Last year saw some challenges for Metro, and perhaps working for DB Regio, which runs Metro trains and manages stations for Nexus, has tested customer service and operations director, Sharon Kelly, 42, in ways she hadn’t previously experienced.
Her effort is focused on delivering the best possible train service for her ‘client’ Nexus, while at the same time Nexus engineers are busy on the £389m Metro: all change modernisation programme, now in its fifth year and due for completion in 2021.
Sharon has become a well-known figure in the sector and cares passionately about the products and services DB Regio offers and her sense of pride says a lot about her personality, coming across as an engaging and well-informed individual who certainly isn’t afraid of fighting her corner when she needs to.
She said: “Looking forward, it’s an industry where you can never afford to be complacent.
“You are very much only as good as your performance on that day. And over all it’s about making sure, as a team, we continue to work hard to deliver the best service possible for people in the region. I firmly believe in the purpose and value of Metro.”
When Sharon initially joined DB in summer 2010, it had just won the minimum seven-year contract with Nexus. During that time, she faced some tough challenges head-on, as the business has had to hit a series of strict contractual specifications set down by Nexus. She has made it her mission with Metro to improve the service’s cleanliness, punctuality and reliability.
Heading up a team of 500, Sharon and her staff move 38 million passengers a year. People development is at the core of what she believes in.
“Everyone pulls together to get the job done,” she says. “There are good days and bad days in any job.
“If you can have a day, a week or a month where there have been relatively few incidents, it’s a nice feeling for the team.”
Growing up, Sharon grabbed any opportunity she could to get into the world of work. As a teenager, she took on plenty of part-time jobs, from washing dishes in a pub to working in her parents’ shop.
This experience fostered her communication skills and gave her an idea of what it was going to be like in the world of work with other people. Little did she know at the time that she was forming such vital skills that would later prove useful in business.
The hands-on side of her studies proved particularly enriching.
She said: “I guess I was ready for the world of work at a young age. I was a fairly average student, but I thrived on technology and printing and leaned towards more hands-on, creative subjects.
“I loved business studies, finding out how a business operated and understanding what made people tick and also how to drive organisations forward, I found that really interesting. I never thought back then though that I would be where I am today.”
The former Whickham Comprehensive School pupil admits she always just wanted to get through her subjects and get home so she could help out at her parents’ corner shop in Sunniside, Gateshead.
“I loved working in the shop. I used to stack shelves, serve customers and clean. Sometimes, while my mum was working in the shop, I’d also cook dinner at home,” Sharon recalls.
At that time, her father Peter worked as a manager for Ever Ready factory in Tanfield Lea, County Durham, changing course to become a Metro train driver when Sharon was in her late teens.
Older brother Peter, 48, also worked as a Metro driver before going off to work for Grand Central, while younger brother Shaun, 38, is now a community relations manager for the Tyne & Wear Fire and Rescue Service. It certainly seems Sharon was destined to get on the same career track as her family.
“We’re definitely a railway family,” she says.
Sharon’s father died 10 years ago, but she has many memories of his 17 years working on Metro.
She said: “My long-standing memory of dad was his answer when you’d ask him what time he started work, he would give you the time of the job of the train that he was picking up. He’d say ‘I start at 04.27’, rather than half past four’. I always got the specific train time and that always stuck in my mind.
“One of the areas I now look after includes the train drivers – so I know how important it is.
“Dad would always talk about what was going on at Metro because it’s such a micro-environment. Everything that happens in the region impacts on the Metro.
“As a teenager I didn’t quite get that, but now working in that environment I realise how anything can impact on the day-to-day operation.”
After leaving school at 16, Sharon’s first experience began with a Youth Training Scheme, on £27.50pw at an estate agent and insurance broker.
“I was the worst typist you could ever meet back then,” she admits.
She added: “It took me until my early 20s when I actually realised that I had a good aptitude for working with people. I was encouraged in my 20s into more leadership roles. I think that other people believing in me and driving me forward has been very instrumental in my career.”
After privatisation of the railway, Sharon took a frontline customer service role at GNER and being a woman in a very male-dominated industry didn’t hold her back, rising through the ranks she achieved a series of promotions and stayed with the business for seven years.
Much of her authority in her current role is underpinned by a hugely experienced background, having held managerial roles in several other organisations. After GNER, Sharon became call centre manager at Airtours for a year and later head of site for npower for six years, where she saw great change in the industry.
She said: “I guess I thought working at Airtours was going to be glamorous! However, despite dealing with cruises and top holidays, I used to spend a lot of time on the road – so it certainly wasn’t the luxurious side of travel that I perhaps expected.”
Kelly’s husband, Chris Keith, 51, works as an asset reliability engineer for GE Oil & Gas on Walker Riverside in Newcastle.
“I’m surrounded by engineers all day at work and then hear about engineering on an evening too!” Sharon jokes.
And there is certainly a railway theme in how the pair met – at the Centurion pub on Newcastle Central Station.
So what is Sharon’s view on customer service in the North East and would she encourage more women in particular to take her lead?
She said: “I think the reason I’ve stayed here is that the North East is such a friendly, lovely place and I think people are warm and like to know about each other. There’s a small element of natural inquisitiveness which certainly works well in a customer service environment.
“The Metro is incredibly important for the region and I do think we sometimes take it for granted. Great North Run days are amazing for us, it’s our busiest day of the year.”
Outside of work, Sharon has been a trustee for women’s mental health charity, Tyneside Women’s Health. She spends around 10 hours a month on funding applications, financial management and control as well as attending board meetings.
“It’s very much about using the skills I have in business to help a charitable organisation. I help to enable women to become more confident. The charity tackles subjects such as domestic abuse, one-to-one counselling, low self-esteem and creates a support network to help women become more confident.”
As Sharon’s career continues to flourish, one thing is certain. She says: “I will continue the need to get more women into the sector.
“We work hard to attract women into our organisation. You do have to make sacrifices as you can’t do the school run every day.
“However, my time with family has definitely been about quality rather than quantity.”
My working day
It’s fair to say that there is no such thing as a typical week in the rail industry, as what is happening out on the network changes minute by minute.
0545: A typical day starts the minute I wake up. I always like to make sure we have had no issues at the start of service before leaving the house.
0700: I get into the office and catch up on my emails. My week always starts with reviewing the previous week’s performance, safety and budgets with my team and also the wider exec group.
0900: My first meetings start at about 0900 until 1700. Meetings look at everything from future events in the region, business plans, strategy, finance and people development, as well as making sure we are delivering the needs of our client Nexus. In between them I like to catch up with my team as well as keeping an eye on the performance of the service.
After 1700: Before I leave work, I always check on performance. When I get home I keep an eye on emails. Even after four years in the organisation I am still impressed with how hard everyone in Metro works to get people to their destination at all times.