went to Mercedes Benz as our bus supplier that meant one of their agents opening up in Brighton, which brought business here rather than having to buy everything from the mainland.” The managing director of O’Driscoll’s is not fazed by the expanding footprint of national companies like Kinetic, now owner of the long-established Redline company. “I read that in Melbourne over the past 10 years, something like 40 family bus companies have reduced to three or four,” he said.

“Here in Tasmania, all the coach companies get on well as a whole. Everybody knows everybody else, and we work well together. If an offer comes to buy us, that’s fine. I’m not holding my breath.” Out in the yard, Peter O’Driscoll knows every one of these blue-liveried buses like his own children. “These have a 7.7 litre turbo diesel, about 300 horsepower,” he says of the newest Mercedes in the fleet. “They don’t come with much change out of $500,000 either,” he adds. Many of these coaches are running 120,000 kilometres a year, often from 5.30am until after 10 at night, six and seven days a week. “They need to be seriously well built to keep that up,” he says, fondly eyeing one older model. “In 15 years, she’s had a spanner to her just once.” In the scheme of things, O’Driscoll Coaches – which includes Derwent Valley Link – is one of five mid-sized Tasmanian bus companies.

Around 70 per cent of the O’Driscoll business is government contracts. How does that work? “I should say it’s very prescriptive,” he says, “with strict KPIs, including a minimum 90 per cent on-time record. “By that measure, we usually run 96 per cent or 97 per cent, but there are lots of times in that afternoon-evening peak that staying on time is a real challenge.”

The State Government funding formula for these bus services revolves around an agreed cost to provide a pre-determined level of service. The private/ public model includes funds to cover the cost of new buses. “We actually buy them, but the government repays that over time,” he explains. “What this means is we’re able to ensure a fleet of modern buses. I wish they’d do the same with school buses.” O’Driscoll’s also now runs services into Brighton and Sorell, as well as private school work for St. Virgils and three Christian schools. School excursions are arranged for some 48 schools. O’Driscolls currently chews through 35,000 litres of diesel a month; recently, the price has skyrocketed.

Fortunately, the formula agreed to by government covers that additional fuel cost. The yard is fastidiously clean, from the workshop floors to the parts racks, all the way to a collection process for the soapsuds from frequent washings the buses are subject to. “The biggest challenge at the moment is finding drivers,” he says. “A full-time driver is well paid, $60,000 and superannuation, but the primary need is in the early part of the day, between 7 am and 9 am, and later, 3 pm until 5pm.” “Those hours might be good for someone who’s semi-retired, but they’re probably not going to work for someone who needs a fulltime job.” Maybe it’s time for another ad in the Derwent Valley Gazette. Peter won’t forget the line: “Must love children.”