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Interview: Still waters for Calmac

Interview: Still waters for Calmac

Martin Dorchester - Calmac

With Storm Barbara battering Britain, then Conor closely following, you’d have thought the festive period would have been a headache for ferry operator CalMac’s managing director, Martin Dorchester.

In fact, he seems fairly relaxed about it, pointing out it was far worse last year. “I think we were into our ninth or tenth storm by that stage, and the year before was when we actually sailed on Christmas Day.”

CalMac, of course, is well used to dealing with the west of Scotland’s indefatigable weather, having operated since the days of steamships in the 19th century. 
Despite Barbara’s best efforts, the company worked hard to keep services running amid high winds and difficult seas. 

CalMac’s status as a publicly-owned company – all shares are owned by the Scottish Government – allows it to prioritise the communities it serves, according to Dorchester. 

“One of the good things of our unique shareholder structure is if the weather’s so bad I can’t sail at that time I can change the timetable almost at will. If we get a weather window, we’ll take it,” he says. 

Laughing, he adds: “Very rarely does my boss phone and complain about me upsetting passengers if I get them home. She’s pretty good like that!”

CalMac has found itself in a different sort of turbulent waters in recent years, as it bid successfully for a £900m contract to continue to operate Clyde and Hebrides ferry services against a commercial competitor. 

Dorchester says it had been a “tough” three or four years working “flat out” preparing the bid.

As well as from politics and the trade unions, there was support for CalMac’s bid from the communities the company serves, in what became a very public process. 

“As a government-owned company going for a government contract, as it were, we’re always going to be right in line of sight,” says Dorchester.

Announcing the contract, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recognised the local support. The ferry company was “woven into the fabric of the communities they serve,” she told MSPs. Dorchester tells Holyrood such a status can be both a good and a bad thing. 

“At its worst, you probably get a very personal critique, but at its best, you see that public support that comes and rallies round for us,” he says.

“Eighty per cent of our workforce come from areas we either sail to or from, and therefore there’s a big family connection. We’re a 166-year-old company now, so we’ve been there for a long time and we’ve sort of woven into the history of the islands we serve.”

Ongoing modernisation means the company is not stuck in the past, however. Internet connectivity is being rolled out across the network, which will enable smart ticketing using mobile technology.

“When I came into the business, I recognised we needed to start looking at what’s happening in other forms of transport, what people are engaging with and what is it we need to combine with the good things we do? Because you don’t want to lose the good things you do, but also, how do you move it forward?”

Coming to CalMac in 2012 from a background in logistics and e-commerce, Dorchester’s influence on the company is clear. He jokingly refers to his non-maritime experience as “not so much a fresh approach as almost an ill-informed approach” in having to learn on the job, but clearly it left him open to ideas.

“We’ve got a great bunch of people here who are very good at throwing ideas into the mix,” he says.

“I suppose what having me come into the business did was create that space to put forward more ‘wacky’ ideas, different ideas with someone who wasn’t going to put them through the mill of someone who has history running CalMac. It gave people an open forum, and we’ve reaped the benefit of that.”

In October, Dorchester announced he would be stepping down from the role, and as chief executive of parent company David MacBrayne Ltd, in March to “seek new challenges”. 

But Dorchester is to finish on a high, having won not just the contract to continue Clyde and Hebrides services but also beating “the biggest operators in the world” to another major contract to operate the Marchwood Military Port in Southampton for the next 35 years with GBA Ltd, worth £1bn.

This, he says, will bring investment and opportunities back to Scotland.

“People ask me why I came to run CalMac. The base principle of CalMac is to deliver lifeline ferry services. It’s massively important, that. To run a company that does affect people’s lives and can affect them positively or negatively is a huge responsibility, but also hugely rewarding,” he says.

“The second thing for me was I absolutely believe that a company that runs lifeline services should stay in the hands of government and be government-owned.”

Having someone at the helm with experience in both the private and public sector when taking on a commercial company when bidding for contracts was a case of “probably the right man at the right time,” he suggests. 

The link with the island communities is vital to the company’s success. 

“For me, fundamentally, if there’s no people on the islands then I don’t have a ferry service. How do I get people to islands? To do that, I need to make sure there’s business there, there’s reliability and connectivity and things like that. So it’s wider than just that transport brief.”

Looking after the company’s employees is a big part of that, according to Dorchester. In October, CalMac was named Scottish Living Wage Champion for 2016, awarded for not just paying the real independently-calculated living wage but also “promoting and celebrating” it. 

It is an achievement Dorchester says he is “hugely” proud of, and it is clear he sees it as more than just an aspect of the winning contract bid. 

“What the living wage does is iyt allows you to be proud of your company, and for the company to be proud of itself. It means that what you are engaging with is giving people a good quality of life through their employment. That’s hugely important,” he says.

The policy has seen sickness rates down and a better attendance at training courses, while the company has increased its business year-on-year for five years. 

An independent report in 2015 by the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde found CalMac employees have an average of 13.6 years’ service each and that they earn around 12 per cent above the national Scottish average.

“You can join CalMac and be the lowest ‘c’ rating and work your way up through CalMac to become a master of a ship, or come ashore and work your way up to be the chief executive of CalMac. You can do that. We pay good wages, good quality jobs, good quality training.”

But like many industries, CalMac has an ageing workforce. It is “training young people like mad”, but faces a fight to attract those apprentice cadets who have to leave to do their deep sea training back to the company. 

“If you’re generating good career opportunities, paying good wages with good terms and conditions then you’ve got a good chance to draw them back,” says Dorchester.

The new eight-year contract allows CalMac to offer colleges “critical mass” to run courses, but Dorchester suggests there has been too much focus on graduates, when much of his workforce has vocational training.

“They have to, they’re going to be seafarers,” he points out, but a career can lead to a position as master or chief engineer of a £50m vessel with a salary of £60k to £70k.

“So for me, one of the big challenges going forward, whether with Brexit or whatever, will be how do we attract quality talent that’s not necessarily degree qualified. I employ 1500 people and a thousand of those have got vocational qualifications rather than degrees, and I’ll need to keep replenishing that workforce.”

Some of the ways in which CalMac promotes its careers are less obvious, too. The new ‘Kids’ Club’ for younger passengers encourages play and learning on board and includes engagement in schools.

“Being brutally honest about that, it was about customers, obviously, but it was also talking to young people about future career options which do not necessarily include university,” says Dorchester.

Another avenue for reaching out to young people has been the ‘CalMac Creative’ project, a competition in which young aspiring and amateur musicians enter their songs via YouTube. A concert finale at the famous King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut venue in Glasgow decides four winners, who then perform at the local music festivals in the island communities served by CalMac ferries – Best of the West Music Festival, Tiree Music Festival, Hebridean Celtic Festival, Bluebell Festival and Mull of Kintyre Festival. 

“We’re getting a different audience engaging with us, we’re encouraging creative talent, as it were, getting young people to write and perform and then we’re supporting music festivals across our network, which is something we’re very proud of.”

This, along with the company’s involvement in the locality-based social enterprise funding initiative, Vital Spark, reveals CalMac is not just about guiding the boat safely to shore. 
“We feel strongly about community, and we also feel strongly about place-based outcomes,” says Dorchester. 

“We believe in it, we put our money in it, our support, and our people in it if we need to.”  

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