SWR Chief Operating Officer

The Client

South Western Railway (SWR) is owned by FirstGroup (70%) and MTR Corporation (30%).

They began operating the network in 2017 and is contracted to continue running the service until May 2025.

The Brief

South Western Railway retained our services initially to recruit an Operations Director. In this role, the successful candidate would be responsible for providing leadership and strategic direction for c3,000 staff across all activities related to train service delivery, customer service onboard trains and operational safety.

SWR informed us that they were anticipating company changes to improve industrial relations and therefore required a candidate who could lead and manage transformative change. As such, the ideal candidate would be able to influence for positive change, make decisions that bring improvement and create a culture which celebrates continuous improvement as the best way to deliver a better service.

They were looking for someone who would take an active interest in and contribute to other Directorates across the business, as well as establish a more collaborative and inclusive culture with key external stakeholders.

The Process

The first step was to compile a list of target companies.  The main targets were UK train operating companies, TOC Groups and rail asset owners. Other markets with heavily unionised workforces (such as airlines, airports, logistics, bus, and coach ports) were also considered.

Research was predominantly focused in the UK, but UK nationals who were working overseas for international train operators were also considered.

Having found a large number of potential candidates, a longlist was presented to SWR and after receiving their feedback, prioritised individuals were approached. Competency-based interviews were used to assess the best candidates.

Many of the candidates approached saw the role as an exciting opportunity to work in a large, nationally significant TOC. And, as the National Rail Contract was, at the time, recently agreed with the Department for Transport, many candidates were assured that there was certainty to the future of the position and organisation.

The main challenge for this process was providing a diverse shortlist. To resolve this issue, it was agreed that the search could be widened to include candidates outside of the rail sector and we were successful in finding diverse candidates within the bus and aviation sector.

The Outcome

From a longlist of 88 candidates, we presented SWR with a shortlist of 6.

They conducted interviews and selected a candidate with 20 years’ experience. They were so impressed by their fit that they decided to offer the successful candidate a more senior role as Chief Operating Officer.