Monday interview: Michael O’Hare, TBR Global

MICHAEL O’Hare says his company is a specialist in “ground transportation management”, a phrase that conjures up images of lorries loaded down with fertiliser, timber, pet food or some other dull yet worthy commodity. In reality, TBR Global moves people between destinations that would likely be described as anything other than mundane.

Michael O'Hare has made a success of driving people to where they want to be. Picture: John Devlin
Michael O'Hare has made a success of driving people to where they want to be. Picture: John Devlin

His drivers chauffeur executives from some of the world’s biggest listed companies to board meetings and investor presentations in cities such as Geneva, Hong Kong, London and New York. From its headquarters in Glasgow, TBR has developed software to ensure these journeys run smoothly to schedule – a tricky task in a jam-packed day of corporate meetings.

A typical day in an investors’ roadshow – where company executives meet with their biggest shareholders – can include up to eight separate meetings across a busy city centre. If one of those meetings runs late, or a car tyre goes flat, or if traffic grinds to a halt, then the schedule is quickly at risk of descending into disarray.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

“Their days are so tightly packed that they are depending on the driver to make up that five minutes from the meeting running over,” O’Hare says. “If you can’t make up that five minutes, then you have to phone ahead and explain what is happening. The worst thing you can do is not inform the client that the car is running late.”

But it’s not all high-octane business meetings, as many of these companies sponsor some of the biggest social events around, and want to get their staff and guests to the party on time.

TBR takes customers to the likes of the Brit Awards and the Baftas, plus sporting events such as Wimbledon. Two of its clients – EY and Rolex – were official sponsors of last year’s Ryder Cup, which in a way takes O’Hare back to the inception of his career.

The son of a hotelier, O’Hare did odd jobs from an early age around the family-owned Sherbrooke Castle Hotel in Pollokshields before taking up golf at the age of 14. With no thoughts of going to university – his schooling was hampered by his dyslexia – O’Hare always figured he would work for himself in one way or another.

Though he carried on with various tasks around Sherbrooke, as he grew up he spent more and more time on the course at nearby Gleddoch Golf Club. He became a full-time golfer at the age of 18, turned pro a year later and spent the next couple of years trying to make it on the tour.

“You imagine yourself doing that as a career, but effectively I wasn’t good enough,” O’Hare recalls.

His hand was forced in 1986 when his father, John, suffered a heart attack. The younger O’Hare took over the running of Sherbrooke, a popular wedding venue in Glasgow’s south side.

He spotted the opportunity to provide car services for weddings at the hotel, and went on to set up Charlton Chauffeur Drive in 1991. The hotel and transportation businesses ran pretty much in tandem until 1997, when O’Hare’s sister and brother-in-law bought out Sherbrooke.

O’Hare’s share of the money allowed him to get office and garage space at an industrial estate in Glasgow’s Birkmyre Road, where what is today known as TBR remains headquartered. The company had by that time branched out into the corporate market, and in 1999 business really started to take off. That year, existing client Deutsche Bank expanded its contract with TBR to include all of the European ground transportation needs of its equity floor. O’Hare knew then that he needed a rigorous system of quality control, and started on what would become a two-year project to develop the software system that he believes sets his business apart from the rest.

The project was initially outsourced to a software developer, but the end product didn’t match up to the real-world demands of Deutsche Bank. O’Hare eventually hired an in-house team who wrote the programme in about six months.

The software came of age at a cost of about £100,000 in 2001. It was a substantial investment that unfortunately was quickly followed by the collapse in the travel market after 9/11.

Adverse timing has been something of a theme in TBR’s expansion. The company opened its first office in New York as the banking collapse took hold in 2008, and moved into Hong Kong in 2011, when fears of contagion from the European debt crisis undermined markets around the world.

“Every time I make a major investment we seem to be hit by bad timing, but it all seems to have worked out,” O’Hare says. Since the recession, TBR has been growing at a rate of about 30 per cent annually. Turnover last year reached £20 million, with net profits in the region of £1.6m.

That growth looks set to continue. Revenues in January were up 36 per cent on the same month in 2014, while February saw an increase of 40 per cent. O’Hare is eyeing up plans for an office in Singapore that will drive the overall headcount higher, and is still hiring in Scotland as well.

“It is great to be creating those jobs and giving people a future,” he says. “That is what we want companies to be doing.”

30 SECOND cv

Job: Chief executive, TBR Global

Born: Glasgow, 1965

Education: Holyrood Secondary

First job: My dad ran the hotel, and to get pocket money I had to get up on a Saturday or Sunday morning and Hoover the ground floor.

Ambition while at school: I always thought I would work for myself.

Car: Range Rover.

Favourite mode of transport: I think airplanes.

Kindle or book? Book

Can’t live without: My family

Favourite city: I love New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Melbourne and Sydney.

What makes you angry? Not being able to deliver what I have promised.

What inspires you? Growth – making the business bigger. I am not interested in the profit.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE SCOTSMAN’S BUSINESS BRIEFING