This week marks my 30th work anniversary. It’s a time for me to reflect on my personal journey and look forward to the future
Yes, it’s me. Fresh-faced and full of hope as a duty station manager at London Underground
In these happy clappy times, forgive me if I jump on the bandwagon, with rah-rah self-indulgent nonsense. Running my own business, I don’t enjoy the trimmings of employment – long service awards or my boss putting some fawning ‘congratulatory’ post on LinkedIn about my achievements, or a bus wrap commemorating my service to the cause, such as that which my former wonderful boss Dave Kaye enjoyed, a few years ago. So, it’s left to me to say ‘Happy 30th Anniversary’. To myself.
30 years ago (28th June) my career of setbacks, frustrations, acrimony and a few modest high points across the years began as the sole person tasked with dealing with customer complaints on the Northern line, which back then was known as the ‘misery line’. In my office in a rancid building off Tottenham Court Road, which was condemned not long after, I was supported by a ‘word processor operator’ – a lovely lady called Anna. She’d type up the customer response letters that I would hand write, whilst I was placating furious customers phoning up to vent their spleen and listening avidly to the muffled sounds of the line information officer in the control room at Coburg Street announcing to staff the latest disruption. We also had the luxury of a television screen, showing Teletext travel updates. I loved using our revolutionary poster plotter machine to write and print out apology posters for display at stations!
‘Dreams can come true’, sung Gabrielle, as she topped the charts that week back in late June 1993 and she was spot on! This was a dream for me as bad things had recently come in threes. Crystal Palace had just been relegated from the Premier League, courtesy of a goal from our ex hero Ian Wright, and then my lifelong aspiration of getting on the British Rail or London Underground graduate scheme ended in failure. Finally, I was controversially ‘awarded’ a third class honours degree at University College London. The filmmaker Christopher Nolan was on my course – I suspect he fared better than me in his exams!
I never forget my fantastic first boss, Mike Stallard, tell me on day one that I wouldn’t hang around in what was the lowest grade for long. That meant so much to me at a time when my confidence was at a subterranean level
I wasn’t taking ‘no’ for an answer from London Underground and persuaded them to give me a real job instead of the graduate scheme. I never forget my fantastic first boss, Mike Stallard, tell me on day one that I wouldn’t hang around in what was the lowest grade for long. That meant so much to me at a time when my confidence was at a subterranean level. I can’t thank him enough.
£11,900 as a starting salary was good, but burning ambition became all-consuming. Roles followed in the BTP Control Room and as a duty station manager on the Jubilee & East London lines – by far the most memorable and exciting period of my life. I was dealing with signal failures, trespassers on the track, crossing the third rail on a daily basis in horrendous weather conditions, with Metropolitan line trains passing perilously close. Meanwhile, an early-stage passion for trying to inflict my crazy style of customer service on militant union representatives was, quite frankly, life-changingly great.
Back in the day, London Underground spent so much time eulogising about British Airways and their brand of customer service. I thought I was so clever joining the airline, initially managing cabin crew teams across Europe, as the youngest management grade ‘MG’ manager in the company, before heading up its customer relations function. This is where I met ‘Er Indoors, who scandalously worked in my team.
British Airways was great, but trains were my passion, and I wrote a speculative letter to the late Shadow Strategic Rail Authority chair, Sir Alastair Morton. He sent me a lovely reply but a ‘Dear John’ from their HR department followed. I convinced them it must have been an administrative error and joined the organisation in 2000. Enjoyable spells followed at TOCs; Southern, WAGN/Stansted Express, South Eastern Trains and Midland Mainline – all bar Southern in executive director roles. So much love for South Eastern, who like London Underground, I’d walk backwards, blindfolded, wearing a Millwall shirt if I had to, from home in Shepperton, to end my career working for.
Looking back over my career, so much has changed and yet so little, in some respects – certainly the structure of the rail industry is more fragile and unclear than ever. I recall working for my hero first boss, straight-talking Stallard, on his Customer Information Strategy Team for London Underground in 1995. Almost 30 years later and the industry still hasn’t mastered communicating to staff and customers during disruption. Back then, the internet wasn’t part of our lives, let alone social media, which has proved to be a challenge but also solution in disruption. Pagers were the height of technology during this era and the preserve of the privileged. The slow internal post was used to forward customer letters to managers to investigate, while urgent stuff was faxed. Having a laptop was unheard of and, without a PC at home, for my interview presentation for the District line role, I travelled from Kent to the duty manager office in Willesden Green one Saturday night to do my slides on the office computer and print them off on laminated plastic to display on the overhead projector in the interview!
The culture was very different. As late as 2002, I sat in a meeting at Victoria station and colleagues smoked cigarettes, cigars and pipes, whilst it wasn’t until the last decade that the concept of being concerned around diversity and inclusion felt moderately real
The culture was very different. As late as 2002, I sat in a meeting at Victoria station and colleagues smoked cigarettes, cigars and pipes, whilst it wasn’t until the last decade that the concept of being concerned around diversity and inclusion felt moderately real. The culture in transport was one that thrived on banter, laddish behaviour and often ‘he who shouted loudest’ got their way. At London Underground, managers dined out on stories of the ‘glory days’, pre-Kings Cross fire, of night shift boozing and fraternising with female customers in ways that would today likely get you fired.
I tired of working for rail companies in the dying days of their franchise and joined the bus industry in 2008 – my best career decision ever. I felt welcomed by the quirky, self-deprecating bus folk and they seemed more receptive to my passion for customer service than rail. I was (and still am) fascinated by the nuances of local markets and the ability of managers to be able to make a difference with commercial ingenuity. I was privileged to work at First Bus in the Nicola Shaw regime, as business director UK bus – a role I combined with dreaming up and running Greyhound UK.
I left to join Royal Mail in early 2011, overseeing its regulated business in Wales and then until 2019 as managing director, specialist services. During my eight years at Royal Mail, transport was my hobby, initially writing for this mag, then setting up (with my employer’s consent), Flash Forward Consulting with my delightful former boss at First, Douglas Downie, in which we worked with almost every UK TOC, many local authorities, most medium to large bus companies, in coach, ferry and taxi sectors, as well as extensively overseas. What had started as a hobby, just like the model railway in the attic, had become serious business and I left Royal Mail before flogging my business in 2021.
I’ve always believed vehemently about driving customer satisfaction, but it was at Royal Mail, operating in a B2B sector and then in consultancy where I realised just how life-changing it could be
I’ve always believed vehemently about driving customer satisfaction, but it was at Royal Mail, operating in a B2B sector and then in consultancy where I realised just how life-changing it could be. Winning new customers took so much patience, tactics and energy, that I was under no illusions how vital it was not to lose them but to constantly innovate and delight. Every single employee at some stage in their career, should experience working in a commercial role. I spend every waking hour fretting about whether my customers are happy. It is a burning obsession.
Now not far short of 52, I’m as excited as ever. Last November, I started my own consultancy with the legendary Giles Fearnley, and we also created Great Scenic Journeys, a ‘one-stop-shop’ service to promote and accredit from a customer service perspective over 180 fascinating (mainly bus) routes. I did this with a dynamic young duo, Luke Bodin and Andrew Penn, from who I have learned so many new approaches, so too my 18-year-old son, Noah, who started working for us in May and who I’m helping navigate those trip-hazards I stumbled across early in my career.
Over three years ago, I became chair, West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration (GRC) and head up a body comprising of top dogs responsible for the railway in the region. When I see these folk in action it’s a reminder that the industry is in good hands, as well as a salutary insight into the challenges and frustrations they face. In this role, another young talent in Lucy Wootton, who is head of the GRC, also keeps me continuously progressive in my thinking! And away from transport, I’m the chair of the Surrey F.A.
Many have referred to me as “Del Boy” or “a south London barrow boy chav” and the Jubilee and East London lines RMT newsletter called me “a flea who leaps from one secondment to another”
This isn’t a pious, text-book tale of a career of fulfilment. I’ve been an impetuous, feather-ruffling minx at times. Many have referred to me as “Del Boy” or “a south London barrow boy chav” and the Jubilee and East London lines RMT newsletter called me “a flea who leaps from one secondment to another”. I’ve had some great managers and some I’ve dissed, and no doubt annoyed the hell out of with my opinions, belligerence and cheek. I’ll have grated on colleagues and particularly the dullard, sycophantic corporate clones who I deliberately went out of my way to wind up. Age has mellowed me, though throughout my impulsive career I’ve stayed true to my obsession with customer service.
I’m now lucky to be able to choose to work with mates and avoid the show-boaters. I’m unashamed to hang around great entrepreneurs. My tale is so modest by comparison with my two business partners. I keep encouraging Giles Fearnley to write a book about his career founding and selling bus and rail companies, among other lofty achievements, which may never be repeated in the vastly different framework within which transport resides.
My other sidekick is John McArthur and, like Fearnley, his story makes mine look tinpot. He founded Tracsis and at the age of 32 he IPO’ed the business and turned it into a hugely successful AIM-listed company. McArthur and I are together launching our new company this week. It’s called LOST Group and it aims to offer a very different approach to head-hunting in the transport sector. John, like me, hates to see things that are fundamentally ‘broken’ in the transport industry and recruitment is something that we both feel is long overdue an overhaul. We hope LOST will disrupt the current ‘search’ market (get it?) and make life much easier for candidates and companies to find each other and at a fraction of the cost. McArthur is so keen not to be associated with traditional recruitment he’s even banned us from calling ourselves anything recruitment related. Time will tell if we succeed but it should be rather fun. Check out www.lost.careers.
I reckon that after 30 years in the public transport madhouse, I’ve had enough Category C SPADs and my career progression has endured sufficient shunts into the sidings, for me to help folk on their own travels. Even if my own story hasn’t had a shiny, picture-perfect narrative, I’ve no regrets and I’m still wide-eyed enough to believe that ‘dreams can come true’. Crystal Palace have stayed in the Premier League for 11 successive seasons, and with such longevity, are stronger than ever!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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