As the UK’s largest train operating company, Govia Thameslink Railway currently carries more than 237 million passengers across its network annually. Formed by the merger of Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express, GTR is operated by Govia – a partnership between Keolis and the Go-Ahead Group.
Chief Financial Officer, Wilma Allan, speaks to us more about her role in the company, as well as where she sees the network heading in the future.
- Tell us how you ended up working in the rail industry - when and why?
Before I got my start in rail, I worked in a variety of industrial sectors - oil & gas, nuclear, and the automotive industry. In 1998, while working for Volvo, I was approached by FirstGroup who offered me the position of Finance Director at one of their train operating companies. When I initially took the position, I seriously thought I would only be working in the rail sector for a few years before moving back into motors - 18 years later, I’m still here, and am CFO of the largest rail franchise in the country, so something’s clearly kept me interested. The complexity of the rail market, and the tangible impact it has on the economy, makes it an industry that provides real job satisfaction.
- What does a typical day look like for you?
My job takes me into so many different areas of the company, from streamlining financial processes, to looking forward strategically at the future of the company and where we’ll be positioned years down the line. Being part of the Senior Leadership Team and having an influence over the direction of the company is important to me. Balancing hands-on day to day finance and wider strategic planning is a key element of my role.
- What's the best part of your job?
Put simply, I really enjoy being part of something so big. I strongly believe in what we are trying to achieve - delivering transformation, not only across the network, but potentially impacting the industry as a whole. We are constantly trying to change and improve the service and how we work. Although this can be one of our biggest challenges, it is also the most rewarding.
- If you could change one thing about your job what would that be?
Personally, I would love to be able to find more space in my diary to spend more time both with my team, and out on the network. It can be hard to find enough time to get out and about “on the patch”, but when I can, it’s a really useful way to experience our work directly.
- What's the proudest achievement of your career?
Being able to support members of my team, and help them develop in their career is something I’m particularly proud of. I’ve always tried to identify talent, and then help the person promote that skill and grow in their role - in many cases to the point of reaching a very senior position. The role you play as a senior manager in helping other people reach their full potential applies across all industries, and is one I’ve always been proud to be a part of.
- What's the biggest challenge you've faced? And how did you solve it?
My biggest challenge was when I first began in the rail industry, shortly after privatisation. As a 35 year old female, in-coming Finance Director with no previous rail experience, I had to work very hard to gain credibility and respect. To tackle this I made sure I was always very well informed, spending a lot of time researching the issues, reading the contracts and presenting data to support my proposals. Having an outside perspective actually helped to identify areas needing improvement, combining my research with best practice examples from other industries.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the UK rail sector today? And what do you think is needed to solve them?
The capacity challenges facing UK rail have a big impact on customers, which makes effective communication absolutely essential. That’s something we’re very focused on at GTR. It is completely understandable that passengers become frustrated when engineering work causes disruption and we must ensure they have timely information to allow them to plan their journeys. However, we also need to get across the long term progress that is being made. For example, while the extensive improvement works at London Bridge have caused a lot of disruption, keeping one of the busiest junctions in the world up and running through such change is a considerable achievement.
- What's been the most exciting development in the rail industry that you've seen during your career?
I’ve been very lucky to have been part of really interesting advancements in the rail industry, such as the introduction of HS1 and the new fleet of trains which revolutionised rail travel across Kent and was a major part of providing transport links during the London 2012 Olympics, through the Javelin service. The Olympics was a fantastic example of all the different components of London transport coming together to provide a brilliant service, when many assumed there would be problems, and the positive feedback provided a huge boost to all our staff.
- What excites you most about the future of the industry?
I can’t wait for the improvements at London Bridge to be completed in December 2018, and for the Thameslink programme to be fully implemented. After all of the disruption, being able to provide more services of a higher quality we hope will create a step change in opinion, and we’ll be able to focus our attentions on the next area for improvement on the network.
- What advice would you leave your successor?
There can be a lot of negativity surrounding the UK rail industry – anything responsible for so many customers will always attract attention. As a senior manager, it’s essential to listen to customer feedback, yet still keep your focus on the bigger picture and apply it to the improvements you’re wanting to deliver. Surrounding yourself with a good team you can rely on is very important for this, as well as making sure you keep your sense of humour.