Heidi Mottram, Chief Executive Officer, Northumbrian Water
After a career spent in the railways, Heidi Mottram has changed tracks to take up the top job at Northumbrian Water. Andrew Hebden went to meet her.
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.”