AS Hitachi Rail Europe prepares to open its new Rail Vehicle Manufacturing Facility, Managing Director Karen Boswell speaks exclusively to Business Editor Andy Richardson.

AT the end of an hour-long interview I’ve taken down reams of notes but you can sum up Karen Boswell’s philosophy to life, business, and Hitachi’s bold plan for the North-East in one word: ‘Legacy’.

The last time I met Karen was on board the Flying Scotsman. The meeting was less romantic than it sounds. This was four years ago when the then boss of East Coast Trains was promoting a new Scotland to London express with a specially branded train which revived the name – if not the glamour - of arguably the most famous inter-city service in the world.

Since joining Hitachi Rail Europe in June this year Karen’s new role will see her spearhead a huge investment in County Durham.

When the Japanese multi-national chose a patch of land adjacent to Aycliffe Business Park as the site for its European rail manufacturing facility its bosses were well aware of the historical significance of their move. At 11am tomorrow 500 guests and more than 100 journalists from all over the world will gather to see the opening of a factory close to the site where Robert Stephenson gave Locomotion No 1 its trial run. Talk about legacy.

Karen doesn't hide her excitement about tomorrow’s event which she predicts will be “mind-blowing”. She is also brimming with enthusiasm about Hitachi’s vision for Aycliffe  which will be at the heart of the firm’s bid to help transform rail services across the UK and Europe.

In November the County Durham facility will start making trains for the Great Western route, with the first sets due to roll onto the network in spring 2016.

The Aycliffe plant has enough work to keep its 730 staff busy well into the next decade. From 2017 they will send out trains to replace the 40-year-old rolling stock on the East Coast main line, and Karen predicts the workforce will increase in size when  production starts of commuter trains for Scotrail that are due to enter service in 2017.

“I am quite clear about Newton Aycliffe being the manufacturing hub for customers right across Europe. We are here to stay,” she says.

“I think there is a whole renaissance in the industry. We are entering a new golden age.

“The UK market is incredibly buoyant right now. We have three (train-building) contracts and also on our technology side we secured the contract with Network Rail to deliver traffic management systems (for London’s Thameslink network). We're investing in depots - the contracts we've won include us maintaining the trains. We are thinking long-term.”

She adds: “I have got my eye on HS2. That is a fantastic project. What a brilliant way for us to demonstrate our engineering capabilities. We have a British bullet train concept, so we are very well positioned for HS2.”

I ask her: If Hitachi wins another major contract, such as making trains for HS2, will the Aycliffe factory be expanded?

“I always remember a piece of advice that my grandad gave to me which was - buy a greenhouse twice as big as you need as you’ll always need to grow into it. At Aycliffe we have room to grow,” she replies.

“My focus is on delivering these great contracts. With my background I have one eye always on the fare paying customer.”

Karen’s background is steeped in customer service.

In the late 1990’s, she worked for the support services company Aramark and before that she spent time in customer support roles with Granada and Allied Lyons. As Customer Services Director and later Deputy Managing Director at rail company First Capital Connect she oversaw a 10 per cent improvement on service quality and pushed overall satisfaction of the company in the National Passenger Survey.

In 2009 she became Managing Director at East Coast Trains when the rail firm was widely-regarded as a tainted company. She spent five years there and was at the helm when it was temporarily taken over by Directly Operated Railways until Virgin Trains East Coast took the franchise in March 2015. Whilst in this post, she was named ‘Woman of the Year’ in a national business competition, joining the Top 100 Club of Britain’s most influential women in hospitality, travel and tourism.

At East Coast, she led the company to its highest ever levels of customer satisfaction, and it becoming one of Britain’s most profitable train companies.

Why does she think Hitachi appointed her?

“You would have to ask Ali (Alistair Dormer, head of Hitachi Rail Europe) but I have a track record for delivery,” she says. “I am not an engineer, I’m not Japanese and I’m not a man so in that respect I was not a typical choice.

I'm known for focussing on people and customers. In my opinion making businesses tick is all about how you empower people to deliver what the customer wants.

Asked if she applied for the Hitachi job or if they approached her, she replies: “It was a private matter between me and Hitachi.”

She is more forthcoming when I ask her about her early life and what shaped her as a business leader.

Born in the centre of Bristol and raised in Hertfordshire her ancestors were coal miners in South Wales.

“I come from a real working class background that I’m immensely proud of,” she says.

“When my parents met, dad was a milkman and mum worked in the Fry’s chocolate factory in Bristol making Turkish Delight. He ended up becoming a buyer for Polycell, which was great because he was a massive DIY fan, and my mum went on to run her own marketing company.

“The family had a very strong work ethic. I believe in this life you get out what you put in. I realised if I worked hard I had choices. I’m very independent and never wanted to be reliant on anybody.”

Why did she gravitate towards a career in customer service?

“It is just who I am. I like working with big teams and bringing out the best in people. I like to innovate and make things better. I can trace that back through all of my career.

“I have always made the connection that if you listen to your customers and respond with your service you don’t go very far wrong. I think businesses that don’t do that can very easily get into trouble. A lot of businesses are run by financial experts but I don’t think what I do is a soft skill. Listening to your customers and engaging with your people delivers a profitable business.”

During her time with East Coast she moved to York and spent a lot of time in the North-East. 

“I think there is an honesty and straight-forwardness about people from this part of the world. People here have said to me: ‘I will do whatever it takes to make this work.’ I know they aren’t just words - there is a depth of feeling and a commitment. From my perspective I don’t think there was anywhere better to have built this new factory.

“Legacy stuff is important. When you are on this earth you need to make a difference and create something better for the people you pass it on to. That isn’t an ego thing; it is what we are here to do. It sounds a bit deep and philosophical but I believe it.

“What is important is the legacy you leave, the impact that you make. To have that legacy (of train-building) and to know that I am part of building a state-of-the-art manufacturing base that is going to help bring a renaissance to engineering in the UK, and that it backs on to a location where this industry started - how cool is that? It is real privilege.”

The legacy building begins tomorrow at 11am.

FIVE minutes with Karen Boswell, MD Hitachi Rail Europe:

1) Favourite North-East building and why?

This has to be Hitachi, Newton Aycliffe. We’ve already taken orders to build over 190 trains. I like the fact it brings new jobs and a bright future to one of my favourite parts of the country, the beautiful North-East.

2) What was your first job and how much did you get paid?

From the age of 13, I was a waitress at the Toby Grill. I worked out very quickly how to earn my own money. This meant I could shop in Chelsea Girl and choose my own clothes, rather than wear those my mum preferred. I earned quite a bit of money on the job, and also received great tips.

3) Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party.

I would choose Joyce Grenville, because I find her hysterical; having visited Giverny, I would love to chat to Monet; Agatha Christie would be my third choice, for the intrigue; and, Winston Churchill, to chat tactics, influence and unswerving nerve – and then garden design.

4) Who is the best person to follow on Twitter and why?

Hitachi of course: @HitachiRailEU.

5) Favourite book?

It would be my latest far-flung travel guide.

6) What is your greatest achievement?

My greatest achievement is bringing up my son and daughter to be wonderful human beings, while working and juggling a lots of other things along the way.

7) What's the best piece of advice in business you've ever been given?

Front-of-house attention to detail is important and matters. Standards are next to godliness.

8) What was the last band you saw live?

Fleetwood Mac - their performance gave me flashbacks to my late teens. I had the opportunity to see Kasabian a couple of weeks before this, which was amazing, and in December I’m seeing Def Leppard and Whitesnake as my Christmas treat.

9) In another life I would be...A time traveller.

10) What's your secret talent?

Flower arranging. I just love it. It gives me great pleasure, relaxes me and is a thing of beauty, well almost always.