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Brian Souter: 9 interesting facts about Perth bus tycoon at centre of controversy

We look at 9 key facts about Brian Souter, the son of a bus driver who went of to become one of Scotland's most successful entrepreneurs.

Sir Brian with a picture of the first bus operated by Stagecoach. Image: DC Thomson
Sir Brian with a picture of the first bus operated by Stagecoach. Image: DC Thomson

Sir Brian Souter is in the headlines once again after it was revealed the SNP government had rekindled its relationship with the Perth-based entrepreneur.

Aides to First Minister Humza Yousaf asked the Stagecoach co-founder to help organise a dinner with fellow business leaders.

The decision angered coalition partners the Greens, whose leader Patrick Harvie says the government should be clear it does not share his values.

We have compiled 9 interesting facts about Sir Brian Souter – and why his relationship with government is controversial.

1. He was nearly expelled from school

Sir Brian, alongside his sister Dame Ann Gloag, may be behind one of the world’s biggest transport groups, but he was born into humble beginnings on a Perth council estate in May 1954.

Sir Brian Souter and Dame Ann Gloag, founders of Stagecoach
Sir Brian founded Stagecoach with his sister, Dame Ann Gloag. Image: DC Thomson.

Sir Brian’s life could have turned out very differently after his under-performance at school led to ultimatum – either he repeated a year or would be kicked out.

His biography said his father warned he him he “didn’t care if he went back to school or not”, but added that if he did there was to be “no more messing around”.

2. From clippie to transport magnate

After leaving school, Sir Brian took a job as a trainee student bus conductor at Alexanders Bus Company in Perth while studying to become a commerce teacher at Dundee Institute of Technology – now Abertay University – before then going to Glasgow to study to become a chartered accountant.

It was while travelling across Scotland – particularly to Aberdeen – that he noticed a gap in the market for intercity bus services and the idea for Stagecoach was born.

3. Stagecoach founded with two second-hand buses

Sir Brian Souter who founded Stagecoach
Sir Brian Souter is back the headlines. Image: DC Thomson

When it was founded in the 1980s, Stagecoach was unrecognisable from the transport giant it has become today.

With the money from their father’s redundancy pay out and a mortgage on Dame Ann’s home, the brother and sister entrepreneurs purchased two secondhand buses and started the fledgling business.

4. Controversial campaigner

While he has long been recognised as a successful businessman, Sir Brian’s political interventions have prompted fierce criticism.

In 2000, he campaigned against plans to abolish “Section 28” – the key part of a law preventing local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”.

A committed Christian, he personally funded a private referendum on the issue to gauge public opinion.

His campaign proved ineffective, and politicians and other groups have been critical of Sir Brian as a result.

This includes Scottish Government minister and Green party co-leader Patrick Harvie, as well as North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie.

Sir Brian has also been criticised for views on abortion rights. His charity has funded a group which runs controversial courses on “healing” women who opt to end a pregnancy.

The course was reported to focus on ­”accountability”, “forgiveness” and “repentance”.

5. Space travel a step too far

While he’s made huge profits from trains and buses, space travel proved a step too far for the businessman in 2009.

Sir Brian turned down an invitation from close friend Sir Richard Branson to join him on the inaugural Virgin Galactic space flight.

“I’m sure it will be great entertainment and a memorable flight. But I have survived a few hairy escapades with other modes of transport so the odds might not be in my favour,” he said at the time.

6. SNP super donor

Since 2007, Sir Brian has donated more than £2.5 million to the SNP, and in 2011 he endorsed the party and said then first minister Alex Salmond deserved to win a second term in office.

His donations often prompted controversy. The SNP was forced to deny a link between the cash and the decision to drop proposals to re-regulate bus services from its 2007 manifesto.

First Minister Alex Salmond with business leaders including Sir Brian Souter.
First Minister Alex Salmond with business leaders including Sir Brian Souter. Image: PA

In 2011, Sir Brian was nominated for a knighthood by the Scottish Government only to to make a donation of £500,000 SNP shortly after.

The incident led to an independent probe after suggestions the nomination had been linked to the cash. A subsequent report cleared Alex Salmond and other ministers of wrongdoing.

Protests against Sir Brian’s knighthood. Image: Supplied

His donations to the SNP dried up in 2014 when Nicola Sturgeon took over as party leader. Some speculated this was down to her more liberal views on gay rights and other social issues.

As well as the SNP, Sir Brian once made a small donation to the Liberal Democrats.

7. Serial investor

It’s not just transport Sir Brian has invested in.

His investment firm holds an interest in over 30 businesses across sectors including financial services, healthcare, industrial and telecoms.

After decades as chairman of Stagecoach, Sir Brian – who was recognised with an Outstanding Contribution prize at the Courier Business Awards in 2022 – sold his stake in the company last year.

But the decision had a significant impact on his investments, with their value tumbling and his private investment fund reporting a pre-tax loss of £15.4 million.

Souter Investment Limited’s net assets, including cash at the bank, are reported to be valued at around £400m.

8. Partnership with Sir Richard Branson

Both seen as pioneers in the transport industry, Sir Brian joined forced with Sir Richard Branson early in his career.

Stagecoach held a 49% stake in Branson’s Virgin Rail Group Holdings, which has operated a number of UK rail franchises since the 1990s.

Sir Brian Souter and Sir Richard Branson
Sir Brian with Sir Richard Branson. Image: Shutterstock

The partnership has been a profitable one, with Stagecoach and Sir Richard sharing a £52m payout from the West Coast Main Line railway in 2018.

9. Record beating charity support

In 2019, Sir Brian made what is thought to be one of the largest ever donations by a Scottish person.

Around £109m worth was donated to charities such as Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland in the form of income generating shares.

It represented some 28% of his investment portfolio.

This was in addition to the more than £93m his charitable foundation had previously donated to around 13,000 causes.