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On the right track

[Source: Leicester Graduates Review]

[Photo: Richard Bowker  Pic credit: Sally Soames] In 2001 when Richard Bowker (BSc Economics and Economic History 1988) - Commercial Director of Virgin Group and Co-Chairman of Virgin Trains - was asked to head the Strategic Rail Authority he hesitated, but only momentarily...
"It was a high profile job that 50 million other people probably thought they could do better, and the rail industry was in a pretty serious mess. I thought: 'Do I really want to do this?'

"Yet it seemed that everything I had done in my life had led up to this point, including the strong social angle of my degree course at Leicester. I felt I could make a difference, I knew what I thought needed doing, and that it required a mixture of gentle persuasion and the hobnailed boot approach. I do believe we can make our railways great again."

Born in Oldham and brought up in Leyland, Richard was the eldest of four children born to a father who held a high-level post in the bus industry and a mother who was a doctor. He attended school in Blackburn, which is where he feels his roots are - and his favourite football club.

Like much of his subsequent career, his place at the University of Leicester seems to have been remarkably unplanned, and he is no bad role model for anyone downcast at having to rely on the clearing system:

"At school I was interested in engineering. I had a passion for railways and had applied to join the British Rail Graduate Signalling Scheme, though ultimately it was cancelled that year. So I decided to change tack and take economics. Since all my application forms were engineering-based I went through clearing, and Leicester offered me a place in Economics and Economic and Social History.

"It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I came in 1985 and had three wonderful years, staying in Digby Hall. I keep in touch with one or two of the twelve members of my course.

"During the second and third years we had lectures from Dr Derek Aldcroft. I still keep a copy of one of his books at home. It was he who interested me in the mix of railway economy and social history - which is what it's all about.

"I loved the place and the people, and the part I enjoyed most was the bit of the degree course that I fell into accidentally: Economic History. I graduated in 1988 with a 2.1."

Richard had always planned a short-term career in music, and his first job was as a session pianist for a production company based in Leeds. After a year, however, he realised a musician's career could be lonely, with unsociable hours and in-built disadvantages in arranging insurance and mortgages.

So, with little idea of what he wanted to do, he talked it through with his father and joined the London Underground Graduate Finance Scheme, where he qualified as a Chartered Management Accountant in 1992.

It was there his first real break came. With government funding cuts, an opportunity opened up to move into asset finance, and Richard joined a small team charged with finding innovative funding. He spent the next four years in train procurement. "That was one of the most exciting jobs in the world," he said. "People said it couldn't be done, but we pulled it off and secured new trains for the Northern Line."

In 1996 he was head-hunted by Babcock and Brown, and six months later was seconded to Virgin Trains, who were in need of experience in project management and train procurement. At a cost of 1 billion per train, it was no minor task, and again people said it could not be done. But, Richard said quite simply: "Those trains are now carrying passengers."

His first real board position came in 1999 with Virgin Trains, as a Non Executive Director. The same year, with two friends from Babcock, he set up a small consultancy, Quasar, who were quickly appointed by Abbey National to advise them on the purchase of a train leasing company. At the same time, Richard led Virgin's bid for the East Coast route and spent a lot of time negotiating with the Strategic Rail Authority. Though this was unsuccessful, it was his first insight into what the SRA was all about. [Photo: Richard Bowker with colleagues]

Quasar had only been operating for one year when Richard Branson asked him to join the Virgin team. It was a difficult decision. He liked the quality of life Quasar gave him, enjoyed working with his two colleagues, and the business was doing well, but he did not want to miss the experience of being Commercial Director of the Virgin Group as well as chairing Virgin Trains.

"It was," he said, "a fabulous year. You can't buy experiences like that. I learned a huge amount." Which was just as well, since just one year later he found himself at the head of one of the most troubled industries in the country.

"Running the Strategic Rail Authority is a challenge," he admitted, "but also enormous fun. We have changed the team at the top, and in the fifteen years since I left Leicester this is the best all round top team I have had the privilege of working with. We are going to change the world."

Meeting that challenge is not helped by constant negative reporting in the press. "Take the August Bank Holiday," he says. "Out of 10,000 miles of track we closed 77 miles. Around 30,000 trains ran and 25,000 people worked through the holiday to carry out necessary maintenance. Yet the press just homed in on the theme of chaos and distress. I don't care on my own behalf, but I do care about the thousands of staff who worked that weekend. It doesn't help their motivation."

Richard believes in the importance of detail in getting the customer experience right, and he was gratified to see the enthusiasm of the First Great Western staff when they became the first batch of staff to receive their Certificate in On-Board Service from City & Guilds. He has now set up the Centre for Rail Skills, a "virtual college" providing training at NVQ level as well as other levels to make such training and development more widely available across the rail industry. He is also pleased to see that graduate recruitment is rising again, having been a casualty of privatisation.

"A group of graduates working for South West Trains visited here and Network Rail, getting to see all parts of the industry, which is very important. A lot of our problems arose from a confrontational approach immediately post privatisation, which many mistakenly believed was all in the name of commercial competition. I have real confidence that the whole skills agenda, from the service operatives to the highest graduate post, will take off with increasing momentum."

Having steered the rail industry into a period of stability, following the post-privatisation explosion in demand and rising costs, he now sees the SRA's strategy as falling into three initiatives:

"We must set out clearly a long-term development strategy. We have started to do this and over the next year that will become clearer. Whilst ensuring the day job of running the network is done properly we must also plan for the future and so we are shortly to consult on plans to build a brand new high-speed line network in the UK. Secondly we have put in place a robust, long-term franchising programme. Thirdly, in January we will be making the rail's submission in the next year's spending review. We may ask for more cash, but the request will be supported by proper analysis and understanding of the effective cost of delivery, to give the industry a sustainable financial base."

With all the drive and enthusiasm which he invests in his job, he says he and his wife of one year, Madeline, have to work hard to find space for themselves. They share a similar passion for music and the countryside, and escape from their hectic professional lives with weekends in Herefordshire.

Has Richard Bowker changed substantially from the graduate who left Leicester in 1988? He does not think so. "I've been round the block a bit, of course, but fundamentally I still feel the same person. I've worked really hard not to become cynical. I remember Leicester with a huge amount of fondness. It was a fabulous time and a great preparation for all the things that followed."

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Last updated: 10 May 2004 10:55
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