IN PREPARATION for my meeting with Heidi Mottram, I searched on some railway industry internet forums to see what those in the sector thought of the woman who, until recently, headed Northern Rail, the provider of local rail services across the North.
I soon found an article on the “gossip” website Railway Eye, instructively headed: “Northumbrian Water’s gain, the railway’s loss.”
“When Northern was formed it was generally held to be a basket case,” the article stated. “Without new trains and prevented from doing a desperately needed timetable recast, little was expected of the franchise.
“However, Heidi won over key stakeholders, welded together her geographically vast empire and actually succeeded in growing traffic. (Railway) Eye wishes Heidi all the best and hopes she returns to the industry soon.”
Soon into our meeting, I tell Mottram about the glowing praise in the article. She’s read it. “I don’t think Northern Rail was ever a basket case,” she smiles.
Basket case or not, there’s no disputing her success in the role, which earned her an OBE for services to the rail industry and the Outstanding Personal Contribution title at the 2008 National Rail Awards.
I suggest it must have been a wrench to move out of the railway industry, where she had worked since joining British Rail as a management trainee on leaving university. But the Leeds-born mother-of-two is pragmatic about what, on the face of it, seems a surprising change of career path, albeit to a very high-profile and influential role as chief executive of a FTSE 250 company.
“I had come to a point where, having done what I did in the railway industry, I was intrigued by what would it feel like to do it in another industry,” she says. “It’s exciting and interesting to learn something new.”
There are also obvious parallels between the rail and water industries, she points out. Both are formerly nationalised, now heavily regulated sectors, but there’s also a tangible public service ethos.
“What really strikes you is just how committed and proud and passionate people are in the business about what they do,” she says. “You get a very similar level of commitment in the railways as well. I think there’s something about public service and people doing something that they know is important and really matters.
“The people out there doing the real hands-on stuff – this is their work and it’s going to be right and it’s going to be spot on. That’s lovely to work with.”
Heidi Mottram is a surprising character in many respects. At 45, she is young to be chief executive of a utility employing 3,000 staff. And, of course, there’s the “female factor” – she is the first woman to head up one of the big water and waste treatment companies.
If that might be a source of anxiety to others taking on such a high-profile role, there’s no such trepidation for Mottram, who admits her presence was regarded as something of a “novelty” in the railways for years.
“That’s just the way it is in the railway industry – it’s still probably 85 or 90% blokes,” she says. “But I guess what I’ve always found is that, if people don’t know you, they will have views about you and being a woman might form a part of that. But when they get to know you and when you do stuff, they make judgements on you and whether you are any good at it.
“It becomes a much more complex judgment than just about whether you’re a woman.
“If you’re good at what you do and you get a job done, then people start to respect you.”
She recounts the story of a night when, as assistant station master at Leeds, she found herself dealing with a major incident when a parcels train derailed across the junction of the station, leaving dozens of trains stranded. She was forced to go out on the tracks in the rain to manually set up points to move trains around the derailment. “Having worked all day, I eventually did about 24 hours in total in the pouring rain and I got the trains running again,” she recalls. “That earned me a lot of respect.”
She admits she went into the rail industry only after her dreams of becoming a National Park ranger were thwarted when she failed to get a grant for a postgraduate course. But Mottram says she soon found the rail business “got its hooks into me”.
“I found it fascinating,” she says, looking back on her first job as station master at Harrogate. “One day you could be cleaning toilets and the next day you could be meeting MPs and councillors to discuss new services.”
Her career took her through the ranks in the British Rail era, eventually as route manager for the new TransPennine Express service where a highlight was linking the rail network into Manchester Airport.
In the post-privatisation era, she went on to hold senior positions at GNER, Midland Mainline and Arriva Trains Northern, before landing the top job at the new Northern franchise. It had its own particular challenges as it was formed by integrating the routes of two former franchises, operated by separate companies.
She describes it as one of her toughest challenges yet. “It surprised me how, in the hands of different companies that did broadly the same thing, i.e. run local train services, they contrived to do almost everything they could do differently,” she recalls.
“Everything from payrolls to accounting to the way that they were managing the railway. We needed to have the same processes and it surprised me how many we had to standardise. When you run 2,600 train services a day and you are trying to get them to their destination on time, you need a rhythm because 10, 15, 30 seconds is the difference between success and failure. So I had to get people pulling in the same direction.”
The performance statistics – the number of trains running on time rose from 83% to 95% – are evidence of her success. But it could also be measured in other ways.
“Clearly customers were getting a much better service but it also restored the pride in people about what they were doing,” she says.
“Sometimes, the workers and the passengers had felt that their railways had been a bit forgotten compared with the big pointy-ended trains, but we started being top of the league in things, which people noticed and that was nice.”
Her reference to “pointy-ended” trains – the more high-profile inter-city services that travel up and down the east and west coasts – is typical of Mottram’s engaging style. You immediately sense that she is a good listener and that her repeated reference to being a “team player” is much more than just hollow management speak.
“I like people who are a bit different to me around me,” she says. “You can spark off each other then.”
“When you start to run a business, the culture you create can make the difference between success and failure very easily. There are some ‘techy’ things that you can do, and some financial things. But if you get people in a business playing at the top of their game and putting in the best effort they can then, in my experience, businesses just fly.”
Quite which direction she intends to take Northumbrian Water remains to be seen. Just a few days into her new role, Mottram is still getting to know her way around her new company, but she is no stranger to the North East having been responsible for running trains in the region for so long. She is keen to build on Northumbrian Water’s active role in the community and is looking forward to reacquainting herself with key players in the region.
“I always felt that the North East is a really supportive business community. It’s very obvious that people work well together in the interests of the region and think about what’s right and what’s best for the region. I think that’s a nice thing to be a part of.”
As for the future of the business, she intends to continue the firm’s “constructive” relationship with the industry regulator Ofwat and she has already talked to key shareholders, including the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, which recently poured cold water on speculation it planned to turn its substantial stake in the business into a full-blown takeover.
She dismisses talk of what the future ownership of the business might look like, instead insisting she is focused on making it as efficient as possible, in the interests of all stakeholders.
However, it’s immediately apparent that she has no intention of allowing the company to become complacent on the back of its successes to date.
“The company is ambitious to do things better,” she says. “It already does things incredibly well and has won a lot of awards for being an industry leader, but people here still want to move that on and think of new and innovative ways of doing what we do.”
She says it is too early to go into specifics but it is clear her strategy will be focused on delivering an improved service to customers – and it will be delivered by “the people on the doorstep” as she describes them.
“It is about trying to think about what is the absolute best possible service you could give a customer, not just the basics,” she says. “That’s where I think we need to be innovative and think about doing things differently.”
She again refers back to her experience at Northern Rail.
“Although the experience of a customer at Northern Rail was in the main a 20 to 25-minute journey into work, we still had the ability to make someone’s day or ruin it by getting it right or wrong,” she says.
“It’s the same in an industry like I’m in here – we can make a huge difference to people by getting it right or wrong. So we need to get everyone in the business to think that we have got 2.6 million people all needing something from us and realising that they’re not all the same.”
And behind that softly-spoken Yorkshire accent, you sense there’s a steely determination to make sure that happens. Not for the first time in the career of the lady from the railways, it promises to be an interesting journey.
What car do you drive?
BMW 3 series
What's your favourite restaurant?
McCoys - the Tontine
Who or what makes you laugh?~
My guilty pleasure is You've been Framed
What's your favourite book?
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
What was the last album you bought?
Sunny Side Up , Paulo Nutini
What's your ideal job, other than the one you've got?
National park warden
If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you would teach it to say?
'I can talk, can you fly?'
What's your greatest fear?
Woodlice, I hate them!!
What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
People do business with people not with companies
And the worst?
Don't do any more than you have to
What's your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
TheTimes and the Sunday Times
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£7 per day serving tea and coffee in a service station on the M62
How do you keep fit?
I try ( but often fail ) to go to the gym two or three times a week
What's your most irritating habit?
What's your biggest extravagance?
My holiday cottage in Whitby
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Marie Curie, Eric Morecambe, Bill Clinton, Tenzing Norgay
How would you like to be remembered?
She made a difference
1983 -1986: Hull University BSC (Hons) geography.
1986 -1987: British Rail, general management trainee
1987 - 1993: Regional Railways North East - progression from assistant station manager to product manager Trans Pennine Express.
1993 - 1994: Intercity East Coast route manager.
1994 - 1999: Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) head of retailing and distribution.
1999 - 2003: Midland Mainline Ltd, operations director.
2004: Arriva Trains Northern, commercial director.
2004 - 2010: Northern Rail Ltd, managing director.
2010 - Northumbrian Water, chief executive officer.