Aviva boss named FirstGroup chairman

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Embattled FirstGroup named the boss of insurance giant Aviva as its new chairman in a move ending a six-month search at the bus and rail operator.

John McFarlane, chairman of Aviva, will take on the same role at FirstGroup in place of Martin Gilbert, who heeded investor calls in May by announcing plans to step down after the firm tapped investors for £615m and cancelled its shareholder dividend.

Mr McFarlane will join the board of FirstGroup immediately and will take on the post of chairman on January 1.

The appointment comes as Aberdeen-based FirstGroup recovers from a turbulent year in which its growth plans were derailed by the botched bidding process surrounding the West Coast mainline.

It reported half-year pre-tax losses of £8m last month, although this was a marked improvement on the £20.6m loss seen a year earlier.

The group, which operates First Great Western, First Capital Connect and First ScotRail, said on reporting interims that it was getting back on track and hoped to start repaying dividends from the close of its financial year.

It is pouring £1.6bn into a four-year investment programme and tackling debts of nearly £2bn.

John Sievwright, senior independent non-executive director at FirstGroup, said Mr McFarlane’s experience will be “invaluable” to the firm.

He also paid tribute to Mr Gilbert, who has chaired FirstGroup and its predecessor companies for 27 years. “On behalf of the board and everyone at FirstGroup I would like to thank him for his enormous contribution to the group over many years,” he said.

Mr McFarlane became chairman of Aviva in July 2012, promising to turn it into a “leaner, more agile beast”.

Analysts at Shore Capital Stockbrokers said Mr McFarlane’s appointment at FirstGroup was “very encouraging”.

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