It all started in the driveway of Donald and Elizabeth Mathieson’s home, using just one minibus.
Now D&E Coaches is the Highlands’ largest private hire company and is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Mr Mathieson’s father gave him £1,000 to buy the minibus that started it all in 1996.
The business, which was launched on March 25 that year, now employs 70 people and has a £5 million turnover.
The Mathiesons’ two daughters and their son are now directors of the reigning Highlands and Islands Family Business of the Year.
Mr Mathieson said the milestone has come following an annus horribilis for the industry , with 6,000 cruise line passenger bookings wiped from the D&E Coaches books in 2020.
But he is hopeful that “pent-up tourist demand” will help the firm bounce back this year.
He said: “It’s been a busy and eventful quarter of a century, and who would have guessed our anniversary would be reached in the midst of a pandemic?
“But with the kids back in class, we’re busy delivering our 35 school contracts for Highland Council and virtually all our staff are back from furlough.
“As a bus driver, I spotted a gap in the market and decided to give it a go.
“We picked up plenty of work and soon acquired a second minibus, then a third. My dad, who was a postman, was doing school runs in the afternoon and helping with the accounts – while my mum helped out with the driving.
“We rented our first premises in Deveron Street, Inverness, and invested in our first coach. Things began to accelerate from there.
“Turnover reached £220,000 after five years and £500,000 after 10. By 2008 we broke the million pound barrier.”
He added: “After 15 years, we had 10 coaches and today we have 64 and we now command 80 per cent of the Highland private hire market – staying as a family business and retaining the personal touch has been the key to our success.”
Daughters Gayle and Amy are respectively operations manager and office manager while their brother Bryan heads up driver responsibilities.
The company HQ was built and opened in 2006 on the Longman industrial estate, where it now has four yards.
It is the regular coach carrier for Ross County FC and Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC and looks forward to another client, Highland Rugby Club, being able to resume soon.
Mr Mathieson said: “Our 25th year has been the most stressful one, with Covid-19 wiping out 6,000 cruise line passenger bookings almost overnight.
“Our tourism-related business also vanished. We still had care home runs and continued to operate the Inverness-Ullapool Citylink service, while our Highland Council school contracts have been vital.
“It’s been an extraordinary difficult time for our industry, with many coach firms going bust, but it has proved the fundamentals of our own business are right. We’re delighted to be able to sustain jobs.”
Fergus Ewing MSP, Scottish Government Minister for the Rural Economy and Tourism, said: “I had the pleasure of speaking to Donald last September to discuss the impact of the Covid pandemic, and was struck by his resilience in the face of the biggest crisis facing business in our lifetimes.
“He and his wife have, through hard work and commitment, established a major business serving the Highlands and, in particular, helping children get to and from school. I pay tribute to their endeavour and congratulate them on their 25th anniversary.”
Mr Mathieson, originally from Kinbrace in Sutherland, said: ” Our anniversary comes at an encouraging time, with reopening of the economy in sight and pent-up tourist demand.
“We were transporting almost a million people a year before the virus and hopefully we’ll see a return of much of that activity.
“It’s been a long journey since that first minibus.”