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London Underground FD Andrew Pollins FCCA is bringing a more commercial approach to the famous public transport system now that it has emerged from the ‘dark ages’ of PPP

Esther An

This article was first published in the June 2014 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

On the desk of London Underground’s finance director, Andrew Pollins FCCA, is a screen showing how all the various Tube and rail lines for which he is responsible are running. That may not be surprising but what is a little unexpected is his top key performance indicator (KPI) – lost customer hours. ‘It’s a measure of our reliability,’ he says. ‘You can’t have any discussions around developing our infrastructure and driving change if you can’t keep the service reliable.’

In fact, it’s a reminder of what attracted him to the job four years ago. ‘This organisation is just so important,’ he says. ‘It really does keep London moving.’

Transport for London (TfL) is the organisation responsible for everything from buses to Thames river boats to the rent-a-bike scheme. TfL is also responsible for the main roads through London. 

Pollins looks after the biggest part of TfL – the iconic London Underground (LU) – as well as the London Rail division, which includes the Docklands Light Railway, Tramlink and London Overground. The responsibility encompasses operations as well as huge capital investment, not least in station upgrades and rolling stock.

His remit expanded on the first day in the job with the news that TfL was acquiring Tube Lines, the public-private partnership (PPP) maintenance company. ‘That set out the stall for the next few years: constant change and constant challenge,’ says Pollins.

Tube Lines’ transition to TfL ownership was part of the start of a culture change within LU to minimise disruption to the travelling public: ‘In the old PPP regimes, station and line closures were a free commodity,’ Pollins explains. ‘Whereas in our world now we want to avoid closures at all costs because it massively impacts our customers.’

That inconvenience could hardly be blamed on cost restraints, though. ‘When I first arrived in 2010, the organisation was coming out of the dark ages,’ Pollins says. ‘There hadn’t been a lot of financial pressures. During the era of the PPPs, money was generally pretty free-flowing. The organisation was very focused on quality but not necessarily on value for money. Obviously, things absolutely had to change.’

For the year ended 31 March 2013, LU made an operating contribution of £443m on revenues of £2.3bn, equal to just over half the TfL total. This is used to help fund £1,128m of capital spend on projects to substantially increase the overall capacity of the Tube, the difference being funded through LU’s share of TfL’s borrowing and grant. This has not always been the case and getting from there to here was, says Pollins, a journey that began with a lot of little steps and a few very big ones. 

Culture change

‘People had become immune to where the decimal place was,’ he recalls, giving the example of a £30m project being described as ‘small’. ‘I wanted to make sure that we started to change the culture within the organisation.’ 

That started by trying to break a few habits – for example, a ban on colour printing and first-class stamps, and introducing ‘massive controls’ on spending on consultants and business expenses. ‘We basically locked everything down over a period of months to really reset the organisation,’ Pollins says. ‘Some of it was symbolic, because moving from first-class to second-class stamps is not going to help deliver a Victoria Station upgrade. However, it affected everyone and so people thought, “Ah, things are changing.”’ The programme was not only successful culturally; it also saved the organisation £50m. His ideas soon spread throughout TfL.

Towards the end of 2010 LU’s support functions were streamlined, reducing costs and improving support for the organisation. Again, the strategy was adopted elsewhere in the organisation. ‘There was a bit of a theme; we’d instigate something and then it would get adopted across TfL,’ he says, ‘which is great because I want to share best practice.’

But the culture change wasn’t just about cutting back on spending; it was about a top-level understanding of the organisation’s revenues. ‘I went to an LU board meeting and said, “What are the revenue figures?” “Oh, we don’t look at those. The mayor sets the fares,” I was told. I said, “How can you make decisions on costs if you don’t know whether your revenue is up or down?” This was all indicative of a lack of maturity in the organisation. We have revenues reported daily now. This feels much more like how a private-sector organisation would be run.’

While Pollins reels off upgrade and investment programmes, he talks a lot, too, about ‘the people agenda’, ascribing his interest in the concept to his original plan to pursue a career in the hospitality business; he joined Whitbread after studying for a degree in hotels and catering. 

‘Then I saw the light,’ he says. ‘I had an epiphany when, as part of my graduate training, I sat down with my HR colleagues and they were scratching their heads at the figures. I thought it was obvious what needed to be done. So I moved into finance after my graduate placement.’ His move up the career ladder included ‘coal-face’ operational roles. ‘Working in that type of hospitality, customer service-led organisation you realise the importance of people – so that’s ingrained in my DNA now.’ 

When he was promoted to financial controller of the five-star Marriott Hotel in the former London County Hall, the first thing he did was assemble the best team he could. Similarly, when he joined NCP in 2007, ‘I focused on engaging with and developing the team. And that was exactly what I wanted to do when I came to the Underground.’

Non-negotiables

On joining LU, his ‘non-negotiables’ included every staff member having regular one-to-ones with their managers. He also believes in having ‘a sense of urgency around performance management’, he says. ‘Within my top team we regularly review our stars to make sure we’re supporting and nurturing them, as well as our “challenging” performers to give them the right way to improve.’

Pollins wants his finance staff to be embedded and aligned with operations. ‘I want a finance professional sitting in Buckingham Palace Road where the sub-surface upgrade project is [LU’s £4.2bn upgrade of three Tube lines], supporting the director who runs that project, making sure they’re managing the risks,’ he says.

He also wants to develop a more simple, forward-looking approach to reporting. ‘This organisation likes to report – not KPIs, but APIs: all performance indicators. Everything you can possibly measure is in the report. We have to simplify our reporting and focus on insight and analysis rather than pure data production.’ 

In this, Pollins is drawing on his experience at Marriott Hotels, where ‘3/5/10 plans’ were prepared – the steps that would be taken if revenues were down 3%, 5% or 10%. ‘These things often happen quickly and you haven’t got time to think,’ he explains. ‘If you’ve done the work ahead of time, it makes you that bit more agile. You may do something different from what you planned but the principle of planning ahead and prioritising is really important.’

The accountability agenda also sees Pollins appearing before various City Hall committees. ‘There are a lot of formal meetings and many of these are in public,’ he says. ‘There are obviously political slants; you just have to stay calm.’

With huge numbers, public exposure, a public service that is critical to the lifeblood of the capital, a changing culture and a rapidly developing transport infrastructure, Pollins has a lot on his desk. He acknowledges the value of his ACCA Qualification. ‘Career-wise, I could never have progressed if I hadn’t done my exams,’ he says. ‘It teaches you discipline. It taught me how to be organised, and it helped me become who I am as a leader.’

He adds: ‘I like to get involved in lots of non-finance things. During the London 2012 Games I was the TfL travel ambassador sponsor.’ It is a role he still carries out and was important in helping to keep the Tube running during the strike in May. TfL had over 1,000 office-based staff helping to keep stations open and offering advice during this time. He sees these opportunities as a great way for office staff to gain exposure to the business areas they support. ‘It really helps you understand the operational aspects,’ he says. ‘And what’s fantastic is that it was fully embraced.’

So while you may never see Pollins driving a Tube train, don’t be surprised if you find yourself at Victoria on the platform being told by someone wearing a badge that says ‘finance director’ how best to get to Buckingham Palace.

Andrew Sawers, journalist

Last updated: 28 May 2014