Getting Northern Rail on the right tracks
The UK’s largest train operator relied on the help of two Interim Managers to get the new operation up and running.
IAN DAGLISH has been an interim manager for five years, during which time he has carried out marketing assignments for London Electricity, publisher Leo Cooper and the British Army.
He spent the greater part of his career marketing consumer goods for major multinationals, first in foods for companies including KP Snacks, Bird’s Custard and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and later in more diverse markets including pharmaceuticals, publishing, computer software and the motor industry.
WENDY WILLIAMS has been an interim manager for seven years and worked as a consultant for five years before that. She specialises in HR and change. Previous clients include the Department for Rural Affairs, and she is currently working for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. She has also done assignments for Barclays Bank and the Co- Operative Group.
Before she became self-employed, she held HR Director roles in organisations as varied as Alfred McAlpine, local government and Turner and Newall – for whom she worked on global leadership in America, Germany and France.
Northern Rail is the largest train operating company in the country, and provides local and regional services throughout the north of England. At the heart of its operations are the cities of Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, complemented by a range of other leisure and tourism locations such as Blackpool, York, four national parks and many sporting venues. It operates 2,500 train services every day (east coast train operator GNER does only 250), carries 70 million passengers a year, over 1675 miles of the national rail network, through 472 stations, using 269 trains. It has 4500 employees.
In autumn 2004 a joint venture between global public service group Serco and Dutch rail operator NedRailways won the franchise to run Northern Rail, which had been formed out of Arriva Trains Northern and First North Western. Northern Rail became operational in December 2004.
Wendy and Ian brought a professionalism that gave us a lot of comfort
The franchise will run for up to eight years and nine months, with the final two years depending on the company meeting strict performance targets. The reason for combining the two previous train operating companies was to deliver better service to passengers and greater value to taxpayers through more focused provision of services. But to meet these requirements set by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), there would need to be a designed both to harness upward and downward communication and to kickstart the culture change programme by making staff responsible and accountable for identifying positive staff benefits – including reward and recognition. strong management focus on punctuality, information and cleanliness.
Given the huge additional challenge of merging the two existing organisations, Tricia Riley, the new Human Resources and Change Director, realised that she would need additional help in the short term because of the sheer scale of the task.
She explains: “We had to merge two companies, with very different cultures and terms and conditions, into one, and we had to build, develop and support the executive team, which was incomplete when we won the franchise. It was a big, very complex situation, and we needed someone with lots of change management expertise and experience to help us do it. And we had no time to lose: we had to start demonstrating the benefits of the combined companies and of Serco-NedRailways’ expertise immediately.”
It took several weeks to find the right person, but on March 1st 2005, courtesy of Impact Executives, Wendy Williams, a seasoned HR and change professional, joined Northern Rail as Interim Change Director.
One of Williams’ first roles was to look at how best to integrate the two predecessor companies. “We needed to look at the sort of culture Northern needed, to differentiate it from its own past and from the cultures of Serco and NedRailways, which each had a very different culture too,” says Williams. “It was a problematic exercise, because people were understandably unsettled and cynical about the change, and frightened that there would be lots of redundancies.”
She approached the task from the bottom up and the top down, analysing what staff wanted in terms of communications and culture and then discussing with each of the executives what they believed good leadership in Northern Rail would look like. “It was important to define behaviours that were specific to Northern’s requirements, rather than generic,” says Williams. “Because they helped design behaviours appropriate to the needs of the businesses, both management and staff engaged far more quickly with the new culture than they would otherwise have done.”
Williams quickly identified communications as being a major platform of the change programme, and she oversaw the introduction of an initiative called ‘Imagine’, which was designed both to harness upward and downward communication and to kickstart the culture change programme by making staff responsible and accountable for identifying positive staff benefits – including reward and recognition.
Riley says: “Wendy acted as a catalyst for change in a new and complex environment. She had strong insights and intuition, combined with depth and breadth of change management experience. But her fresh perspective allowed her to stand back from the operational constraints that are peculiar to the transport industry, and though we were all focused on the here and now, she kept reminding us of the long-term picture. She was a catalyst for change: she took a strategic view, created the frameworks to support that view and left us with thought-provoking ideas about how to take things forward.”
One of the executive roles still unfilled by the summer of 2005 was the Head of Marketing and Communications. Frustrated at not being able to find the right full-time individual, Commercial Director Chris Kimberley hired Ian Daglish, another Impact Executives interim manager, to plug the gap. Daglish, a classically trained marketing professional with experience of a wide range of industries, joined Northern on August 8th.
But the focus for marketing at Northern was not wholly, or even primarily, on meeting the needs of key travelling customers. Because much of the brand message would be communicated by Northern’s 4,500 staff, many of whom have day-to-day contact with customers, they needed to be made aware of their own vital role in marketing the Northern brand. What’s more, in a business partially funded by government subsidy, and with marketing investments shared by business partners such as Passenger Transport Executives and local authorities, Daglish had to engage these stakeholders too with Northern’s marketing plans.
By the time he left, at the end of December 2005, Daglish had laid the foundations for his permanent successor to build on. A series of different field marketing activities had targeted different groups of travelling customers, and key working relationships had been cemented with business partners – so raising the profile of Northern and winning confidence in its commitment and ability to support its market.
He had also recruited and structured an effective marketing team, filling key vacancies and replacing further leavers. Kimberley concludes: “The contribution that Wendy and Ian made has really helped us to get Northern up and running. Organisational change is always challenging but they brought a professionalism to it that gave us a lot of comfort.”