National Express lives by its values: safety, people, customer, community, and excellence. Each is an equal part of what makes the global transportation company successful, but, for Alejandro Castro, they’re also what makes it so special.
Castro serves as chief financial officer of National Express’ North American division, where he oversees issues of capital, treasury, acquisitions, and more. He’s especially handy when it comes to the company’s mergers and acquisitions; his diverse career, which has taken him from his native Mexico City to United States, has routinely found him knee-deep in complex deals. He’s helped shepherd along a number of National Express’ transactions since joining the company, which has inked a whopping twenty-five acquisitions in the past four years. All of them, he says, serve to elevate and better illustrate National Express’ commitment to its core values.
“More than most, our business is a people business,” he says, referring to the fleet of 24,000 buses that National Express oversees. These buses ferry more than one million students, from kindergarteners to seniors, to over five hundred school districts throughout more than thirty-five US states and three Canadian provinces every day. Roughly 250 customer service centers are spread throughout North America, ensuring safe travel and up-to-date maintenance every hour of the day.
For Castro, the job has personal resonance with his heritage. “Coming to National Express, I’ve really been able to refine my experience in both transportation and finance with my passion for education,” he says. “Latinos have a proud commitment to education, to ensure that the next generation can successfully pursue the American dream.”
So, just as National Express is committed to the safety of its riders, Castro and his team are equally devoted to building a team that’s held to the highest standards of quality and safety. “We work hard to recruit, train, and develop the best possible people to accomplish our mission, which is to get students to school safely, on time, and ready to learn.”
That means the company’s acquisitions are chosen with its values in mind. It begins, of course, with strategy. As Castro outlines, National Express has a very sharp eye for the areas in which it needs to grow, and it has identified the markets in which to focus. The goal, then, is to find a local player who can not only benefit National Express, but also thrive under the company’s umbrella. If the culture of a company doesn’t have a strong focus on safety, for example, Castro asserts that the company will not touch it.
It’s the idea of tapping into a local community, however, that remains especially important for Castro and National Express. He emphasizes several times the value of community, and how much National Express strives to have a positive influence on each of the communities it inhabits. “We have a focus on safety and people,” he says, “which means we focus on the local community where we do business.”
The integration of that company, then, is handled with a great amount of care. Of utmost importance to him is the preservation of an acquisition’s culture and relationship to its community, Castro says.
“We don’t want them to lose that connection that makes them a family,” he says. “The key to National Express is in how we connect with communities, so we need to make sure that the companies we’re buying keep doing what they’ve always been doing.”
That said, these acquisitions still need to adapt to National Express’s best practices, and Castro says it can be tough to maintain this balance between individuality and compliance. “For a company to get used to the corporate environment—to the controls we’ve put in place and new operating metrics—can be a challenge for them.”
He says National Express works to make the transition smooth by engaging directly with the company very early on in the process. That means strategically timed town hall meetings and employee communications, as well as transparent breakdowns of both the integration process and its planned time frame. It also helps that National Express is equipped with state-of-the-art technology, which can serve as a huge boon to many of its smaller acquisitions.
This approach has proven effective. Castro explains that, in its history, National Express’s team developed a deep commitment to the company, with many employees climbing the ladder from driver or mechanic to manager. This is important for him. As a Latino in a company that serves a number of Latino neighborhoods, Castro says that he and the company are committed to culling and cultivating talent directly from the very communities it serves.
“We want to provide them—our customers, employees, and communities—with everything they need to be their best,” he says.
Learning from Your Mentees
Alejandro Castro doesn’t hesitate to emphasize his passion for mentorship. He’s had several of his own throughout his career, including a Latino mentor that helped Castro navigate his transition from Mexico to the United States. “Mentorship has been instrumental for me in my development,” he says, noting that his own experiences have prompted him to seek out mentees of his own.
Right now, he’s currently working with two budding professionals, one of whom he works with at National Express and another who just graduated from Northwestern University. Their meetings, he says, are informal, distinguished by deep conversation and a sharing of perspectives.
“We learn from each other,” he says. “I can tell you, I always learn from the people that I’m mentoring. Probably more than they can from me.”