Interview: Chris Walton, chairman of Lothian Buses

He's the new chairman of Lothian Buses, but Australian Chris Walton has a number of other strings to his bow … explosives expert, licensed pilot and skydiver to name just three

YOU might expect the chairman of a bus company to be an unassuming, grey-suited character – not a former commando who likes nothing better than skydiving, aerial acrobatics and blowing things up. Former action-man-turned-business-guru Chris Walton may now fit the clich, being a self-confessed techie geek, but the new man at the wheel of Lothian Buses is also an ex-special forces reservist who specialised in explosives and air drops.

Australian-born Walton detonated a political row last month when he was appointed chairman of Edinburgh's main bus operator after it emerged he will be based in London. However, this will have been brushed off as a mere skirmish by the former paratrooper who already juggles a dizzying combination of international business interests in trains, shipping, oil exploration and the London Olympics. Walton, 53, says past military escapades prepared him for a subsequent, aviation-dominated career, which has included running the finances of no-frills giant easyJet for six years.

Bespectacled, tall and trim, Walton's appearance suggests nothing of his daredevil past. He initially learned about explosives in his first job as a research sampler for an iron ore firm in the Western Australia desert before developing the skill with the Australian Army Reserve.

He says: "The thing about the army is, not only do they let you play with plastic explosives, they teach you to do it very well." The role of his 1st Commando regiment (Special Action Forces) was to "blow up, kidnap, destroy". That included touring power stations and oil depots to be shown "the dangerous bits" to target in an attack.

He is somewhat relieved that was in the 1980s – a less paranoid, security-obsessed era than today – and jokes that having an explosives licence now could place him under much greater suspicion when travelling. However, Walton actually joined up to pursue another interest – parachuting. He was even paid "danger money" to jump from aircraft – including at night and into the sea – as part of helping to launch a new desert reconnaissance force to patrol Australia's north coast for illegal immigrants.

Despite all his derring-do training, Walton never saw action, having also just missed being drafted to Vietnam as an 18-year-old. He realised at the start of the Gulf War in 1990 that he might be called up, but Australia did not send in ground troops. He says: "No soldier wants war, but I would have liked to have seen if the training worked, and whether the ability we thought we had could be put into action successfully."

Walton says it was the mindset rather than the "gung-ho" fitness of the commando training which prepared him for business life as he developed his "day job" at a series of airlines. He says: "It gave you an idea of what you were capable of, and how mental attitude – to use initiative, survive and win – outweighed physical conditions. As training for corporate life, it was excellent." With this outlook, Walton is very likely to be an entirely different chairman of Lothian Buses than his predecessor, David Mackay, who last November quit unexpectedly from both that role and as chairman of Edinburgh tram developers Tie, describing parts of the tram project as "hell on wheels". Mackay typically adopted a blunderbuss approach publicly – accusing Bilfinger Berger, the German tram-line builder at the centre of the current dispute, of Dick Turpin-style highwayman antics by "holding a pistol to our heads". Walton's approach is likely to be altogether more subtle, if not stealthy. He says 90 per cent of his work as a chairman is communicating, negotiating and "cajoling" outside the boardroom.

Most of Mr Walton's work is done by phone from an office at his home near Hyde Park in central London, but he says regular face-to-face contact is also vital. As chairman of Greek shipping company Goldenport and a director of Kazakhstan State Railways, he says language and culture – not the hours – are the main challenges.

"Although the Goldenport meetings are in English, I have to watch the body language," he says. "In Kazakhstan, meetings are in Russian, so I have a translator beside me, but that only covers about 80 per cent of what goes on – the rest is in people's physical reactions." So, in the name of keeping good relations, were the Kazakhs upset by Borat – Sasha Baron-Cohen's character? Yes and no, Walton says – because they felt the country's reputation had been damaged, but they too found it funny and acknowledged it was based on kernels of truth.

Frequent visits to investors in these companies have made Walton already familiar with Edinburgh and Glasgow – which were also early routes for EasyJet. He says: "Scotland has a massive amount of wealth. While there has been a huge crash, the money is still there. If you put Glasgow and Edinburgh together, they are phenomenally influential, but it is done very quietly. It was no surprise that easyJet's first route (in 1995] was to Glasgow, and it has remained a core one."

As far as how much time he expects to spend in Edinburgh, he says: "You can forget the (required] seven days a year – you put in the time the business needs." Chairing his first Lothian Buses board meeting last week, Walton has already clocked up four days in the capital. "It is a very well-run, successful little business, which was attractive to me," he says. "Edinburgh City Council has kept it at arm's length and the management team have been left to run the business. It provides a good service to the people of Edinburgh and has done well." However, Walton is at pains to dispel misapprehensions about his new job. "The guy running the business is (managing director] Ian Craig. One of the tricks of being chairman is not to run the company – if it works, you do not disturb that formula. My main role is strategic direction and governance, not day-to-day service."

So, what is a man with an extensive track record of restructuring and purchasing – including hundreds of millions of pounds worth of aircraft at easyJet alone – have in store for Lothian Buses? "I'm not coming in with M&A (mergers and acquisitions] on my mind. But there will be fairly big challenges in putting pieces of the jigsaw together" – by which he means the controversial plans to merge bus and tram operations, which critics fear will see the former suffer from the latter's initial losses.

"For the travelling public, it has to be seamless," Walton says. As for the tram dispute, whose mediation process is showing signs of progress, Walton professes to have no inside knowledge. "The project has had its hiccups, but it would appear the council is quietly seeking a pragmatic way forward."

So, is he a bus fan? Walton says he admires Lothian's "very good" Airlink service to Edinburgh airport. He also regularly travels by bus in London but, despite spending two-thirds of his working life in airlines, hates air travel. "The process of airports is horrendous. I favour fast trains where possible. The experience is great – quiet and civilised. I'm also a great walker and runner." He adds that he routinely jogs for 50 minutes to keep fit. But his choice of listening while on the hoof is unexpected.

Rather than his beloved 1970s and 1980s rock music, such as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Pat Benatar, that has played a "phenomenal" part of his life, he tunes into podcasts from technology magazines. "I'm very interested in technology.The key to easyJet was technology – online retailing and yield management (in other words, filling aircraft seats for the highest return]."

He has also integrated technology with his favourite music, transferring his entire collection of LPs onto a central server which is networked to eight PCs around the house. Walton reckons he's on the move about one third of the time – he's also a director of oil firm Rockhopper Exploration, based near Salisbury in Wiltshire. However, weekends for him and his wife, Sally Martin, are centred on their son, Andrew, 12. They spend a lot of time in Tuscany, where they have the use of a house, and where Andrew is becoming fluent in Italian. Walton met his wife, a fellow former airline executive, in her native New Zealand, when his favourite Sunday morning activity was aerial acrobatics – he has a private pilot's licence. "That was my relaxation – turning upside down in mid-air!" Being a keen parachutist, he also enjoyed skydiving: "The most fun you can have with your pants on – you get a tremendous adrenalin buzz"

The couple arrived in London while both working for Qantas, the Australian national airline, which led to Walton joining easyJet. However, after six years, both decided they wanted to make the jump from executive to non-executive roles rather stay on the corporate payroll until their 60s and then drift into retirement.

Despite the recently resolved feud at easyJet between founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and its management, in which he threatened to take back the airline's name, Walton says his time at the airline was a happy one and he enjoyed a good relationship with the Greek tycoon. He says: "I got on very well with him. One of my jobs was to consolidate several companies that EasyJet comprised, so we needed to work behind closed doors, where I agreed the course of action with Stelios." Walton says the key to success was keeping things outside the public arena, which he hints does not seem to have been appreciated by those involved in the recent spats. A lesson he is unlikely to forget in his new role.