QHow did you come to join the firm?
A I was approached by the company. A mutual friend knew I was looking to relocate to the South West and, at the time, the two general managers were nearing retirement age. The board was keen to combine both roles and appoint one GM to manage the entire business.
QWhat was the firm like then?
AThe firm was very much split into three divisions; the railway, the boat and the bus divisions. The railway, as you might expect, was stuck in the past and although this was part of its charm, you still want to be able to pay by credit card and have a good cup of coffee (and, alas, this was not the case). There was also a need for serious investment in buildings, equipment and people. The track, locos and boats have always been well maintained but that's where it ended.
QWho is you most significant mentor?
A While I was at Slough Estates I studied for an MBA at Henley Management College and the head of corporate strategy took me under his wing. His name was Roger Bell and he taught me to challenge conventional thinking and the importance of internal marketing. For instance, there is no point in having the best external marketing campaign if your staff are not fully briefed to take advantage of it. It can also be frustrating for customers and staff if they are unaware of marketing initiatives.
The second person who has been a great support is Philip Smallwood who is a friend and also a brilliant lawyer. He has been a great enabler, turning things round far quicker than I thought possible.
And finally James Davis, who is a nationally renowned surgeon. He makes what I do for a living seem totally insignificant in his ability to save, change and rebuild lives. He is a very humbling person to spend time with – he's also a great sailor.
QYou were very young to become the general manger?
A Perhaps, but I hope to be in the post for a long time (and am now the managing director). My decisions are long term strategies and I see myself much more as the custodian of the company not just the MD.
QHow quickly did things change?
A Slowly! The two general managers had a year's handover and would not release control until the full year was up. However, this was probably a good thing as it gave me time to immerse myself in the business and focus on the real issues. Since I took over at the helm we have built a new station at Paignton (in just 4½ months) and our new head office at Kingswear, installed a new state-of-the-art ticketing system, purchased two marine businesses, brought the paddle steamer Kingswear Castle back to the River Dart and built a new halt at Greenway. We also rebranded to form the Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company. During this time we have reported record profits as the business morphs into a year-round attraction.
QWhat have been your biggest challenges?
A Getting the staff to work and think as one company, changing the culture from a "what if" culture to a "can do" culture.
The old company was very much run for the staff. Although we are now much more customer centric, this takes time to filter through to all aspects of the business.
Keeping up with technology and giving the customer what they want is always a challenge. For example, we have just launched Augmented Reality (turning our 2D leaflets into 3D). This is because so many of our customers want to access information via their mobile devices – even our blog is now read well over 1,000 times per month (and growing). Its proved to be much more than just publishing timetables and fares and developed into "experiential marketing".
On a macro scale the major challenges are the decline in tourism in Devon (two per cent per year for the past five years), getting all tourism businesses to contribute to marketing the region and to convince South Hams District Council that tourism is a major part of the local economy.
QWhat are your greatest achievements since taking up the post?
AReturning the paddle steamer (KC) to her home waters of the River Dart had to be one of the best sights. The re-branding has also been a great success, particularly the adoption of the old 1930s style of poster art, using a restricted pallet to create a distinctive image. I guess the most rewarding thing is watching staff grow, investing in staff, seeing them develop and often become leaders and champions within the company. All too often companies don't invest in their staff in fear that the staff will take their new found skill and find better paid employment elsewhere on the back of it. However, more often than not this is a myth as in my experience they contribute far more than the cost of the training, grow in stature and develop others.
QWhat is your management style?
AEmpowerment. I don't believe in micro management (with the exception of marketing). I do, however, believe in giving staff the tools they need to carry out their job. There was a chap called Demming who is widely recognised as the person who turned round the Japanese car industry in the early 70s. His philosophy was to give staff the right tools and the right amount of time to do their job and, hey presto, quality improved. When we talk about "tools" we don't necessarily mean power tools or computers, we mean the creation of the right environment where staff are encouraged to contribute and work to the same purpose. In the construction industry we constantly challenged the way in which we delivered projects – after all you wouldn't buy a car that had been constructed in a muddy field! As a result we pioneered offsite prefabrication which lead to fast-track construction, improved quality and delivered major cost savings.
QDo you miss property development?
ASometimes yes. I was working on some really interesting and challenging projects, with some of the best designers and engineers in the World. Their creativity is infectious and very inspirational. Also the numbers of people to be employed on some of the business parks were equivalent to a small town or village and you realise you a creating an environment that will influence a considerable number of lives.
Q What awards have the company won recently
A Best Tourism and Leisure Award, Herald Express South Devon Business Excellence Awards 2014
Business of the Year, Herald Express English Riviera & South Devon Tourism & Hospitality Awards 2013
Tourism Experience/Activity Award, Herald Express English Riviera & South Devon Tourism & Hospitality Awards 2013
Innovation and Marketing Award, Herald Express English Riviera & South Devon Tourism & Hospitality Awards 2013
QWhat's next for the company?
AThe company is poised for great things; the management team is at the top of their game, the staff are highly motivated and effective and the four recent awards we have been bestowed are the icing on the cake.