In Conversation With Tom Shanks of Blueline Group

Tom was born and raised in the Shanks family, the family founders of the much loved North East’s taxi company, Blueline.

The grandson of such founders, has since gone on to develop and adapt Blueline into a forward thinking business to align and diversify with the emergences of digital e-hailing tech platforms, global dispatching systems and of course a global pandemic.

In the first of our ‘In Conversation With…” we delve deep with Tom to gain an insight into their successful and family orientated business.

So grab yourself a coffee, kickback and immerse yourself into the wonderful and magical story of how Blueline Group began, what it’s really like working with your family and how when COVID-19 hit they believed “We had to act. We could not sit still.”

Take us back to the beginning, how did Blueline start and become the North East giant it is today?

My grandfather fought in the World War Two and was captured three times by enemy forces and managed to escape twice before making it back to the UK.

For a while, he and my Grandmother settled in London running a tobacconist, part of a national chain, before they returned home to the North East to take over the company’s store in Northumberland Street, Newcastle.

After saving up they bought an Austin Morris with a blue ‘coach’ line trim and set up our taxi business, Blueline – after the trim on his first car.

Fast forward to 2020 and our business has changed drastically. From one car, we now create employment for over 1,000 people in the North East and transport over 10 million passengers annually.

On top of this, we also expanded our business portfolio to include: Blueline Property Services, Grab by Blueline, Blueline Insurance Services, Blueline Garage Services, Fareplay by Blueline and Blueline Telematics.

Like many other companies, 2020 has given most businesses their biggest challenge to date, what challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

The taxi industry has faced a maelstrom of challenges and opportunities over the years – from the emergences of digital e-hailing tech platforms to advancements in global dispatching systems, for example.

But, undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the biggest challenges to date, and certainly the most unforeseeable.

As you can imagine, Blueline services a range of mobility needs across the North East – including general public transportation, corporate travel, local authority contracts and more.

When the pandemic struck, our job-count felt the adverse effect of that. So, we had to act. We could not sit still.

Firstly, we started a local ‘Fruit and Veg’ delivery scheme – working with a local partner to provide essential foods to those most in need when isolating and under lockdown.

This was such a roaring success that we saw the potential to scale this up through digitalisation – and consequently, launched our online delivery platform Grab by Blueline.

So far, Grab has delivered significant funds back into local economies – supporting local businesses both small and large in the both food and retail sectors.

In addition to this, one of our proudest moments was our support to NHS key workers – as we launched a £25,000 key worker taxi voucher fund to make essential travel more accessible and affordable to those who needed it most.

Most recently, we have been working alongside regional health authorities and their vaccine rollout programme cross the city – ensuring safe travel for residents receiving vaccines.

As one of the most well-known and largest family-run businesses in the North East, what’s it like working with your family? We’d love to know the pros and cons!

Ha! There’s certainly pros and cons – that’s for sure. But, all in all, it’s pretty magical.

From a relationship dynamic perspective, in some ways working together feels so natural as you know one another, and each other’s skills, strengths, weaknesses and quirks better than anyone else – which can lead to some fantastic synergies and working partnerships.

On the other hand, the emotional element of being family can also prove difficult – the boundaries between ‘father + son’, and ’employer + employee’, for example, can become blurred which alters and strains both relationships, which can be challenging.

Another challenge is inter-generational differences.

As a new generation entering the firm, you want to be another successful custodian of the well-established business – driving it forward and taking it to new heights, and often, through exploring new avenues and through new business practices.

This can often caused tensions between tradition and forward thinking. In reality, a healthy balance of both is what is needed, but both parties finding and agreeing on that equilibrium point is the challenge.

But, having that shared value-based system and being committed to the same bigger long-term picture is extremely motivating and rewarding.

What are your top 3 tips for managing such a large workforce?

Taking this from a workforce wellbeing angle, it’s really important we seek out feedback from our team across the board, such as our call handlers, mechanics, drivers, administration team, management and more.

Being a family business, we have strong family values running through the organisation so being honest and upfront, being willing to listen and being respectful to people’s opinions are integral to how we operate.

Secondly, from a management perspective, the key here is to delegate and trust those in charge of the workforce and the relevant projects associated with each group.

You can’t spin all the plates, or they will simply begin to tumble – so having that support network to manage a large workforce really is essential.

Finally, I believe having the correct digital systems in place to help facilitate the above at a large scale is important, but, I also believe that you should never lose sight of that personal element – taking time to speak to individuals and getting to know them, their ambitions and their needs.

What does the future hold for the Blueline Group?

As always, we strive to provide the best transportation offering across the North East and we will continue to do so as the only taxi operator that holds operating licences with all of eight regional councils.

On top of that, we are continuing to scale up and grow our other businesses – continuing to create employment opportunities across the region.

However, our immediate goal heading into the future is to support local – partnering and working with other local businesses to support one another during these unprecedented times.

Quick one to end, tell us your favourite motto/quote to live by?

My Dad always say to me: “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly”. In other words, always give 100% and I always try and approach everything with that attitude.