FROM THE ASHES – ST MARY BUS NSW

By: Anjali Behl, Photography by: Ben Hosking


OPERATOR: Many small bus and coach companies have been reeling under the repercussions of the pandemic, but there is something good that is happening too. Ehab Ibrahim found an opportunity in this otherwise hard-hit market to realise his long-standing dream of starting a coach business in Australia.

FROM THE ASHES – ST MARY BUS NSW
“Last year finally gave me an opportunity to buy the vehicles because, suddenly, the market wasn’t so expensive to break into. I got the business accreditation and applied as a contractor with the [NSW] Department of Education," said St Mary Bus NSW operator Ehab Ibrahim.

Armed with grit, gumption and tremendous support from a friend in the industry, Ibrahim purchased two 21-seater coaches and launched a service in Sydney in the middle of a global pandemic.

As some small bus and coach businesses began to leave the industry in early 2020, there was suddenly an increase in the number of vehicles for sale in a market where demand had plummeted. This gave Ibrahim an opportunity like none other. He was finally in a position to buy a few small coaches to get his business on the road, he explains.

Ibrahim has been involved in the industry for a long time as a licenced heavy-vehicle driving instructor, trainer and assessor. Since migrating to Australia from Egypt in 2010, Ibrahim has been behind the wheels of buses and trucks, and this vocation for driving fuelled a true passion to service the bus industry.

He had looked into starting his business in 2016, but found the coaches, even used ones, much too expensive. However, last year he was finally able to invest in two Mitsubishi Rosas and two Toyota Hiace coaches.

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"I have always loved this industry, since the day I first drove a bus," Ibrahim explained.

"Last year finally gave me an opportunity to buy the vehicles because, suddenly, the market wasn’t so expensive to break into. I got the business accreditation and applied as a contractor with the [NSW] Department of Education.

"Currently, we’re running a disability transport service for National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS?) providers. We also offer private bus hire and coach charter across Sydney."

A small, core team of three manages the business at present. His wife, Mariam Gindi, does the paperwork, while Ibrahim looks after the buses, general operations and everything in between.

They have around 10 casual drivers and Ibrahim himself gets behind the wheel many times a week. St Marys-based heavy vehicle mechanic Brian Aeberhard is Ibrahim’s go-to guy for almost all repair work.

"One person I wish to thank is my friend Philip Sheanoda, who runs his own bus and coach business in St Marys," Ibrahim said.

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"Philip has helped me greatly in my professional journey so far. I’m indebted to him for his support and guidance throughout.

"On the fleet side we have a 2012 Mitsubishi Rosa, two 2014 Rosa models, a 2015 Toyota Hiace, a 2010 Hiace and two Zhongtong 2020 models. I like both Mitsubishi and Toyota for their performance and capacity. They’re the right fit for our business at present although we do plan to invest in another small coach this year.

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"Our 21-seater van came with the wheelchair lift, which was good for us for our work with NDIS providers. The Zhongtong are great luxury buses that have been performing very well for us.

"While Covid-19 helped me get my foot in the door, it has also created a lot of uncertainty in the market. We’re not sure what will happen this year. I guess, we all have to wait and see how things go in the coming months."

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DEMANDS OF THE JOB

Launching a public transport business during a pandemic sounds like a challenging if not Herculean task – fewer public transport contracts in the market, not enough local tourism, no international tourists, and an overall cloud of uncertainty shrouding the economy.

However, as real as these factors are, for Ibrahim the biggest problem seems to be the competition created by non-accredited, non-licenced operators.

"The one challenge facing the industry is that there are some operators that operate without accreditation and meeting operational requirements, sometimes without even valid licences, which makes it tough for smaller operators like us," he explained.

"We understand the rules and the cost structure, we have the necessary qualifications and experience, and, above all, we value how the rules are there to provide safety for passengers and operators alike and sticking by them helps everyone.

"We want the market to be fair for everyone. That way, it will bolster the industry and help provide safe services to passengers. As a licenced heavy vehicle driving instructor and trainer, I believe in that very strongly."

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Running his own relatively new small business means Ibrahim finds himself working round the clock. His day starts at 4.00am when he visits the depot to check all his coaches before the drivers arrive for work.

"I like to check all the vehicles early in the morning, so if there is any issue I have time to find a mechanic and get it fixed before the drivers come for their shifts," he said.

"I drive the coaches regularly and also train my staff on driving and managing tours. We sometimes have schools hiring these coaches for children with special needs and it is our responsibility to make sure that they have a safe journey.

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"As a team, we are very conscientious about safety of all our passengers. I also manage bookings on the phone so it’s a very hands-on role."

It is a demanding job, but the reward, says Ibrahim, is people’s smiles when they say "thank you for driving us".

"I get that feeling every time I see someone smile and say thank you. It fills me with energy when passengers say they felt safe in my coach. It means a great deal to me to help people get safely to their destinations."

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GOING FORWARD

"We do good work. We have an experienced team and a fleet of relatively new vehicles," Ibrahim said.

"I plan to contact the Department of Education again and see if I can get some more school runs this year. This is just the start. One day, I want to run the biggest coach company in Australia."

"We need government to help small business by giving them jobs not money; we want work because usually big companies take everything," he said.

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