He may have followed his family’s footsteps onto the river but Sean Collins is glad he ignored their advice about the future of the industry.
The co-founder and CEO of MBNA Thames Clippers was just 16 when he became an apprentice lighterman and watchman on the Thames.
“I was the third generation on the river,” said the 47-year-old. “My parents tried to discourage me from it because they felt the industry was dead.
“The docks had been demolished and they said there was no future career in it. But I like to prove people wrong.”
Having just launched his 16th boat to the fleet and with estimates the service will hit 4.5milion passengers this year, Sean has confounded not only his family’s expectations but also overthrown past failures of the river bus service.
Mercury Clipper, and sister vessel Jupiter due to launch in a few weeks, will help cope with demand and the expansion of the RB6 route to the new Battersea Power Station Pier in mid-September.
The firm invested £6.3million in their creation and the 172 passenger boats were built at the Wight Shipyard Co Ltd on the Isle of Wight.
Their launch will add 14% capacity to the MBNA Thames Clippers network and make it the largest fast commercial passenger fleet operating solely in English waters.
Mercury made the 200 nautical mile journey from the Isle Of Wight to Trinity Buoy Wharf last week.
She will undergo further testing before she makes her first passenger journey from Putney to Canary Wharf before the end of June.
“It’s a very welcome addition – with the hot weather we have been at saturation point on that route,” said Sean.
“Our biggest challenge is keeping up with the growth, which is a good problem to have.
“I knew from day one it would be a success but not as great as it is.”
He first saw the potential of the service while working as crew on the RiverBus service in the 1980s and 1990s. It went through various guises as then developer and owner of Canary Wharf, Olympia and York, struggled to make it a success.
“I always felt it was the right product but probably the wrong time,” said Sean.
When Canary Wharf and Docklands began to take off and the Dome was built in Greenwich, he saw his opportunity.
With partner Alan Woods, he founded Thames Clippers in 1999, starting with a singe vessel that carried fewer than 80 passengers between Savoy Pier and Greenwich Pier.
Owners of The O2, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) took over the service in 2006 allowing it to grow with six catamarans added in 2007.
Today it operates five routes from its base in Trinity Buoy Wharf in Docklands and passenger numbers stand at around 8,500 daily.
Sean said another challenge was competing with the capital’s subsidised modes of transport.
“We are a purely commercially supported business and only one route receives a TfL subsidy.
“We have got to remain viable so we will have to increase fares to provide staff with pay increases and meet increasing costs.”
One way it is trying to attract more customers is by linking up more closely with cycle paths.
Sean said there had been a recent growth in cyclists using the service. So both new boats have cycle racks.
“We want to help link up east and west,” said Sean who hopes the river service will become a part of TfL’s overall strategy for the capital.
He said part of his success was down to spending time working in different departments.
“It is important to see what is happening on the frontline. I encourage my staff to do the same,” he said. “It was from being on the frontline all those years ago that I saw the potential for this business.”
The father-of-two hopes one of his sons may eventually follow in his footsteps and take over the business.
But in the meantime he still uses the service every day to travel to work and his favourite spot on the river is Tower Bridge.
“I still find that a breathtaking experience,” said Sean. “Being on the river is definitely in my blood.”
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