Profile: Clive Gossop

MOANING about the state of Britain’s railways has been a national pastime since the days of George Stephenson.

Over the past two decades, the growth of consumerism has made passengers even more demanding.

Ramping up customer satisfaction levels has been a life-long mission for Clive Gossop, and dates from the time he first clocked on as a signalman in the early 1980s.

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In his latest role, as head of North Sea and Irish Sea operations at P&O Ferries, he’s keen to trumpet his ability to keep customers happy while trimming costs. He’s remembered fondly in Hull for his three-year stint as general manager of Hull Trains. Back in 2000, he helped to set up a firm that gave Hull a fast track to London, and even earned plaudits for its marketing strategy in California.

As a former regional director of the Rail Passengers’ Council, he’s unafraid to challenge the lazy and complacent.

To understand what makes him tick, you must turn back the clock almost 30 years and remember the unhappy state of Britain’s railways in the early Thatcher era. Clive Gossop stepped into this world as a teenager fresh from school.

Mr Gossop, who is based in Castleford, recalled: “Being a signalman teaches you about the disciplines you need to do a responsible job. It teaches you about playing within the rules. My godfather was a station manager in York. I was on a man’s wage, while my friends were earning half the money.”

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By 1989 he’d become a manager at Harrogate railway station, which placed him in the front-line of customer service.

“I’d started to work with passengers by then,’’ he said. “I got a buzz about working with people. At the time, the railway had a negative reputation. I thought I could change this.”

Few train travellers have fond memories of the 1980s.

“It (the railways) did have a shocking reputation,’’ said Mr Gossop. “There were late trains and a lot of lame excuses along the way, such as leaves on the line causing delays.”

According to Mr Gossop, in the decade following the Second World War, too many people regarded a position on the railways as a “dead end” job.

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“By the 1980s and early 1990s, something had to change. The world around us was gathering pace with customer services and we were lagging behind,’’ he said.

“I’ve always led by example. When you’re passionate about something and try to bring people with you and engage with them, it’s very difficult for them to go against that. They get caught up in the wave.”

He rapidly rose through the ranks at GNER, and by the time he joined Hull Trains in 2000, he’d developed a formidable reputation as a manager who could handle complex station building projects, while increasing the number of travellers in the first class carriages. A decade on, it’s important to acknowledge the hurdles Hull Trains faced. Mr Gossop negotiated the company’s 10-year track access deal, which was the first and only time this has been achieved by a non-franchised operator.

The firm’s marketing and public relations strategy was so compelling that it picked up the Mobius trophy – which is one of the world’s oldest independent international advertising awards – in Los Angeles.

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“Hull Trains made a big difference to Hull’s economy,’’ said Mr Gossop. “Before I joined there was a lot of investigative work about the viability of the service. There was a real desire, particularly in the business community, to develop the city and bring it to big city status. But not having a direct rail service to London had really inhibited that process.”

After a three year stint at Hull Trains, he took up a newly-created role at the Rail Passengers’ Council to speak up for the regional rail users.

Mr Gossop recalled: “At the time, services were being cut or under review. It was also when the East Coast main line was under review as well. People were potentially going to lose the vital networks that were going to take them on to the main line.”

He fought the passengers’ corner, but acknowledges that the railways had suffered from years of under-investment.

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Mr Gossop added: “There were many companies trading with old rolling stock under very tight financial constraints themselves.

“The attitude from the rail operators was positive and in the case of GNER, they were very customer focused. It was about focusing on the greater good, rather on one individual operator. Under-investment is still there, but it’s a long process with an awful long lead time.”

When he stepped down from the Rail Passengers’ Council, he was in demand as a trouble-shooter. In July 2005, he became interim operations director at Heathrow Express. He made the service more reliable and integrated the newly-opened Terminal 5 with Heathrow Express.

He took on the role of head of operations at P&O Ferries’ north sea operation in April 2006, and discovered it was the perfect test for his management and customer service skills.

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From a land-locked role, Mr Gossop found himself managing eight large ships with 650 staff. He also had responsibility for reeling in £55m of revenue at a time when the economy was about to feel the pinch.

He set to work changing the management style, placing the emphasis on “empowerment and accountability”. He saved £1.2m in his first year, and in 2008, Mr Gossop added the Irish Sea to his portfolio, which is freight-led.

He said: “The major challenge that we face, like every other transport operator, is the cost of fuel. You would probably expect that passenger numbers would go down (during a recession), but our passenger numbers have remained quite static.

“People still see this as a very viable way to travel. They like the convenience and the fact they can drive on and drive off the other end.

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“We operate two services, to Europort in Holland and Zeebrugge in Belgium. There are no current plans to expand.”

He’s proud of P&O’s community links, which includes sponsoring Hull FC rugby league team.

He added: “P&O does play its part in partnerships in the city. There has been a lot of investment in the city of Hull. That drives the local economy and can only be good for us.

“I’ve got an excellent management team behind me and we’ve made the operation a lot leaner. We’ve significantly improved the levels of customer service. In fact, our customer service statistics are probably the best in the transport industry.

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“The future is all about constantly changing and reacting to customer needs. It’s like a forward moving target.”

The sentiments of a man who puts the customer at the heart of his management strategy.

From signalman to sea role

Name: Clive Gossop

Date of birth: July 6 1964

Title: Head of operations P&O Ferries, North Sea and Irish Sea

Education: Eight O levels and three A levels

First job: Railway signalman.

Car driven: Mercedes

Favourite song: Too many to choose from, my favourite song and artist depends on my mood and what I’m doing at the time.

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Favourite holiday destination: Asia, Bali and Thailand are particular favourites

Favourite film: Bicentennial Man

Last book read: Humble Pie, Gordon Ramsey

Most proud of: My children, but as far as career goes setting up and running Hull Trains.