“I don’t ever want Red Funnel to be seen as a corporate giant because we’re not. We have corporate owners and we are fundamentally a corporate business but actually our heart and soul is still Island based. That’s been very clear to me over the last six months.”

Red Funnel’s Chief Executive Fran Collins talks to Island Business magazine

Fran Collins has been CEO of Red Funnel since June, joining the business from Condor Ferries. Red Funnel is the Chamber’s Gold Patron and main sponsor of the 2018 Business Awards For Excellence. Fran talks to Island Business editor Tom Stroud.

You’ve been in charge of Red Funnel for six months now. How have you found it?

The time has passed very quickly! The welcome I received from staff and stakeholders has been fantastic. Everybody has been very frank about what they do and why they love Red Funnel.

What do you want to differently?

Red Funnel is a well-loved, well-known brand. I don’t want to change Red Funnel’s culture or its heart and soul. We are familiar and we put customer service at the top of everything we do. I think we allow our staff to have their own personalities and that comes across in the way we handle people and the way that we are a personable business. I’ve made some changes in terms of the organisational structure of the business which just allows for more defined reporting lines. It allows a little bit more ownership and I’ve put a bit more control around the way we work.

We’re also embracing new technology. The new generation of customers and employees want different things out of the business. We’re looking at putting in an app for our customers to use and we’re looking at e-ticketing, next generation technology.

The Isle of Wight ferry operators are highly scrutinised and often criticised. This isn’t a typical CEO role is it?

As an Island supporter, providing an essential service does have its challenges. I understand the scrutiny entirely because Island residents are dependent on us as a service provider. We are a business but we do have an obligation to support the Island and its residents. I do appreciate that if you can’t get off the Island that’s frustrating, it’s expensive if you can’t travel and it affects your life and your lifestyle.

We are a commercial business and we have shareholders. There are some Island models in the UK that are subsidised enormously, ie the Scottish islands. The Isle of Wight isn’t subsidised at the moment and we operate in competition with two other significant operators. My vision really is to operate a reasonable service at a reasonable price. Clearly frequency of service is important to passengers but so is price and unfortunately you can’t have both, because the more you operate the vessels the more it costs. We try to strike a balance between reasonable cost and reasonable frequency and I think we’re doing well at that.

2019 is going to be a big year for the redevelopment of your East Cowes terminal.

It’s really exciting. We finished the interim scheme in 2018 and I think passengers will have already seen a difference, particularly in the queueing. The demolition has now begun and as we move now into the next phase of the development to put up the new terminal I think people will see it as a bit of a game changer for East Cowes as an area as well as for Red Funnel as a business. I think it fits into the wider Isle of Wight regeneration plan which we’re working on with the council and with the MP Bob Seely to discuss options and plans.

I want Islanders to see this as an investment into the Island and a sign of our commitment to the Island’s economy. We’re using Island based contractors wherever possible. This isn’t Red Funnel doing a large grab or buying stuff up – this is Red Funnel supporting the island.

Is it a challenge for you to get that message across?

I think in some cases there’s a perception that it could be. I would like to think that people see that we don’t have any nefarious goals in mind. We’ve been here a long time already and we intend to be here for a much longer time. We support the Island because it supports our business and we both need each other.

Planning processes for a big project like that always take a lot of time so for me it is quite normal but I can see some nervousness around some of the feedback from some of the residents. We need to make sure that people know that Red Funnel isn’t here for anything that’s smoke and mirrors. We’re here to run a business operating ferries between Southampton and the Isle of Wight. Red Funnel as a business gained new owners in 2017 who are committed for the long term and want to make sure that our business is sustainable and will flourish. We consider ourselves caretakers of the business and we’re not here to bleed it dry.

Is Red Funnel an Isle of Wight business? How do you see it and how do you think it is perceived by businesses?

Psychologically we think of ourselves as an Isle of Wight operator. Our head office is in Southampton but we employ around 200 people on the Island making us one of the Island’s biggest employers.

If you look at the current economic climate, with Brexit and issues around sustainability, actually we all need to stick together. There’s a part to play for every business, big or small. None of them function without the others so working together on that and learning from one another is the best way forward.

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