The shares are up 25% from depressed levels, yet when broker Charles Stanley changed its recommendation to "buy" late last month, on the day of the group's annual meeting in Aberdeen, it said: "Not one sell-side analyst is currently positive on the stock."
The broker's note went on: "Several sizeable issues remain unresolved, but the stock is pricing in a great deal of trouble ... following the end-March profit warning, nearly four months have passed without mishap and August could bring some positive newsflow for a change."
That could include news of a huge new rail franchise win, if as rumoured FirstGroup is poised to grab the West Coast franchise from Virgin Rail.
Earlier last month, another broking analyst had deepened the gloom around the shares by claiming the withdrawal of Stagecoach's offer to buy First's overlapping North Devon operations, after objections from the Office of Fair Trading, was a "negative signal" for First's bid to sell off assets. Other analysts have warned the group is struggling under the weight of its debt.
First has appeared to be harder hit by the recession in the north of Britain than Stagecoach, and the profits warning came barely a year after new chief excecutive Tim O'Toole succeeded Sir Moir Lockhead, the man who turned Aberdeen's municipal bus company into a global transport leader. But shareholders who were at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre on July 25 will be less surprised by the recent revival in sentiment.
Mr O'Toole, a US citizen, was refreshingly open about his "mistake" in using a fare rise earlier this year to try to offset falling Government subsidies, which have dented the performance of the UK bus division.
He admitted to shareholders that in some areas of the country, FirstBus needed to match the bus standards set by Stagecoach and GoAhead, and the average age of the fleet was a year higher than it should be. But he said a dedicated team was touring the group's 80 depots to iron out a "great variability in performance".
Mr O'Toole was "absolutely confident [UK Bus] will return to the generator of cash it should be" once he had offloaded a raft of operations which earned £130 million of revenues but made "virtually zero" net profit.
As for North Devon, it was "not part of the programme but a hangover from the past", neither was it a negative signal, as he insisted there was significant interest in the for-sale operations.
But the former London Underground boss issued a quiet wake-up call to company followers who seem to have forgotten about the rest of its business – its UK rail and US operations account for 83% of revenues and around 70% of operating profits.
As the only operator to pre-qualify for all four current franchises, and the biggest rail company in the UK, FirstGroup was strongly positioned to grab its fair share of the eight tenders up for grabs over the next two years, Mr O'Toole said.
"When you consider there is virtually nothing in our stock as a result of rail, you can imagine the boost we can expect once we start to replenish our rail franchises," he added.
FirstGroup is now reported to be trying to outbid the Stagecoach-Virgin group for renewing the West Coast Main Line franchise in 2014, with an audacious offer of a premium to the Government some 15% to 20% above the current level.
But its main concern will be holding on to the flagship Great Western route – and the annual meeting heard from one well-informed shareholder that transport campaigners believe First has done enough to justify retention.
But the surprise package was perhaps the update on First's US operations, which account for almost half of both revenues and profits and employ a total 88,000 people (compared with 35,000 at home).
They are massive businesses: 54,000 school buses at 600 locations in 38 states, 10,600 vehicles owned and 38,000 maintained in the transit sector (university and airport transport), and 20 million passengers a year on Greyhound coaches.
"It is the recovery of the North American business that gives us the confidence we can deliver the turnround in UK Bus," Mr O'Toole said.
The student business, which at his first annual meeting the new chief executive had merely promised to return to profit, had been hauled back to health within one year, and its efficiency savings estimate increased from $65m to $100m. The transit business had a management team with unrivalled experience in the US business, and strong market positions, creating big barriers to entry.
Greyhound, meanwhile, had "completely regenerated the coaching market in the US" with Greyhound Express, which was already over 20% of the business and had the big advantage of the traditional network's feeder routes.
In the battle with Stagecoach's Megabus, Mr O'Toole said Greyhound had the upper hand.
On Stagecoach's boast that it has not noticed a north-south divide in the UK recession, Mr O'Toole said: "We are more northern and more urban."
He said lower footfall on the high street had inevitably depressed passenger volumes – while promising that a better product would entice customers back.
As for debt, which did not even feature in the company's presentation at the meeting, according to laid-back chairman Martin Gilbert afterwards it is "not a big issue, we are confident we will reach the [necessary[ level of sales ... it is just cashflow".
After dipping to 186p a month ago after the stock went ex-dividend, FirstGroup shares finished last week at 256.5p. Analysts will no doubt be catching up soon.
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