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Interview with Beth West, Commercial Director at HS2, on shifting careers and life at HS2

Adam Fell, Principal Consultant at Investigo met with Beth West, Commercial Director at HS2, to discuss her career journey and life at HS2.

What has been your journey to HS2?

I started my career in Capitol Hill in Washington. From there, I did a master’s degree and went onto a project finance role in banking. In my banking career, I focused on the energy sector, plus some oil, gas and telecom. Once I moved to the UK, I landed in the corporate finance team at Transport for London and slowly got into the procurement side of things. I was an internal commercial consultant working on public-private partnership contracts. Later I picked up my first procurement role in London Underground’s commercial procurement team, which was largely an exercise in change management.

How did you shift from finance to procurement?

My banking roles were more or less about putting the finance element on top of construction contracts and then operating those contracts. I always wanted to move closer to where the work gets done, as I have this instinctive urge to keep things as simple as possible. When you look at traditional procurement, you can see it’s straightforward, and I really wanted to work in this area. I left TFL to join HS2 three years ago as it was my dream job to be involved in the development of this amazing project. I manage a team of 130 people across land and

property acquisitions, procurement and economic analysis.

What attracted you to HS2?

I’m a huge advocate of public transport. I’ve been working in infrastructure for 20 years and I firmly believe that a solid infrastructure is the driver of economic growth. HS2 is an opportunity to form a fabulous new backbone for the UK rail sector. For me personally, it’s really exciting to be part of the building of something fresh and new. 

How do you sum up your team’s role?

We’re a commissioning organisation and everything we do is under some form of contract. We organise ourselves so that we, the procurement team, support the budget holders responsible for delivery. We work closely with these teams to develop the procurement strategy and documentation and run through the procurement process. 

What’s your team looking at right now?

We’ve just sent out the first tranche of pre-qualification questionnaires for civil engineering works, although we won’t award these contracts for another 18 months. That’s the kind of time scale we’re looking at here. It’s the nature of procurement activities of this size and scale. We’ll have another tranche for the four train stations, and then the railway systems, communications, signalling and rolling stock. We’re working on the timings for these right now. Even though we’re not procuring anything yet, we still need to study what the passenger operations will look like and what the customer proposition will be. It seems an awful long way away, but we need to have a really clear direction to avoid unnecessary costs. 

How important is early supplier engagement?

For us, it’s incredibly important and I’m massively proud of our last two years’ efforts in engaging the market and making sure we’re really listening to suppliers. Because this is such a vast mobilisation, we need to take a lot of suppliers with us. We can’t be a rubbish client and simply hope they show up. We need to be a really good client, have a good competitive process all the way through, and stay one step ahead. 

Is being a new client a help or a hindrance?

I’d use the words ‘opportunity’ and ‘challenge’, and the answer is it’s both. The challenge as a new client is getting a good reputation without a track record. We can’t rely on people saying “they’re great, we love working with them”. We’ve got to build that from scratch. It’s about being an attractive client so we can get the best people bidding for us and working with us. 

What’s the key to being seen as a good client?

Talking and listening. We’ve got to clearly lay out what we want and then listen to what suppliers have to say. Does our vision actually meet the market appetite? If not, what are we going to do about it? It’s impossible to work with conflicting contracts. We have to work together because it’s in our mutual best interest to get a good outcome. So we try to reflect what our suppliers and potential suppliers are saying so that we can demonstrate we’re a client worth working with.

Does HS2 have a duty to do things differently?

I think so, yes. This is of course great, but it’s a big pressure too. When you have these amazing assets you’ve got to use the opportunity to modernise and revolutionise. Building a railway today is so much about software. The trains are designed on software, constructed on software and run on software. With something this big you get the chance to change things using new technology, which is a complete thrill.

How will HS2 look to innovate?

A lot of the most exciting innovations will be to do with customer experience, making things better than your average train ride today. Right now, Wi-Fi in trains is a disaster. So we’ll look to improve apps and connectivity. Another frustration for many, including me, is standing on a platform not knowing where your carriage is going to be. It’s a guessing game, and I’d like to change that. Also, if HS2 has paper tickets and gate lines in ten years’ time, we’ve failed to take advantage of advances in technology. We know from other rail networks around the world, and also from air travel, that you don’t need a paper ticket anymore. The technology exists to make train travel more pleasant, so how do we capture that? There are so many opportunities to improve passenger experience. It’s an amazing prospect to decide what this futuristic thing is going to look like.

How does the drive to innovate determine the type of talent you recruit?

We want people with the right behaviours. The right experience is nice, but behaviour and culture are more important to me. You want people who work collaboratively as second nature. You want people who reach out and pick up the ball. You want self-starters who like to take responsibility. And you want people who strive to find a way through. You can teach them the other skills – the process, the technical stuff. But you can’t teach behaviour or, at least, it’s very difficult. And, anyway, HS2 isn’t a place of business as usual. It’s more dynamic than that. So we’re looking at people with a mix of knowledge and experience, trying to mingle in those with assets from other sectors. Why not have a procurement person from the IT world put their take on the railway system? If we find a great supply chain person from retail, let’s get them in. I’m keen to add good practice from any sector to what we’re doing here. While not everyone will have the perfect skill set, it’s more important that we complement each other and learn from each other. 

What resourcing challenges do you face in the current market?

Skills and capacity. There are so many large infrastructure programmes happening right now that finding the right people is a struggle across many disciplines, not just procurement. The added challenge for us is that we’re competing for talent in a sector where a lot of people will retire in the next ten years and the graduates coming through simply aren’t up to standard. So who’s going to deliver these high profile programmes? The answer, and opportunity, for HS2 is to attract people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in rail and construction. Let’s make infrastructure a more appealing sector.

What can people expect when they work for HS2?

We’re a bit like a start-up in terms of mind set, while our working style is dynamic like a consultancy model. You’ll come in at whatever level and we’ll assign you to one or more projects. They might be big or small projects with big or small procurement activities. What we try to achieve is a balance of skill sets for the different activities, with people working in a fluid environment. You’ll work with different teams all the time and you’ll cross-fertilise knowledge. It means everyone’s both coaching and being coached in something new, which is how people develop their own leadership skills.

It sounds like this is the place for people to come and grow.

Yes. We’re just working on a competency framework so we can target our people’s development activities. Because ours is a longer term project than most, we need to be able to take people through the various stages of their careers, to train and develop them. HS2 is an opportunity for people who like to share knowledge, to develop others as well as develop themselves.

Do you have people from the private sector and how do they find life at HS2?

We have a mix of people and how they adapt to a government environment depends on the person rather than where they’ve come from. Some people struggle with it, but this is the fastest-moving government-owned project I’ve ever seen, so it’s super challenging and stimulating for the right personality.

Tell us about the National College for High Speed Rail.

This is very exciting. Because HS2 is such a long term programme, it’s a real opportunity for us to look at the skills gap in railway and construction and fill it. Most people in the industry are qualified to NVQ level 2 or lower. This is something we want to change. Railways are systems and you have to understand how all the parts fit together. The college will teach this, as well as project and commercial management. We also want to work on students’ transferable skills so that, when a project ends, they can move onto something else. After all, the reality is that most projects are short term. So, while we want students to specialise in certain areas, they need to be able to transfer and apply their skills to other projects.

When will the college open?

September 2017. There’ll be two sites - one in Doncaster and one in Birmingham. It’s about up skilling people and doing lots of training.

What’s HS2’s approach to diversity?

For me, diversity is about casting our net as wide as we can to find the right people, no matter what industry they come from. I want to look at a broad range of sectors to get the talent we need. That’s what I call diversity, rather than just bringing someone in based on their gender or ethnic background. It’s about looking at things in diverse ways, listening to a diverse range of views. And, once you get this diversity, doing something with it.

Is flexible working an option at HS2?

It is, and it’s something I’m really passionate about. We have people working four days a week and I try to work from home one day a week. Job sharing is a great option too, so I’d happily interview candidates wanting to do that. With good management and communication, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work. I think younger people now demand flexibility and it’s great that they’re actually saying “I don’t want to work that way”. It’s great because we probably all feel like this and we’re too scared to say it. While modern life demands flexible working, modern technology enables it. We need to embrace flexibility or we won’t succeed in diversity. It’s not only women who want flexibility, everyone does. I look around my neighbourhood and notice all the dads doing the morning drop-off while the mums do the evening pick-up. Parents today have massive sharing responsibilities, so both their jobs need to be flexible. Aside from working parents, most people don’t want a job where they merely clock in and out. They want a more meaningful job that’s about output and results rather than being seen at their desk. I’m obsessed with how we offer this, and reflect modern life, if we want to attract the best talent. It’s especially important for us because our industry isn’t seen as sexy. We’re competing with start-ups and dynamic tech companies like Google. How can we measure up? My final point on flexible working – you can tell I really care about this! – is a purely cultural one. We all need time to rest or we won’t perform our best. I used to be a rower, and I use this analogy as a good approach to working. Everyone brings their own strengths to the team, but you have to know how to work together and when to step back. That, I think, is the key to our collaborative culture at HS2.