Treating passengers like family

Providing essential transport services to those who need it most, Putco is a household name for many South Africans.

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Providing essential transport services to those who need it most, Putco is a household name for many South Africans. Headquartered in Gauteng, the bus transportation company now operates an impressive fleet in excess of 1 600 buses and travels 90 million kilometres each year, transporting some 73 million passengers.

Formed in a time of adversity, Putco came to fruition in 1945, following a dramatic bus strike in the preceding year. As Putco was becoming established, a family, consisting of Gaetano, Luigi and Albino Carleo started their own small bus operations out of Wynberg in 1948.

In 1965, Gaetano moved out of the bus transport business and, together with his family, concentrated on upgrading and developing Africa Body & Coach. In 1970, Carleo Enterprise was formed with the sole purpose of acquiring Putco and, following the growth of their own business, the family took control of Putco in September 1971.

“Putco has been part of the South African history, trading on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) for over six decades; surviving the penny fare increase of 1954, the 1976 riots and the upheavals of the 1980s. It is also the only public passenger company previously listed on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange SA, and we have grown into the biggest commuter bus operator in the country,” says Franco Pisapia, the Managing Director of the Larimar Group, Putco’s holding company.

With the acquisition of Putco, the Carleo family’s dream of having a foothold in the public transport and industrial sectors was finally achieved. Putco continued to grow in leaps and bounds, with operations in the Pretoria area, Johannesburg and surrounding suburbs and at one stage, even in Durban.

“I still remember the energy my grandfather put into the business. He had a real zest for doing things, from starting new projects to making sure he was always involved in things. For me, that was exciting, and even though he was an old man, he continued to do things until he was gone. I think it is very incorrect for managers to expect people to respect them, the respect must come from the manager too,” he says.

The road to transformation

Along the way, Putco’s ownership structure has, however, changed significantly and today, the company is 42.6% black-owned, 19% of which are black women.

“As a proudly South African company, it was important to move with the times, and with the ushering in of a new political dispensation, we took up the challenge of transformation and empowerment in support of the government to venture into BBBEE,” says Pisapia.

Having been listed on the JSE for more than six decades, the company had to delist, and discussions were held with minority shareholders until 42.6% shares were acquired for 3 300 of its workers, two black women groupings, people with disabilities, youth groupings and community groupings.

“The process concluded with an empowerment deal that the Group is proud of. I think it’s essential for South African companies to be structured correctly in terms of current requirements. If you look at the makeup of our employees, 94% of our employees are black, including managers and the board. We also pride ourselves on the fact that we offer as many opportunities as possible in terms of employment, especially when it comes to the employment of staff members’ family. We’ve been doing this for 60 years,” he says.

The company also takes its social responsibilities very seriously and is making a positive impact, based on the idea that transport plays a significant role in the growth and development of any country.

“In addition to its economic contribution, transport is critical to upward social mobility, broadening access to healthcare, education, employment, and it promotes social cohesion. Diversity within the transport industry is just as critical to sustainability and growth,” he says.

When it comes to the commuter bus service industry, a significant barrier to entry in the business is the perception that driving a bus is a male profession. This, more than any other factor, has worked to entrench a preference for male drivers and has discouraged female interest in the trade.

“The times are changing, and there are bus operators who recognise that diversity in the workplace must include women in traditionally male roles. We have pledged to ensure skills development and transformation, including the championing of female empowerment within the transport sector,” Pisapia explains.

Putco’s training academy and selection centre prioritise the selection and training of female drivers.

Through the company’s professional learnerships and other training programmes, 54 female drivers have been trained, and this represents 3.23% of the total number of drivers currently employed.

“We are committed to increasing this figure through every learnership intake. Participants in the professional learnership programme undergo six months of theoretical and practical training at the training academy, followed by another month of practical driving at the depot, moving buses inside the depot premises. Once they are found competent on the first part of their training, they commence route training under the watchful eye of mentor drivers. Once qualified, graduates operate shifts on their own,” he explains.

But Putco’s commitment to gender equality doesn’t stop there. The Putco apprenticeship programmes offer courses for diesel mechanics and auto electricians. Many trainees go on to qualify as artisans after writing their trade tests. Putco currently has 166 apprentices in its training programme, 65 of these apprentices are females.

“Through this apprenticeship programme, we have a number of ladies operating in the maintenance department and factory, where they work on overhauling engines. We do put a lot of focus on this particular point, proving that this is not a male-dominated business as in many of our departments, there are more females than there are men. One of our ladies recently won driver of the year in a competition organised by the Department of Transport,” Pisapia says.

“Our company is run on the value that it is only through embracing diversity and facilitating inclusion that South Africans can their shift perceptions and address stereotypes within the bus operator industry and the wider transport sector,” he adds.

In 1982, Putco established a foundation with the purpose of contributing to communities afflicted by poverty and unemployment. Through the years, the foundation has educated students and produced medical doctors and engineers. Furthermore, through the Putco Foundation, local communities continue to benefit from the generous investment in vital equipment or services.

“We are very proud of our contribution. The foundation, now 25 years old, has, for many years, been involved in helping everyone, from children with their schooling to people with a disability to experience their first flight. We’ve built houses and nursery schools, contributed to water projects, feeding schemes and all sorts of projects, especially around education. We have helped produce 21 qualified doctors and, for the last five years, we’ve run a programme on financial education, helping people to understand how to manage budgets better,” Pisapia enthuses.

Safety comes first

Putco’s fleet of 1 600 buses is made up of a number of different vehicles, carrying from 80 passengers to 104.

“We use Iveco, Mercedes, and MAN buses. The majority of our fleet is made by Iveco and we work in collaboration with them in the manufacturing of these buses. We run a factory together with them in Rosslyn, where the buses are made with 95% local content in terms of their body, making this the most local content out of all other buses. Our vehicles all meet SABS standards, and we use the ISO 9001 quality management system. All of our processes are audited by SABS and through new programmes at the factory, we hope to create 300 jobs in the near future,” he says.

Putco has also designed an emergency window, a critical safety feature in the event of a fire or accident.

“We also perform a number of quality checks, with evaluations done every two weeks. Again, all of these processes are evaluated by our business processing department, and these audits are done on a monthly basis. We run on an eight-week maintenance cycle supervised by a foreman, technicians, and managers and those processes are monitored and audited on a monthly basis,” he explains.

Putco Driver Training is based on the Certificate for Professional Driving registered with the TETA, and all training material and content has been accredited with the TETA and the Standards Generating Body (SGB).

“We follow a stringent and scientific driver selection process so that we employ high-calibre drivers, and the selection process is conducted by a dedicated team of human resource practitioners and qualified psychometrists.

“Our training school is the biggest in terms of driver training, and we utilise the Vienna Dover system to identify specific character traits and abilities. Candidates undergo a six-week training programme, and they are employed by us for those six weeks. After that, they go on to our shepherd driver programme and during the course of their employment, they receive refresher training twice a year to keep abreast of all new regulations, and to address any new habits they may have picked up,” he says.

Putco also has measures in place to control driver behaviour. Their new system is capable of monitoring harsh braking, accelerating and other unwanted behaviours. They also have security cameras on buses to ensure passenger safety.

The Vienna Dover System is used to asses driver candidates’ decision-making speed, the correctness of decisions, hand-eye-foot coordination, auditory and visual discrimination, reaction speed, concentration levels, stress tolerance and stress recovery.

“This computerised assessment was developed in Austria and since its introduction to South Africa in 1982, South African norms were developed based on the general South African population. Driver candidates also undergo a 20-minute practical bus driving assessment by a driving instructor to ensure that they will be able to master all the driving skills successfully during the training period,” Pisapia explains.

Drivers do, however, face a number of stressful operating conditions.

“Some of the biggest challenges for drivers include dealing with unwanted passenger habits and behaviour, including not paying for tickets, as well as the harsh conditions on some of the country’s roads, especially in areas where there are no tar roads.

“It is a very different thing to see a Gautrain bus compared to one of ours, and this has a lot to do with where we operate, which includes urban, semi-urban and rural areas. It is quite a challenge from a driver’s point of view when a passenger just wants to get to their destination as soon as possible. We’ve even had cases where they have been assaulted by passengers, so it’s not always an easy task for them,” Pisapia says.

In the unfortunate event of an accident, Putco also has a very comprehensive Public Liability Programme in place, as well as a partnership with Netcare 911, which assists injured passengers to get medical assistance as well as take the injured passengers to a hospital.

Industry challenges

“All bus operators suffer from the lack of funding available for the industry. This does not seem to be at the forefront of the government’s objectives and while they have created a lot of infrastructure programmes, none of these is really benefiting us.

“I personally believe that the industry in which we operate should be given the most attention, but it has been the Gautrain and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that have been made priorities. BRT passengers are subsidised far more than ours but it is our passengers who unfortunately need it more. Our subsidy is the lowest in the country and you need to remember that it is the passenger who is subsidised and not the company,” he says.

Prior to this funding problem, Putco introduced 900 new buses into its fleet between 2006 and 2011, by far the biggest fleet renewal programme of all public transport operators in South Africa.

“We were severely affected by the restrictions put in place in 2009, and this reduction of funding proved detrimental to our industry. It is our job to help people get to their place of work and back home safely but, unfortunately, the state of public transport makes this a difficult task. Our industry has seen no new policies since 1997, and I also think that we are the most affected because we are the biggest in the bus sector,” he says.

“That said, our bus replacement programme was very successful and we managed to replace, on average, 250 buses a year, taking us to 900 in total. As a result, we now boast one of the youngest average age-per-bus for our fleet, and this helps us to continue to provide a quality service to our customers,” he adds.

However, Pisapia believes that with a workforce committed to doing the best they can, their various CSI programmes and their efforts to continue to diversify their business and ownership, they have what it takes to continue to grow and improve their service offering.

“Technology will also play a very big role in how we do things, helping make us more accessible to our customers while improving our own efficiencies. In many aspects I do believe that we need to embrace it, keeping in mind that it evolves quite fast, even from the types of buses we use. We are already looking at electric buses, which would be a big evolvement in our fleet. Better fuel efficiency and lower emissions are very important considerations, so we are looking forward to exploring these new technologies.

“Control technologies also play a crucial role in managing the business. With these innovations, we are able to control where our buses are, their timing, the driver’s behaviour and the passengers—all critical elements of our business. Going forward, we will be investigating the possibility of making everything mobile, as we are very aware that most things today are done via the cell phone. This also gives our customers more flexibility, and we hope to one day see an integrated system that includes all modes of transport, easily accessible in one medium,” he says.

Keeping it in the family

Taking the reins of the family business, Pisapia has enjoyed a varied and exciting career. Armed with a diploma in mechanical engineering and a diploma in business administration and production management, he came to the Larimar Group with a diverse business background.

“I started in the engineering sector and stayed in that industry for seven years before venturing out and starting my own business in property development and retail, focusing mainly on the import and export distribution of food products. I’ve been the Director of many companies and I’ve been involved in many industries.

“But I’ve been linked to Putco since the day I was born, as my grandfather started the business, and in 2004, I was asked to run the company. I’ve been associated with the transport industry for many years, so it was a natural progression for me. All these years later and I’m still here, the business still drives me, and I have a lot of passion for what I do,” he says.

Pisapia is tasked with overseeing all the subsidiary companies under the Larimar Group, including Putco, and it is his job to run and make sure that all subsidiaries operate properly and efficiently.

“One of the biggest tasks is managing the strategy of the group to ensure a happy workforce while delivering proper service. This is not always easy as there are often issues out of our control, but I believe that it is important to be a humble leader and give people the opportunity to express their views and debate issues. I don’t see the value in autocratic leadership, but rather prefer to operate as a collective, collaborating with our own employees as well as the industry.

“For me, collaboration is better than the competition because we all win. Another important aspect of my job is to keep people motivated. By ensuring that we always have new projects on the horizon, we are giving our employees something to look forward to. Otherwise, people become stagnant and are unable to offer any new approaches to problems that may arise. When it comes to our commuters, I must also make sure I am accessible and, as a Manager, I need to be accessible. It is important to communicate with people, visit the various divisions and address the people who work there,” Pisapia explains.

In future, he also hopes to see a plan in place for a proper integrated public transport network, with both the funding and support from central government as well as and cooperation from the three different spheres—national, provincial and municipal—and this, he says, is critical as, often, these arms of the government do not communicate effectively with each other.

“As a leader, I also work on the principle that, ultimately, the company comes first. It’s not about the leader but the company and the last thing employees need is a leader who is isolated and behaves like a dictator,” he says.

To this day, his grandfather plays a very big role in the person he has become, as well as his uncle, who handed the business over to him.

“I’ve also learnt a lot from other people, including Nelson Mandela, and when it comes to business, Bill Gates.

“Some of my previous employers and a few very good friends have also had an impact on my life, as has my wife.

“I think it’s always important to have a partner who supports you, and she has been a very good role model for me. Even your children become role models in a sense because they teach you to think of things in a different way, making sure you don’t get caught in the generation gap,” he says.

“But my own personal drive is centred on our commuters who deserve to be better served in terms of public transport. To me, that is what is most important, the millions of people who require affordable, safe public transport,” Pisapia concludes. 

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