Firstgroup PLC (LON: FGP) is the largest bus and train company in the U.S. and U.K. The company runs a quarter of the UK rail network, one fifth of UK buses, and the US Greyhound bus line.
Firstgroup acquired Laidlaw in 2007, making it the owner of the Greyhound bus line and $800 million of U.S. dollar denominated debt. As a result of this aquisition (Laidlaw accounted for about 35% of Firstgroup's 2007 revenue), 2007 was a record year for the company in both revenue and net income.
High oil prices are a mixed blessing for FirstGroup and competitors. While they drive up costs of services, high fuel prices prompt consumers to choose mass transit over automobiles. FirstGroup is also vulnerable to increasing labor costs and regulations and variable exchange rates. The company operates in a fragmented transportation market in which competitors range from large airline companies to individual car owners to public school districts.
Over the Fiscal Year of 2007, Earnings per Share were 40.9 pounds, a 21% increase since 2006. Moreover, the Laidlaw division performed better than initial expectations, earning 30 million US dollars from the date of acquisition to March 31, 2008. FirstGroup's Net Debt also increased over this time period, largely due to the acquired Laidlaw outstanding debt.
Laidlaw's Education Services business includes transportation for Home-To-School (87% of revenue), Extracurriculars (5% of revenue), Charter Buses (5% of revenue), and other transit functions (3% of revenue). Note: Laidlaw is classified under "North America" in the revenue breakdown. Laidlaw also owns a Public Transit business and is the largest operator of out-sourced municipal and paratransit bus transportation within the United States.
The transit business in Britain, the US, and Canada is unstructured. A transport industry study suggests that, as of 1990, personal automobiles account for up to 53% of market share in passenger-kilometers, buses and rails for 9% each, and high-speed transport for the remaining 29%, which includes air travel and high speed trains. A few larger companies combined with many smaller, localized firms makes for tough competition within the industry. Much of the competition to FirstGroup comes from privatized firms throughout the transit industry, and include school districts and municipal transit companies. In the future, the ability--or inability--to successfully compete with such external pressures will determine the success of FirstGroup.
Other forms of competition include air-travel, regional bus companies, trains, and the automobile, which provides the single most competition to Greyhound. Rising oil prices increase the financial benefits of carpooling, and Greyhound can have the edge over automobiles by minimizing individual cost through mass transit. Moreover, Greyhound and Laidlaw benefit by chartering buses; having guaranteed business (for schools, tourists, or other travel groups) in an era of expensive fuel is a competitive advantage. However, high oil prices can also be a liability. In 2006, Laidlaw purchased 109.1 million gallons of fuel at a cost of $250.5 million, and a 10% increase or decrease in the cost of fuel on 2006 fuel usage requirements would have had a $12.5 million effect on their fuel costs.
One of the main advantages Laidlaw/Greyhound/FirstGroup have over its main competitor--the automobile--is that mass transit uses less fuel. However, this comes with the disadvantage of having to hire labor and deal with labor laws and regulations. This market force has little affect on FirstGroup when wages are stable; however, an increase in labor costs or regulations would be detrimental to business.
The relative position of the US dollar to the Canadian dollar plays a key role in determining Laidlaw's annual revenue and outstanding debt, which was absorbed by FirstGroup in the acquisition. About 16% of Laidlaw's business is in Canada, and a 10% increase in the Canadian foreign currency exchange rate (relative to the US dollar) would increase Laidlaw's operating revenue by $51 million, operating income by $4 million, income before taxes by $16 million and total assets by $38 million (all in US dollars) and vice versa for a decrease in the relative exchange rate. One would think that the US Dollar/British Pound exchange rate would play a key role in determining FirstGroup revenue. However, FirstGroup minimizes the effects this exchange rate by keeping net profits in US dollars, most likely to reduce the Laidlaw debt.
UK Bus's main train transport competitors include the National Express Group, the StageCoach Group, and Arriva. Below is a comparison of relevant operating metrics for each of these larger UK bus transport businesses.
|Company||Rev. 2007 ($M)||Number of Buses||Avg. Revenue/Bus($Thousands)||Share of UK Bus Market|
|National Express Group||$636||2,000||$318.0||5.9%|
UK Rail's main train transport competitors include the National Express Group, the Go-Ahead Group, and Virgin Trains. Below is a comparison of relevant operating metrics for each of these larger UK train transit businesses.
|Company||Rev. 2007 ($M)||Number of Customers (Millions)||Avg. Revenue/Customer (US Dollars)||Train Kilometers Market Share||Passenger Kilometers Market Share|
|National Express Group||$2,953 (2006)||250||$11.81||22.1%||21.8%|
Greyhound and Laidlaw face similar competition from personal automobiles, school districts, and provincial bus/train companies. With rising fuel costs, comprehensive transit businesses have the competitive edge over smaller companies. The US transportation industry, like that of the British market, is fragmented, containing a few big companies and many smaller individual firms, such as individual car owners. Below is a comparison of relevant operating metrics for each of the major companies in the US automobile transit industry.
|Company||US Rev. 2007 ($M)||Domestic Fleet||Avg. Revenue/Domestic Vehicle|
|Greyhound Bus Service ||$554||2,748 (as of 2004)||$201,433|
|FirstGroup North America (Laidlaw)||$2,701||118,000||$22,887|
|Avis Budget Group (CAR)||$5,986||217,500||$12,476|
|Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group (DTG)||$1,660||142,857||$11,620|
|Hertz Global Holdings (HTZ)||$4,385||310,000||$14,145|
|Enterprise Rent-a-Car||$9,000 ||630,066||$11,110|