Mike Cassidy says he distinctly remembers the moment in the summer of 2012 when he took the plunge and decided to take over Acadian Lines, the regional daily bus system in the Maritime provinces.
Cassidy, who ran a charter bus service on P.E.I. was in the middle of a media interview, reacting to the news that Acadian was going out of business, its Quebec owner claiming it was losing millions of dollars a year.
"Don't ask me what [I said], why I said it, how I said it, except I got the words out — 'We're going to do it'," Cassidy said in a phone interview.
"We did not understand the line-running business, but we believed in busing, we believed in our three provinces and we were going to have it."
On Dec. 1, Maritime Bus will mark 10 years in business.
It hasn't been easy, especially when COVID-19 hit in the spring of 2020, but Cassidy said he's still optimistic about the service's future.
Cassidy wasn't exactly a newcomer to the bus business. His company had been doing a charter service for decades, and in 2005 took on the job of operating the municipal bus service in Charlottetown, which also served other outlying communities.
But, a daily service to 40 communities in three provinces was a different kettle of fish, and Cassidy only had a few months to figure it all out.
"We never did a business plan, we never pushed any financial statement numbers, we never understood the losses of the previous companies," Cassidy said.
"We just said … busing is needed in the region and we are the ones to do it, and that's how Maritime Bus started."
Acadian Lines stopped service at midnight on Nov. 30, 2012. At 6 a.m. the next day, Maritime Bus took over.
Cassidy said everyone was nervous about what that first day would be like.
"We didn't know if anybody was ever going to show up at six o'clock, 6:15 in the morning. But my goodness they did."
Business evolved quickly
The next few months were a steep learning curve, especially given the time of year.
"Trying to learn the parcels, trying to learn Christmas time — December 2012, the amount of parcels that were being shipped across the Maritimes and into Quebec and Ontario, just for Christmas, was phenomenal," he said.
"It was chaos, but it was a thrill."
Cassidy said the company quickly evolved and by spring of the next year, Maritime Bus had settled into a routine.
He said it introduced a reservation system, which the previous company did not have.
Cassidy said it allowed customers to know they were guaranteed a seat and allowed the company to know how many customers were expected on each run.
He said the company also embarked on an effort to control costs as much as possible.
Maritime Bus grew from a low of 167,000 annual passengers to a high of 191,000 in 2019, a growth of 14 per cent.
Then COVID-19 hit, which created a big dilemma for the company.
"Orleans Express in Quebec, Greyhound in Ontario, they stopped service," Cassidy recalled.
"We didn't know what to do. Nobody understood COVID. But we sat in a room and we looked at one another as senior management and I remember saying if we shut down, our customers will lose confidence in us and they may not come back. Remember, we are an essential service."
Maritime Bus went to three days a week, cut staff from 515 to 175 and endured what Cassidy called disastrous years, losing almost $60 million in gross revenue over the two years.
It put the northern New Brunswick route from Moncton to Edmundston in jeopardy, which was only saved by an influx of government money.
He said financial aid from Ottawa and the Maritime provinces helped, but the company is only now seeing the passengers return and now has six-days-a-week service.
"We have only seen Maritime Bus coming back starting May of this year, and we're very pleased with how the ridership has come back. We are approximately 80 per cent of our 2019 ridership," he said.
"Be naive. Be passionate. Be committed to busing in your region. - Mike Cassidy
Cassidy said he believes the tough times the region is going through now could be the key to the company's future.
"Now we see the price of gasoline, we see the price of diesel, we see inflationary costs, we see interest costs and we see our numbers changing, where people are either leaving the car … and taking the bus, or they're saying that 'We don't need a vehicle,'" he said.
"I feel with the whole new financial environment, with climate change, looking after the world and the planet and the provinces that we live on and live in, that you're going to see a little bit of a surge back to busing."
"It's got to happen."
Looking back over the 10 years of operation, Cassidy said he wouldn't have done anything differently, including his spontaneous decision to take on the bus service.
"Maybe, when I reflect, that was the best thing to do," he said.
"Be naive. Be passionate. Be committed to busing in your region. And just say you're gonna do something."