B.C. Ferries busiest ever first quarter of vehicle traffic and a course ahead that looks like clear sailing to profitability in 2023 was not enough to save former CEO Mark Collins from the axe.
As B.C. Ferries held its annual general meeting on Thursday, it released its first-quarter financial results showing the service earned a profit of $7.9 million in the first three months of the 2023 fiscal year, ended June 30, thanks in part to its highest vehicle count in the first quarter. At the same time last year, B.C. Ferries posted a $4.7 million profit. That profit was earned under Collins’ watch. The CEO was fired last month.
In the first quarter of this year, 2,449,798 vehicles sailed on all routes, up 42 per cent on the same quarter last year when the figure was 1,720,848.
The reason for Collins’ firing came into clearer focus Thursday as B.C. Ferry Services board chair Joy MacPhail suggested the culture of the corporation needed a change and a fresh start with one that is more “people-centred.”
“As you know, coming through the pandemic, many of our crew had to work overtime, had to fill-in in times of great stress at the same time that they were facing illness themselves or within their family, and I think it’s safe to say that the corporation didn’t acknowledge enough all of those stresses on the people working with us,” she said.
MacPhail said going forward, the hope is B.C. Ferries will put customers first. “And in order to put our customers first, we have to have a staff that feels valued, that can raise their families on what they earn, and that are healthy and well enough to show up for work,” she said.
Interim chief executive Jill Sharland said that was her goal when she stepped into the role.
“Focus on our employees, make sure that we recognize them, make sure they’re excited about coming to work every day and want to choose a career at B.C. Ferries,” she said. “From my perspective, it’s the No. 1 priority.”
MacPhail made clear things are going to change at B.C. Ferries, and that didn’t end with changing out the chief executive. “I think I speak on behalf of our whole board that we remain confident that our company is committed to taking a fresh approach to the business through collaboration, listening and a willingness to consider all points of view resulting in a ferry service that puts the people first,” she said.
MacPhail said priorities ought to be a commitment to Indigenous reconciliation, better communication with coastal communities that rely on the ferry system, better communication with the more than 5,000 staff and focusing on sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction.
Ferry users who tuned in Thursday to ensure the board and interim chief executive understood the issues at hand were clear that they demand improvements, particularly when it comes to routes to the Gulf Islands and the Sunshine Coast.
Increased capacity, improved reliability and better vessels on smaller and secondary routes were at the top of many wish lists.
Sharland told the meeting those concerns have been heard and that addressing capacity in both the near and longer term is on the agenda and will make up part of the company’s submission to the province this year. “In the immediate short-term, we are in discussions to see what we can do for next summer with the province,” she said. “We’re looking forward to finding a solution.”
MacPhail said analysis and discussion will start this fall on the new vision for the corporation. It will include how best to improve service on routes under stress in the Gulf Islands and Sunshine Coast.
“We will be starting a robust exercise amongst all of those that rely on the ferry system and are responsible for making sure the ferry system is part of a robust economic strategic plan,” she said, adding it will be about balancing the interests of the people who rely on the service with the economic interests of the province.
Sharland said the future of B.C. Ferries is about improving its relationships, showing it cares about people and helping them recover from the stresses of the past two years.
She said the company’s capital program to replace vessels and improve terminals has restarted after being sidelined during the pandemic and it will continue to beef up its employment ranks.
A “robust and professional” search for a new chief executive began this week, MacPhail said.