Half Dutch, half South African, with a background in international logistics, Jeff Hoogesteger was appointed CEO of Abellio Group shortly before the company took on responsibility for the new Abellio Greater Anglia franchise in early 2012. With the Stratford Olympic site at the heart of its network, this was a daunting prospect particularly given the lack of a detailed operational plan when Abellio took over the franchise

‘With my background, I love nothing more than a challenge,’ said Hoogesteger. ‘The largest peace time mobilisation for a country is widely recognised as that for a summer Olympics. The near flawless performance of the transport system during that period was a testament not only to the partnership credentials of the whole industry, but also to the professionalism of the staff in our rail and bus companies. I was very proud to lead Abellio at that time and remain so as our people across Europe continue to provide essential services to customers every day of the week, every week of the year.’

Before coming to Abellio Group, Hoogesteger was corporate development director Europe for Abellio’s parent company Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), Dutch Railways. ‘However, my journey started 28 years ago when I founded my own international freight transport and logistics business after spotting what I believed was an obvious gap in the market. In 2001 I sold that business and joined TNT where I worked in a number of senior executive and board positions around the world before being made chief executive of the Freight Management division.’

Continued Hoogesteger, ‘I was retained as chief executive when TNT Freight Management was acquired by the French logistics and transport group SNCF Geodis in 2006. We were rebranded as Geodis Wilson and over the next three years I served as a board member helping to grow turnover from €800 million to €2.5 billion, with operations in 54 countries.’

Was it the opportunity to manage an international business that encouraged him to move from NS to the helm of Abellio? ‘That was one of the attractions,’ admits Hoogesteger, ‘but the real attraction was the opportunity to run another international development programme. There’s little doubt that the Abellio Greater Anglia franchise and our new contracts in Germany had transformed the business in a short period, but there were also significant new opportunities to grow Abellio both profitably and sustainably over the longer term. I felt from the beginning that the key to doing so was to build energy and enthusiasm across the business for continuous innovation and responsiveness to the changing transport needs of society. This is something I find incredibly motivating.’

Opportunities to grow

There clearly are opportunities for Abellio to grow. The company is currently bidding for three UK franchises (Thameslink, Essex Thameside and ScotRail) and negotiating with the Department for Transport on terms for the extensions of Northern Rail and Greater Anglia. Its UK bus company, Abellio London and Surrey, is also bidding for new routes and working to retain current contracts as they come up for renewal. All this is in addition to a busy programme on the Continent, where Abellio is running train, bus and tram services in Germany and the Netherlands, and a bid office in Copenhagen is working to gain a foothold in the liberal Scandinavian markets.

Against this background, how does Hoogesteger maintain the energy and enthusiasm of staff for continuous innovation and responsiveness to customers across such a diverse business group? ‘It certainly isn’t simple,’ he admits, ‘but complexity should never be a barrier, and personally I enjoy tackling complex issues. They often have simple solutions.

‘Our staff are the most important part of our business. I decided very early, therefore, that Abellio needed to engage them all, regardless of sector or nationality, with a programme that would communicate the vision of the business and their role in delivering that vision. I call that programme ‘The Abellio Way’.

‘Abellio knows that to succeed as a business, the transport industry must be in good shape. Our way allows our people the freedom to be themselves so that they can achieve their full potential, not only while they are with us, but throughout their entire career; this is our commitment to travel as a whole.’

Slip in satisfaction

However, it takes more than a cultural programme to build continuous improvement. What does Hoogesteger make of the recent slip in satisfaction scores for Abellio’s biggest UK franchises Northern Rail and Abellio Greater Anglia?

‘The regular National Passenger Survey is an extremely valuable tool for rail businesses. We take the findings very seriously and every six months review our service strategies to address significant results. I’m disappointed of course that overall satisfaction with Northern has declined slightly (-2 per cent) compared to Autumn 2012. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see it has improved (+2 per cent) since the Spring 2013 survey. The results show that this improvement was driven by higher satisfaction with the cleanliness of Northern’s trains and also higher punctuality. We’re continuing to invest in areas that will improve our customers’ experience with us; including the upkeep of our trains and keeping passengers informed, particularly during disruption.’

‘At Abellio Greater Anglia overall satisfaction was 80 per cent, compared to Autumn 2012 when it was 83 per cent. We have to remember that Autumn 2012’s score was inflated by the magnificent performance during and after the Olympics which I mentioned already. Autumn 2013, however, was more challenging and the period included extreme storms. The geography of the franchise makes it very susceptible to disruption because of fallen trees and other debris obstructing rail lines and damaging overhead power lines. We’re not complacent though, and continue to make good progress investing in station improvement schemes, in better customer service and rolling stock upgrades. I hope to see the results of this investment reflected in future surveys.

‘At the other end of the scale, though, we have Merseyrail who delivered overall satisfaction of 93 per cent, which represents the company’s second highest score, surpassed only by the 96 per cent of Spring 2012. The geography of Merseyrail makes it less suceptible to weather-related disruption, but this shouldn’t overshadow the amazing efforts of staff who work very closely with our our client, Merseytravel, to deliver the highest levels of service and information we can for passengers.’

The success of Merseyrail’s approach was highlighted most recently in the Which? survey of UK train operators where the business topped the industry league table and made it the first train company to become a Which? Recommended Provider. Quite an accoloade, but how does Hoogesteger explain the wide variances in performance by these Abellio companies?

‘As I said, there is clearly a geographical factor at play. Nevertheless, it isn’t as simple as that and you can be assured that we are working hard to facilitate learning and best practice exchange between the key staff in these businesses. I am working closely with the UK management teams to make sure we respond appropriately to the most recent NPS data in all our companies.’

International best practice

The exchange of best practice is a frequent mantra across the transport industry. What makes Abellio’s approach any different or better for passengers? ‘We’re one of the few, and possibly the only operator with a fully funded international best practice exchange programme,’ points out Hoogesteger. ‘The programme has regularly resulted in the sharing of ideas and innovations by Abellio staff and these have delivered service improvements for passengers.

‘Abellio’s best practice framework is at the at the heart of our business approach. We serve passengers better by cascading best practice throughout our companies. The most recent example of this is the new Bike&Go scheme. Based on a hugely successful Dutch scheme called OV Fiets, Bike&Go is the UK’s first fully integrated cycle hire scheme for train stations.

‘At £3.80 for 24 hours hire it represents a healthy, attractive and affordable way to continue a journey from a train station. In the Netherlands it has stimulated modal shift from car to train by more than two per cent, and that’s in a country where bikes outnumber people. We’ve adapted that scheme for the UK market and have now rolled it out at almost 50 stations across our franchises.’

On the subject of international experience, is Hoogesteger comfortable with the fact Abellio is able to compete for UK services when its Dutch domestic market remains closed to competition?

‘Abellio was established in 2001 with a view to expanding the experience of NS into new markets, and it is the customer who is the first beneficiary of this broadening of horizons and experience. Since that time our focus has quite naturally been on the liberalised countries in which we are able to compete on a level playing field: the UK, some states of Germany, Sweden and, you may be surprised to learn, the Netherlands where Abellio has bus and tram services. And Abellio isn’t the only private operator in the Netherlands – Arriva (DB),Veolia (SNCF) – are operating commercial, competitive services there. The core network of the Netherlands may not be open to competition, but the complexity of that network in one of the most densely populated countries in the world makes liberalisation a challenge we have to approach cautiously.’

Confident of the Abellio name

Returning to the UK, we asked Jeff about the gradual appearance of the Abellio name on the Greater Anglia franchise over the past six months. The recent publicity about excrement on the tracks at Liverpool Street Station would make most owner groups squeamish about applying their own name to an operating brand. Why is Abellio so confident about doing so?

‘First let me deal with that particular issue. It certainly does make me squeamish, but this is an industry-wide issue not unique to this franchise. Many of our trains already have retention tanks fitted and some additional carriages are currently being upgraded with new toilets and retention tanks. You’ll recall that Abellio Greater Anglia is a short franchise, though, and we had to accept the rolling stock specified in the franchise agreement. Upgrading will therefore be a gradual process, and in the meantime we are asking people to use the station toilets while trains are parked.’

‘However, issues such as this should not influence brand decisions. The correct focus for such decisions should be the desire to engage and motivate staff in order to continuously improve performance. This is our aim with the Abellio Greater Anglia brand. This simple brand evolution has been developed as part of a Group-wide brand approach aimed at leveraging performance and best practice across all Abellio companies. We’ll do this by embedding the common values and strategic behavioural framework of The Abellio Way, which I mentioned earlier.’

‘This branding programme is an evolutionary process which will keep costs down and allow us to roll out benefits for Abellio Greater Anglia customers. For example, all staff will be coached in Abellio’s clear and easily understood values system. At a more practical level trains will get a deep clean when we replace faded logos, labels and posters.This will run in parallel with planned rolling stock paint programmes, for example MK3 and Class 90 locomotives. Aligned with station maintenance and redecoration key stations will receive new way-finding (signage), which has been long overdue. Marketing communications, websites and digital platforms will also be reviewed and and refreshed, for example the Abellio Greater Anglia website will be comprehensively reviewed over the next four months in order to improve functionality.’

A ‘lifestyle facilitator’

The phrase ‘beyond a-to-b’ is quite visible in the Abellio brand, what does it mean? ‘Passengers travel from door-to-door, rather than from station to station,’ explains Hoogesteger. ‘Their journey goes beyond a-to-b. With our portfolio we are able to combine modalities, retail and station development into one service concept. We consider ourselves a convenience provider or lifestyle facilitator. Concepts like Fixing the Link, MtoGo and Bike&Go are results of that. Our solutions are not simply profit driven, but aim to serve client needs, both passengers as well as the tendering authorities. This represents a major opportunity for us to be different from other train operating companies and, as I’ve described, we build on it by sharing best practice to expand the value for money we can offer.’

Busy right now

So what’s keeping Hoogesteger busy right now? ‘Other than the many bids and other negotiations across Europe, I’m preparing to host our annual staff awards, The Triple A’s. These are the inaugural staff awards for Abellio Group, and will cement The Abellio Way programme. I’ve been through all the shortlists and have been impressed, humbled and moved by the entries. I look forward to meeting the nominees face-to-face and rewarding them for their actions and commitment.

‘We have also just launched Abellio’s graduate trainee programme in the UK, and again I’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction. Talent is crucial for building sustainable success and I’m delighted that Abellio is now in a position not only to incubate talent from within but also to introduce young graduates to the challenges and rewards of the passenger transport sector.There are few other sectors that can rival it for the development of business expertise. I should know.’