When Rachel Turnbull was headhunted for a job at Tyne Tunnels operator TT2, she wasn’t exactly enthused about the prospect.
“I didn’t understand what it was about,” she explained with characteristic openness.
“I thought, ‘What could possibly interest me?’”
Within half an hour of hearing what the work would entail, though, she had changed her mind and, rising the ranks swiftly to chief executive, remains just as engaged with the work as ever.
Which is just as well, given the scale of it.
Not only is Turnbull ultimately responsible for the smooth functioning of the original Tyne Tunnel and the second tunnel, created under TT2; she’s also got a lot of her plate when it comes to bringing a return to investors.
The huge infrastructure project – based on a Public Private Partnership model – also involved reshaping the approaches to the tunnels and cost a total of £360m, £243m of which came from private investors, while £117m was provided by the state.
According to Rachel, it would take something close to an apocalypse for traffic flow to dwindle to such an extent that the public purse would be hit – and, with proceeds from the tunnels going to the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority for redistribution, there’s a strict financial formula in place to ensure the funders receive what they should.
The pressure is on, though, when it comes to providing steady returns to the private investors.
So does Turnbull experience more than the average number of sleepless nights?
“You have to be optimistic,” she said.
“And when you’re in a more senior position in a business, you have to be very optimistic.
“On a personal level, yes, I’ve had a few sleepless nights, but from a business perspective, it’s a case of ‘We will make it work’.”
Certainly, on the face of it, Turnbull, who grew up in Nottingham and Doncaster and lived throughout the UK before moving to the North East, has reason to be positive.
When it turned out initial projected revenue estimates for the project had been a little ambitious, she oversaw a change in the business plan to a more realistic model.
Now traffic volumes on the Tyne Tunnels have swelled considerably – and that hasn’t happened on its own.
Indeed, marketing by TT2 has played a vital role, with the company spreading the word about the project on a general level and sometimes taking a more targeted approach to remind people of what the infrastructure can offer them.
“We’ve had a few comments from people who ask why we need to market the tunnels,” Turnbull said.
“If we didn’t have the demand risk, it would be a waste of money.
“But if we carry the demand risk, then we have to develop the market.”
The other big driving force in Rachel’s mind is regional development through inward investment – the more of it, the better, basically.
“We want it to be the route businesses consider reliable,” she added.
“We want them to think: ‘If you want to move your goods from A to B, then you use the Tyne Tunnels’.
“We want it to be considered a reliable route, not just an iconic infrastructure.”
If it sounds like Turnbull was destined for business, she’d probably agree that was the case.
Ever since she was a child, she says, she’s known the value of being self-reliant and planned for a solid career in business, backed by an aptitude for finance.
Hence, the business studies with finance degree she undertook at Northumbria University – though in typical style, the course was especially selected to maximise long-term benefits, since it offered the “sandwich” element of a lengthy work placement.
“I thought if I did an undergraduate programme, that would lead to a graduate programme,” said Turnbull.
Her plans came to fruition and securing the undergraduate placement with the Post Office, she went on to do the graduate programme.
The Post Office, in fact, paid for her to do her accountancy training while working all over the UK.
After qualifying in 2004, posts in a variety of sectors followed – “I like change, not being in my comfort zone, which just feels like a waste” – before she made it back to the North East again to take on a short contract with Home Group.
It was then that the call about the Tyne Tunnels came through and the rest, as they say, is history.
Turnbull, in fact, was on board at the project from the start in 2007, when what was being proposed must have seemed almost unimaginable.
It was also “big and very scary” for the public sector workers, employed through the Transport Authority, who were suddenly facing new people, a new way of working and a dramatic change to their working lives all round.
“We had to tread very carefully,” Turnbull said.
“We tried to work with them.”
Since then, staff numbers have reduced from 108 to 55, one of the main drivers of the cuts being worker safety, rather than finances, as one might expect.
At one time, if a car, for example, caught fire, a Tyne Tunnel First Responder would be on the scene – a role not without its dangers.
Now an automated fire suppression system is used.
The whole thing is monitored by a hi-tech CCTV system that detects unusual activity and sends a warning to the control room, which is manned by a single person.
Although it’s a 24/7 operation, a team of just nine will be covering it at any given moment, with staff being rotated around the clock.
And working hard around the clock, if you ask Turnbull, who’s quick to credit her workforce for TT2’s upward momentum.
“The staff are doing good,” she said.
“The guys are working extremely hard.”
As to her management style...
“I think it’s about knowing each person, each individual, and what motivates them.
“We’re not all the same, so you have to listen.”
And what motivates her?
“Responsibility and achievement. I like to be responsible and either achieve what’s expected of me or exceed it – to be given something that’s not necessarily easy and to come out at the other end.”
At only 35, few would accuse Turnbull of slacking, that’s for sure.
In fact, her relative youth could be seen as just another obstacle she’s had to triumph over – along with the fact that she’s a woman in a largely male-dominated industry.
Judgments based on gender, thankfully, aren’t so prevalent now, she says, but the age thing still rears its ugly head from time to time.
“It makes you try harder,” she said.
“You want to prove yourself more.
“The majority of people believe experience is key in terms of value, rather than what you can generate.
“But I could probably hold the same level of experience as someone 10 or 15 year older.
“And it’s extremely rewarding to be offered great responsibility at a very young age.”
Now her working days are so jammed full, the concept of downtime is something of a distant memory to her.
Still, work-life balance remains a priority, and she’s keen to spend as much time as possible with husband Gary and children, Lily Grace,7, and Ava Mae, 4.
Turnbull is also big on doing her bit for the region, and is involved in the likes of the Community Foundation, The Tyne & Wear Pensions Fund, The South Tyneside Pension Committee, and the NewcastleGateshead Initiative.
“It’s about the ability to give back,” she said. “In a business environment, when you’re busy dealing with investors, you can almost forget that it’s about service to the community.
6.30am: Check my emails before the day starts - it’s a great way to focus on the current business issues, prior to heading into the office.
8am: Usually it’s straight into the office and a catch up with the team on progress and points of concern.
9am: Work through my emails, reports and create my job list and plan ahead where necessary.
10am: Client discussions and updates. The client is based with us at the Tyne Tunnels, which makes the partnership approach and communication channels much easier and more fluid. Contract issues are addressed as and when they arise with the client and can still involve the contractor at times.
11am: Where possible I try to update with the board of directors of TT2. This is not as easy as the client due to the fact that they are based in various locations across the UK and France and sit on various PPP boards. This enables my thoughts and strategies to be tested and stretched in order to achieve the best results for TT2 and grow and improve the business.
Noon: I try, when possible, to stop for lunch and sit with the team in the canteen area. It’s a great way to keep the channels of communication open in a more informal way.
1pm: Afternoons tend to be organised around the key stakeholders within the project. This can include meetings with the leaders of the local authorities, MPs, agencies and the surrounding communities.
4pm: This time of day tends to involve wrapping up for the day through calls, emails, reporting and planning for the next day.
5:30pm: I leave the office to spend time with my husband Gary and daughters Lily and Ava before my daughters’ bed time.
8pm: I usually check to make sure that I haven’t missed anything throughout the day or that no further issues have been raised. As a 24/7 service to the general public we are always on call.
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
I try not to eat in the same place too often, although I have recently had a great meal at Gusto’s, in Newcastle.
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
The one book that always springs to mind when asked this question is Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra.
What was the last album you bought?
Lorde and Katy Perry for my daughters Lily and Ava.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
I always wanted to be a doctor. However, a leadership role with a finance edge that involves a great deal of communication and negotiation is also an ideal job too.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
“Who’s a pretty boy then”. I think I watch too much Peppa Pig with my daughters!
What’s your greatest fear?
Not achieving what is expected of me.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Listen very carefully before answering; this applies to all areas of business.
And the worst?
I haven’t really had any bad advice - although if you see a situation in business that hasn’t produced the required results, learning from that person’s mistakes can help to turn the situation into a positive.
What’s your poison?
Prosecco or Champagne.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times, Financial Times and many online infrastructure and Public Private Partnership articles.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£15 from a weekend retail job when I lived in Doncaster.
How do you keep fit?
Running (well, jogging) and pilates.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Never sitting still, I always have to keep busy.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Definitely shoes and handbags.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
I admire many people and can only aspire to some of their achievements. I do hold in high regard individuals who give their life to improving the lives of others less fortunate.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Peter Kay, Richard Branson, Angelina Jolie, and Ian Brown.
How would you most like to be remembered?
As someone who managed their work-life balance successfully.