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#1 Strategies from First Student Canada President Jim Switzer

Putting people first is the foundational belief of Canadian President Jim Switzer of First Student Canada. When I was introduced to Jim Switzer several years ago I was struck by his no nonsense approach. Jim calls ’em like he sees them and is not afraid to go against the grain and stand up for what he believes in. Jim began his career with Babcock Bus Lines (a family run operation as he fondly refers to it) where he learned from founder Brian Babcock the importance of relationships and treating your customers’ right. That lesson served Jim well as he grew Laidlaw Education Services by over $100M in revenue across the country. A couple of years ago Laidlaw was purchased by First Group PLC out of the UK. Throughout these transitions one thing has stayed consistent, under the leadership of Jim Switzer, Canada has retained operating excellence, putting children first and setting an example to be followed by other divisions worldwide. Below are Jim’s insights as to how he is managing through challenging times.

1. What is the number one thing you are doing right now to foster hope in your organization?

We are trying to remain focused on what is critical to our success. Most people want to know where things are going and how they fit into it. Our focus is on our 3 critical success factors understanding our peoples needs, understanding our customers needs and driving shareholder value and profitability.

2. Where are you still investing?

Again the 3 critical success factors come into play. We keep investing in our people – in training, support – especially in difficult times. Understanding the market and changes is critical and keeping good people. We are paying close attention to our customers and how this market is shifting their needs. I believe if you take care of your people they’ll service and take care of your customers. This will drive profitability.

3. Where are you cutting back?

In difficult times you look internally to consolidation of business processes and how you can eliminate costs within the organizational. Centralization is a part of that across our companies First Student, Transit and Greyhound. Although we deliver different services in the field, we have centralized our back office to prevent duplication in multiple areas. We have also consolidated 4 or 5 regional offices into one. We’ve taken a look at procurement and how we go about buying products and services and improving efficiencies in these areas.

4. What three things do you think are most important during tough economic times?

The three things are our people, our customers and profitability – our 3 critical success factors. Being people focused is what is critical to our success. We are in tune with how they impact the business. We know in tough times you have to look at each factor and what is impacting it – they are all intertwined. Cuts may look good at the outset but in the long run how does it impact your people, customers and profitability, what are the levers. You need to look at the short run and the long run and keep both of them in perspective.

5. What would be your number one advice to business leaders?

In tough economic times know what your core business is and understand your customers needs. You need to have a strategy on how to survive in the short run and keep the long run in perspective. So many businesses are running at the current pace and with a view of the short run to survive they may not be considering the long view. They are distinct and different. You need to ask yourself – Where do we want to be in the long run? As leaders you need to make tough decisions and be architects of what the future will be while surviving the short run.

6. According to the Conference Board of Canada less than 25% of companies have a strategy and plan in this slow economy. First of all do you have a strategy and plan?

Yes and it shocks me that people would not have a strategy and plan especially in these times with this much attention in the world economy. I don’t know how you couldn’t have a strategy and plan in place. Again you need to have a short-term plan and it all comes back to understanding your customer’s needs and how you successfully deliver on those needs that drive sustainability – it has to be sustainable. Yes, we definitely have a plan – we are sticking to our core business and focusing on our critical success factors. In my opinion you need a short run strategy that is linked to a longer term strategy to grow your business. Taking advantage of opportunities now ensure you will grow your business in the long run.

Why do you think so few companies do?

All of us can get caught up in the moment and dealing with what is right in front of us and getting by day by day. You need the connection of where you are going to be – you may be winning the race today but do you know where the race is going? The challenges of today are unprecedented and it’s not slowing down. It’s tough to look at what is right in front of us and the longer range at the same time. My final comment is, a lot of companies are making do – doing a lot more with a lot less – and it compromises us not to take the time to look past the race of today to tomorrow.

7. How do you feel government could help improve the current economic state?

I am not a big fan of government bailouts. In a global economy we need to stand on what we do – value, quality, efficiency and the value of the products and service we provide – it’s a mistake to rely on governments to support one industry and not another. I think a fair tax base for businesses is a huge influence the government has and a big cost of doing business. In an international market how do they support businesses so they can compete on a worldwide stage? The government needs to advocate for Canadian business for example the lumber industry being defended with the US. The government needs to work for business supporting a level playing field in a worldwide economy. We need to offer value to the market place – the government have a role absolutely – representing a fair and equitable worldwide market place and considering what is happening with other governments around the world. I’m not a big fan of the government bailouts and stimulus packages that have been done in North America without them creating sustainability for the industry they are aimed at and creating value for customers.

8. Where do you feel the economy will be a year from now?

I would be a millionaire if I could predict that. I see signs of the economy bottoming out and we hope we see the climb towards recovery and the fear in the markets going away. Maybe we have seen the toughest part or are on the lowest part of the recession. I believe people are still going to be cautious with a save vs. a spend mentality. I think it will be an up tick and not a swoosh as we regain confidence and things become more positive in the next year.

9. What do you think Canadian businesses need to do to thrive in a commoditized global market?

I think firstly we have to be good at what we do – being efficient and competitive. Being competitive doesn’t mean commoditizing everything we do worldwide. Canadian business is best at producing value-based products that are priced right, environmentally and globally friendly – conscientious businesses in the communities. I think that to survive globally you need to hit the mark on those items. We are not just competing in a domestic market place with the US anymore. To compete on the world stage you need to understand your core business and be damn good at it.

Thanks Jim for provide us with a “First” perspective on how to be first!

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