Scottish entrepreneur, sometimes called the Richard Branson of buses, is a man of many contradictions — and unusual dress sense

The multi-millionaire Scottish bus baron Sir Brian Souter was in Auckland this week, launching his shiny new double-decker long-distance Mana buses, so I kindly, in my view, said I'd interview him in one of his buses. Before he arrived two of the buses were being primped and polished and positioned for the best pictures. It was like Crufts, for buses.

They have a loo! And Wi-Fi! And little tables! He would later grizzle that I hadn't asked enough questions about his buses - and I admit that my capacity for thinking up interesting questions about buses is limited. But there, he has got his plug, which he might not have had we not been sitting in one of his buses, thanks to my kindly, if silly, idea. So I don't want him sending me a complaining email. On paper, he sounds rather tricky and not to be trifled with.

Some of his press coverage is not very flattering.

His website tells another story. It includes pictures of him doing faintly wacky, smiley, bus-related things - standing on a bus, pretending to balance a bus on his head, wearing his bus conductor's uniform.

Advertisement

He is sometimes called the Richard Branson of buses. I said that buses weren't very glam, but he is mad keen on them and has been since he was a boy with a bus driver dad. He grew up on the buses, and never got off, you might say. There is still something of the boy who can't quite believe he managed to make a fortune out of clipping tickets about him.

But I'll bet he was a tough little kid, too, and that hasn't changed either. At least he didn't, unlike his mate Branson, try to strangle me for passing on a complaint. His was about a pongy loo on one of his ferries (his companies include Fullers, as well as Stagecoach). He wrote this complaint down, on a paper napkin, and would, he said, be following it up - and I believe him.

He arrived wearing an interesting ensemble: A baby blue jacket, a pale pink shirt, white jeans, quite tight, and what were those shoes? "Kickers. I'm just not conventional. Ha, ha." He was also wearing, underneath his pink shirt, a white singlet. "Well, that's just because it's freezing here."

I was going to bring coffee but a message came that he doesn't touch the stuff. "No. I'm a pretty simple person. Ha, ha, ha." He has a laugh which sounds like the bagpipes might if they were being played by a centenarian with half a lung.

The idea of him being a simple person is pretty funny. Perhaps he believes it, but he is obviously very clever - he is no good at maths but okay at arithmetic, he said, and "if you put a pound sign behind it my comprehension improves enormously" - so he must be aware of his inherent contradictions.

He is a Christian who believes people should behave ethically and live by the values of The Sermon on the Mount (which condemns materialism, for one thing). But some ethics are incompatible with capitalism, which "is based on greed", he's said. Oh, that was decades out of date he said. But he still believes it. "Of course I do." So it's not out of date. Oh, it was taken out of context, he said. "And everybody has these moral dilemmas." He tries to balance his moral ledger. "Yes, that's a good way of putting it." He gave the example of when he was a bus conductor. If someone couldn't pay their fare, they had to get off. Otherwise he would be stealing from the bus company. But if he saw the same person lying in the street when he wasn't being a bus conductor, he'd pick them up and take care of them. He moonlighted as a conductor when he was a student and then a young accountant. It makes a good story and he's still got the uniform and it still fits. He puts it on sometimes and goes and drives one of his buses - which makes for good publicity pics.

He's worth 730 million quid, according to last year's Sunday Times Rich List (he told me to look it up so I'm going to take it that this is about right). I wondered if he thought God wanted him to have all that money. "Umm, I don't know the answer to that. I think that money is a stewardship and that's a big responsibility."

He was once described, in regard to the way he dealt with rival bus companies, as "predatory, deplorable and against the public interest" by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. "Erm. I think it's better of late." Does that mean that he's cleaned his act up? "No! I didn't have an act to clean up. I've always been consistent!"

Advertisement

He complained that that was 25 years ago and that I had every rotten thing ever said about him written in my notebook. I did, of course. And all of the contradictions. He is also a philanthropist (he got his knighthood for services to transport and the voluntary sector). He is a left-winger who has had stoushes with the unions. He says he's for unions. He is very rich and quite tight but many very rich people are and he is Scottish. He hates stereotypes, but he doesn't mind that one. It's almost a badge of honour. It comes from having hard-scrabble upbringings, he said. He watches his calories all week and eats chips on the weekend. He says he's still working class.

He once said, of his Northern customers: "Those beer-drinking, chip-eating, council house-dwelling, old Labour-voting masses." This was a compliment! he said. "These are all good qualities! See, you're being judgmental!" How silly of me to get it so wrong. "That's because you're middle class." How did he know? "Cos you've said enough already! Ha, ha, ha." I did say he was tricky.

I asked if I was to call him Sir Brian and he said "no, you don't" because nobody does. Honestly, what's the point of being a Sir then? He said, ha, ha: "That's a good point! I don't mind it. I just don't need it. You can call me anything you like. I've been called all sorts of things. As you remind me."

While I was at it, then, his outfit was, if he didn't mind me saying, a bit gay. "So be it! Ha, ha, ha. You're making judgments!"

He is supposed to be homophobic because, in 2000, he led a campaign (and gave a million quid to it) to stop the repeal of an act which prevented the promotion of homosexuality by local Scottish authorities. There was subsequent outrage from gay rights groups at the time, and when he was knighted.

He says he supports "the traditional marriage-based family, and I'm afraid that stance gets interpreted as being homophobic".

He may not have helped his case for saying that gay marriage could lead to "a Babylonian-Greek society" where sex is "primarily a recreational activity". He is an evangelical Christian so he might well think this (and does) but it does make him sound hellfire and brimstoneish, and a joyless bigot to boot. "You get labelled when you express a view, or you are honest and some people will label you. But only those who don't know you."

He was including me in this, and I might have labelled him all of the above before meeting him, but he didn't seem a bit brimstoneish and if he was a bigot, he came well disguised as a genial one. If he's not one, it might bother him that some people will hold this view. "Well, it does and it doesn't. I think that everyone is entitled to their view." He and his wife, Betty, have four children. I said I did hope they hadn't been engaging in recreational activities. "No! I don't mind recreational ..! It's just not the only purpose!"

He has gay friends. "Yes, I do!" If any of his kids was gay, that would be perfectly fine. It's not for him to mind, he said, which I said was rather the point and then we had one of those time-wasting, perfectly amiable arguments about how traditions are only traditions because they have become so. It was by mutual consent one of those "and the wheels on the bus go round and round" disagreements; we were never going to agree.

And he didn't stereotype people. I did. I may have asked him whether he'd like to take his used teabag with him. There was another cup in it. Did I mention that he's a bit tight? He makes the kids pay for their own cars and he hasn't bought any of them a house. He said: "We'd help them with accommodation." He wouldn't say any more than that or say whether they'd be inheriting money because they might read this and he wants them to work hard and earn their own living.

One of his boys (there are three) got in a bit of trouble when he was a bit younger, with drink and fighting and ended up before a court, and in the tabloids. He thinks it's very hard for kids when their parents have a public profile and money. "If we lived in a council estate it would never have been news." Anyway he's all right now. "There's no such thing as a bad kid."

He has hardly ever had a drink and grew up in a Church of the Nazarene household, in a council house in Scotland, in Perth, with no drink, no tobacco, and no television. It sounds awfully austere and stern but he said it wasn't and that his parents were lovely.

They were also, like him, very short. He's not much taller than me - so I reckon 1.65 metres might be generous. He and his parents once had their pictures taken by a group of Chinese because they were amazed to see white people even shorter than them. He is still a member of the church he grew up in but it is a bit more rah rah these days (not hard, you imagine). Television is allowed and there is, knock me down with a feather, rock music at services. He still lives in Perth, but obviously not now in a council house. I asked about his house but it was like getting a drink out of a Scotsman (if he's going to accuse me of stereotyping, I won't resist living up to expectation). Is it flash? "It's a nice house." Grizzle, grizzle. Why wasn't I asking about the company? He had never wanted to do an interview like this. "I said: 'Why am I doing a profile? I don't want to do a profile. I just want to talk about the company.'"

He said he doesn't care what people think of him, but that his wife says he does. He might, a bit. He said, as he went: "I hope you're not going to be unkind to me in this article."

I wouldn't want to take him on in bus business, and I wouldn't care to be the person responsible for the pong in the ferry bog, or for arranging this interview - but as an interviewee, he is terrifically engaging and a good sport (especially about his outfit). If he is capable of being bit of a bastard, that just makes him all the more interesting. And you seldom get all those millions by being a nice guy. He said: "I think life is full of inherent contradictions," and we both agreed on that at least.