Sometimes you choose to work in the coach bus industry, other times it chooses you. Once there, you are either driven to succeed, or your team would never let you get behind a wheel. Linda Burtwistle, President and CEO of both Coach USA and Megabus, can agree to all four of those sentiments.
We interviewed Linda for this series as we admire her fearless approach to leadership. Find out what she had to say about her career in the bus industry, how Coach USA is tackling technology, and what her ideal Sunday looks like.
How It All Started...
Linda began working for Stagecoach in 1996, in a finance role in the UK. At the time, the company was seeing huge growth and becoming a dominant ground travel player around the world.
“I didn’t have a burning desire to work in the bus industry, but I got hooked.” In a sense, Linda was at the right place at the right time. “What started out as a very small company became a very large one, and I ended up having opportunities I might not have had elsewhere.”
Linda’s relentless work ethic did not go unnoticed. When Stagecoach acquired Coach USA in 2000, she moved to Texas as CFO. Fast forward 7 years and two countries, and she found herself back in the US working under First Group. It was at this point that she left finance and moved into operations.
Linda rejoined Coach USA in 2015, this time as President and COO. She was appointed CEO in April 2019.
It is clear that Linda made some very intelligent career moves – she held pivotal roles that gave her insights into many different facets of the business. We asked her if there was a person or event that had shaped who she is in her career.
“If I look back, I would say Brian Souter, the founder of Stagecoach. He was the CEO when I was working for him. He is a ‘let’s get things done kind of guy’, and has been the single most influential person in my career. He encouraged me to believe in my abilities.”
Linda's Approach to Leadership
"It is no longer enough to just run a bus business; we have to be smarter about our business development activities, and smarter about technology."
With growth comes learning curves and failures. As a leader, a person’s approach to overcoming these challenges is often what sees them succeed. We wanted to know how Linda has dealt with this in her career.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way. When faced with failure, I generally find a way through it. I won’t give up. Even if it means finding another way of doing something.”
Of course, being at the helm of a business has its ups too, and there are many things that Linda enjoys about her role as CEO. At the top of the list is building a strong team.
“You recruit people who are very good at what they do. Then you let them do their job," says Linda. "There is nothing more rewarding than watching my team work together and use their individual skills to come up with innovative solutions, pulling on each other’s strengths and understanding each other's weakness. Seeing this unravel is truly a high spot for me."
It's No Longer Enough to Just Run a Bus Business
"We have to be smarter about our business development activities, and smarter about technology," says Linda as she reflects on how it's no longer enough to just run a bus business. "Also, when you’re as big as Coach USA, you need to have uniformity in the way you approach things, the way you maintain your buses, the way you train your drivers.
Linda mentioned that businesses have to be smarter about their development activities, and we wanted to know how Coach USA was tackling this. We asked her what makes the company unique and keeps customers coming back for more.
“The breadth of services we offer - we’re a one-stop-shop. We operate right across the country and in Canada, so we’re geographically diverse. We’re also the largest operators to offer contract, charter, express long-distance, as well as intracity and intercity services. That gives us flexibility that other operators don’t have.”
She has also made safety a big priority at the company. At one point in her career, Linda worked for a bus company that provided transportation to over 6 million children, so safety is ingrained in her.
“If you cut my head off, I would have safety coming out of my veins. I’m all about safety, I am religious about it. When I came back to Coach USA I carried through this thinking."
The Role of Technology in the Bus & Coach Industry
In today’s age, developing a smart business has to involve technology. It is forcing companies to rethink how they operate to meet the needs of existing and future customers. We asked Linda what Coach USA was doing to stay relevant to customers and stay competitive with companies like Flixbus, a new entry on the North American market in recent years.
“Flixbus competes against our Megabus service. However, Flixbus has many small operators who run the services, Flixbus doesn’t run it themselves. They simply run the technology. Megabus is quite advanced from a technology standpoint, and we run both the technology and the service. It allows us to provide a more connected offering.
When it comes to Coach USA, it’s made us speed up our thoughts about technology. We’re really good at operating, we now need to get good at understanding customers, and using technology to help.
The needs of the customers are changing. It’s no longer good enough to get a customer to a stop. They want it to be easy and they want more information. The time is now to make that move. We’ve done it with Megabus, but we need to extend that to other services. Our big focus now is on technology and we're developing a technology roadmap to pave the way for our future growth and expansion.”
Talking About Aspirations
Linda had some final insights to share with us about what she wants to achieve with Coach USA.
“I would want people to remember that I built the team who are going to take Coach USA into the future" she says with a little laugh. "Coach USA will continue to grow as one of the biggest players in the North American transportation market, our future is very solid.”
For other women who have their own aspirations in the bus industry, “time and time again, I see women trying to emulate a male leader, and it is not authentic. Be yourself, align yourself with a strong team and let them do their job. Be fearless. Trust your gut. Don’t think about it too much and do it well. Then verify if you’ve got it right.”
On A Personal Level
Ending off the interview we spoke to Linda about her most memorable travel experience. She told us that she used to Hong Kong once a month, and finds the city fascinating. She has travelled extensively, but mainly for business, and doesn't always get to see as much of a place as she'd like to.
When she's not on the ground with her team, Linda manages to keep busy. She is an avid dressage rider and loves to spend her Sunday mornings at the barn with her horses. After exercising them for a few hours, she then meets her friends for brunch. In the evening she packs for the week ahead, as on Monday morning she’s usually off to work in New Jersey from Ohio. We are in awe of her energy and drive to succeed in all she does.
Thank you to Linda for taking the time to chat with us for our Most Inspirational Women in Bus & Coach series. In case you missed our interviews with Florencia Cirigliano, Wenda Pitre, and Jamie Lesniak click on the links provided.
To avoid missing out on the next in the series, sign up for the Gazette to receive the content straight to your inbox.