ALEXANDRA COX FINANCE AND COMMERCIAL DIRECTOR OF SWIETELSKY CONSTRUCTION COMPANY
Alex Cox is the Finance and Commercial Director of Swietelsky Construction Company. She joined the company in 2016 having previously served in the Armed Forces and worked in the Facilities Management and Construction Industries. She has a degree in Accountancy and Finance from the University of Dundee and is a qualified Chartered Management Accountant.
When did you join the Company?
I joined the company in 2016 having relocated to Glasgow with my husband. I had previously been in finance roles in the facilities management and construction industries and had served in the Armed Forces. I initially took on the role of Finance Manager working with both Swietelsky and in our Joint Venture with Babcock, Swieteleky Babcock Rail.
What is your role within Swietelsky?
I am currently the Finance and Commercial Director overseeing all the support functions within the business such as finance, commercial, procurement and HR and work closely with our operational teams providing advice and to ensure the successful delivery of our contracts.
Swietelsky UK started in 2004 and formed a joint venture with First Engineering which resulted in the JV delivering track renewals for Network Rail utilising specialist renewal systems. The success of this five-year joint venture was largely due to Swietelsky’s experience in European high speed track renewal and maintenance of the plant. With five years of sustained and successful work in the UK, the JV went on to supply On Track Machines to Network Rail.
In 2006 we introduced two Plasser and Theurer AFM 2000 High Output track finishing systems for ballast management. These machines became critical to Swietelsky beyond 2009 as we moved into a National Plant Contract with Babcock to deliver OTM (On Track Machine) shifts for Network Rail under the National Plant Contract. This Joint Venture is called Swietelsky Babcock Rail or SB Rail in short.
Since 2010, we have continued to invest millions in plant and depots and we now employ over 110 people in the UK, with over 20 machines and four rail cranes. We are regarded as market leaders in the industry and our strategy to invest in people, depots and the latest machinery will continue. Although as a company we are not particularly well known in the UK we have invested over £50 million in new on track plant, which shows a real level of commitment and passion to keep moving the technology forward to meet the demands of a modernising railway.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability is multifaceted. I believe it consists of three areas social, environmental, and economic, and where all of these intersect this is true sustainability. Social sustainability is investing in people. This is done by providing employees of the company with support in their role, and through training, investing in education, providing apprenticeships and graduate training programmes to invest in future talent. We have been looking at eco initiatives to provide benefits to our employees which align with our business needs and have an enhanced package for those switching to electric vehicles. Importantly we need to ensure that we maintain and support our existing work force.
Economic sustainability is investing into the company, so we need to maintain and grow the business whilst managing the changes and social impact that this may have. We are always looking at investment in newer more efficient technologies which reduce where possible the environmental impact or disruption. We also are looking at responsible consumption of resources by the business, by being transparent about where we can improve and not just carbon offsetting.
Finally, environmental sustainability is the responsible use of resources and realising what impact the industry or business has on our environment. This includes how the company consumes and manages resources, investment in circular practices and the sustainable acquisition of parts and buildings. Balancing all areas is true sustainable development which is constantly evolving. We acknowledge that more can be done and we are always looking to grow into new areas whilst realising not just the current impact but the impact on generations to come.
How passionate are you about sustainability in the rail sector, and how do you go about sourcing the materials for your products?
Swietelsky has recently invested, trialled, and implemented a range of innovative practices for reducing carbon emissionsand waste, and opportunities for a more circular economy. We have already switched to sustainable products and have adopted many techniques for reducing waste re-using and recycling, and we continue to trial and look for further opportunities. Our policy is to consider options and establish the most cost effective and environmentally friendly means of materials procurement, operating our services and managing waste materials. We look at options in the order of most desirable method of managing, reducing and sustaining materials always using the principle of sustainability. This includes:
• Avoid– check for an alternative sustainable product or method of delivery that avoids the production of waste.
• Reduce– reduce waste at the source of production and during operations.
• Reuse– can waste be reused on the contract or can it be used on other rail contracts.
• Recovery– recycled or put to another process.
• Disposal – landfill or incineration.
In 2019 we switched to entirely using biodegradable hydraulic oil on the entire OTM fleet for all our contracts, which significantly reduces airborne emissions and environmental pollution and has comparative properties to other hydraulic fuels. Bio oil can be dialysed and is more resistant to breaking down and as such has a longer lifecycle as the intervals between oil changes are significantly longer, reducing sourcing requirements and waste.
We continue to seek and work with suppliers who are looking to reduce their carbon footprint. This may be by trying to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, such as recycling of hardhats to promoting energy efficient transportation. We have recently looked at the volume of supply of consumables to our depot. By forecasting the expected requirement of consumables for a month, one monthly order can be placed rather than ordering as items run out. This is a more efficient way of working and saves on transportation costs.
What are some major projects you’re currently working on?
The two main projects that we are currently working on in the UK are firstly the National Plant Contract which supplies, operates, and maintains On Track Machines to Network Rail to maintain plain line track and switches and crossing to the required track quality standards.
The Tampers and Ballast Regulators may be used for maintenance, renewals, and enhancement purposes. We carry out this contract under the SB Rail banner and are currently in year six of a seven-year contract. Secondly, I am the Commercial Lead for Swietelsky on the East Coast Digital Project which is the upgrade of the East Coast Main Line with state of the art digital signalling. As part of this project, we are due to have five of our on track machines fitted, one 09 3X and four 09 4×4’s and will be doing two of these as First in Class. There is a small project team in place who are dedicated to this project and will continue to develop in our business as further digitisation projects are rolled out. This is an exciting time for the business being at the forefront of such a change although it will no doubt come with its challenges!
What are some of the biggest challenges this sector currently faces?
In my opinion one of the biggest challenges that that the sector faces is in recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce. I believe that Covid has had a large impact on the workforce as a whole across all industries. Many of today’s workforce recognise the importance of greater work life balance and this can be particularly challenging when we work on a rostered basis including nights shifts. As a company we work our rosters so that our employees know their likely working pattern many weeks out which allows them to plan both work and their family life. The rail industry offers a breadth of career opportunities that are not well understood.
However, the innovation and technology introduced to the industry over the last 10 to 15 years is such that young people should be inspired to seek out a career in rail. Swietelsky are active in this regard using engagement in the Primary and Secondary Engineer programmes to encourage school children and school leavers to take up a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) based career paths. By stimulating interest in these subjects and illustrating the prospects for a fruitful and rewarding career, we believe this will encourage interest and expand understanding in STEM subjects at school age. This is obviously beneficial to the entire engineering sector. We have encouraged work experience at our depots and are looking to formalise this to link with local schools to offer placements on an annual basis.
How can the industry tackle its skills shortage and how do you recruit/retain/ train your staff?
As a business we operate both Graduate and Apprentice Schemes. For Graduates this is a two-and-a-half-year programme whereby we seek to recruit candidates to rotate around various business units on a series of placements relevant to their educational background. Formal reviews and assessments are carried out with the staff throughout the programme ensuring that they are meeting the required criteria, both technically and academically. One Graduate who is currently supporting the National Plant contract has been assisting with our ongoing registration for ISO 55001 Asset Management standard; this will be a clear benefit for the business and the contract.
We currently employ five apprentices who are engaged in a four-year programme. The apprentices work with an appointed mentor during which time they are assessed by an approved assessor on an ongoing basis. This leads to a qualification as a Maintenance Operations Engineering Technician, for example specialising in an Electro Mechanical discipline. At the end of the scheme, they are placed into permanent roles commensurate with the skills and knowledge gained during the previous years. This provides ongoing succession within the business, workforce sustainability and stability for our contracts.
Succession planning is very important to us as a business. We need to protect the business against the effects of workforce ageing. Whilst we operate a comprehensive training and assessment process for our trainees, we have had success in our recently developed driver and operator training programmes. These trainees are assessed on an ongoing basis and given suitable training under the direction of our Driving Standards Manager, Supervisors and Technical Trainers. To date we have put twelve staff through our driver training programme which has allowed us to relieve pressure on route availability for our expanding on track machine fleet.
Our trainees are recruited from a range of recruitment and training platforms and intermediary organisations who have access to under-represented groups. Through these we open our business fully to equality of opportunity and we actively welcome diversity amongst our staff. These schemes create numerous future opportunities for staff and their career development. The benefits of such schemes are that they ensure that we provide a robust level of staffing continuity, crucial for providing stability for the business and the contract.
We also consider it very important to encourage retraining of mature skilled workers who have chosen to change their career path and offer new opportunities for mature members of the population. To this end one of our focal points is the Armed Forces. Swietelsky have signed up to the Armed Forces Covenant and have taken many staff from the services and retrained them as drivers, technicians and operators with excellent results. These staff already come with a strong skill base and work ethic and have proved to be vital in developing our apprentices and younger trainees.
How do you make your business a good place to work?
Swietelsky take enormous pride in its employees, every individual is seen to be an asset to the company and we strive to be an employer of choice. This starts from day one of employment where we have a dedicated induction programme where all of our new employees are able to meet leaders and colleagues from various departments. Our one team approach encourages an open and honest team culture.
Our training team work with all our employees to ensure every employee has an individual training plan as well as a dedicated mentor from day one of joining our company. This not only includes our apprentices and graduates but current employees who benefit from the opportunity to further their training whether it be on new technology or through enhanced training programmes.
Many of our depot staff have had the opportunity to visit our parent company depot in Fischamend, Austria to both work with and gain knowledge from their Austrian colleagues. We have recently had opportunities to assist in Australia and Hungary using our employees experience to train overseas colleagues.
We have a dedicated team of Safety Representatives who work closely together and with all our operational staff and support teams, to identify risks and look at how we continue to uphold our high standards. The team is made up of representatives from different functions across the business and is focused on the safety of our employees in respect of both physical and mental everyday health.
We have a dedicated HR Team who have implemented a number of wellbeing initiatives. We recognise the requirement to tailor specific programmes of wellbeing designed for our workforce. We are committed to support our employees with family friendly policies and recognise that ensuring a good work life balance promotes a healthy and engaged workforce.