The past 18 months has seen a perfect storm hit Eurostar. Terror attacks in key destinations Paris and Brussels coupled with the ongoing migrant crisis undermined passenger numbers and confidence, before Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June further unsettled the business.
Throw in increasing competition from budget airlines and the challenges of adapting to a new fleet of trains, and director of people Gerard Jacques has faced a baptism of fire in his first year in the job, despite more than 15 years in senior HR roles.
So how has he found it? “A number of things have made it a challenging environment for us in the year since I’ve joined and I hope many of them haven’t been my fault,” he laughs.
“We’ve been running as a business since 1994 when the tunnel opened, and we really haven’t seen some of the key challenges we’re having before. We would consider it a perfect storm of issues.”
The problems could not have come at a worse time for the rail operator. In 2015, the British government sold its 40% share in parent company Eurostar International Limited to private investors, with the other 60% owned by the national state railways of France and Belgium. The sale has seen a renewed focus on profitability, with investment in a new higher-capacity fleet of e320 trains also expected to increase turnover. The days of governmental bailouts are long gone.
“My role in the past year has been to make sure the organisation is in a fit state to deliver for the future and has the right people in place to get us through these challenges with the resilience, ideas, tool and techniques. It’s not a challenge I was expecting, but it’s one I’m relishing and believe we’re capable of dealing with,” insists Jacques.
Jacques is targeting two key themes. First, the simplification of HR processes to enable a more agile and fast- moving organisation; and second, improved communication across the business.
“I’m a Welsh working-class boy, so for me, it’s all about openness and honesty within the business. I don’t want us only to talk about good news stories. I want us to talk about the truth of how the business is doing, whether with managers, trade unions or employees. We shouldn’t be afraid.”
Eurostar has three core values – being connected, caring and ambitious. For Jacques, open conversations are the essence of how he sees Eurostar’s people embodying these values, as well as key to working with all stakeholders to find solutions. Without it, he feels the organisation could be in danger of not facing up to current challenges.
“Our culture has been successful, but it has maybe grown a little too comfortable. Perhaps some people feel that everything is ok and will return to the way it used to be. If not, the government will help.
“We need to understand that is no longer the case. We stand alone and have to be very critical in terms of how we generate revenue. The more open we are about that, the better.”
Part of the process of shaking up this complacency has been Eurostar’s senior management recruitment policy. Jacques’ own appointment, as someone with limited experience of the railway industry, is unusual in a company where many leaders come from a railway background and have been with the business for several years.
However, his experience in the travel sector – Jacques spent three and half years as head of HR at Gatwick Airport – means he has experience of how budget airlines are increasingly encroaching on Eurostar’s customer base. He cites easyJet’s ability to tie customers into hiring cars, hotels and insurance alongside travel as an area Eurostar needs to develop in the future.
“It’s about creating a travel experience, rather than just a train experience,” says Jacques.
Another significant hire is recently appointed chief operating officer Philippe Mouly, who has overall responsibility for the company’s productivity, while the organisation is also reviewing its customer experience leadership. Jacques believes this influx of new talent from external businesses will help Eurostar develop a raft of new strategies that will help it become more innovative and profitable.
“As the business has grown up, the willingness to bring in more external people from other industries has opened us up,” he explains. “We’ve become more successful in terms of integrating them effectively into the business.’
While Eurostar’s brand continues to be attractive to employees, Jacques admits there are areas in which the operator needs to recruit more aggressively, such as technology.
He also wants to improve the visibility of the organisation’s talent development options.
Written performance reviews are currently held every six months, but Jacques is aiming to move towards more frequent reviews undertaken in a ‘live’ environment, allowing employees to see more clearly where they sit within the business and the various opportunities open to them.
He is confident that this will render the business more agile, employees more engaged, and processes simpler to manage.
Simplifying HR process
The streamlining of processes is a theme to which Jacques keeps returning throughout our conversation. He says his goal for the upcoming year is to “finish the simplification process and for HR to be seen as a core value added function”.
Put yourself in the shoes of a line manager at 2am, who has a disciplinary, a performance review and people absent all over the place. What do they need? What barriers are stopping them doing their jobs? Whatever they are, pull them down,” he urges.
To do this, Jacques is making a simple transition: moving the majority of Eurostar’s HR policies from being paper-based to an online intranet. Doing so allows line managers to access documents easily and removes the need for HR to get involved at every step.
Jacques is also stripping back Eurostar’s policies and procedures and making the language used less technical and more accessible to employees implementing them.
“It’s about putting it in a language for line managers, not for HR. We’re not the ones using this stuff. It’s about getting things out of a Times style to more of a Sun type of language,” says Jacques.
Ft for the future
Ultimately, Eurostar is an organisation in transition, moving from a part government-owned entity to a private company with all the associated growing pains. A new London-to-Amsterdam service has been postponed until late 2017, having previously been scheduled for December 2016.
However, Jacques sees a real reason to be optimistic. “For the size of our business, our brand is very well-known,” he says. “We’re seen as a premium product and the experience we give our customers is still very good. We can’t bow down to the pressure of slashing prices like the airlines.
“However, I feel some of the quirkiness has gone out of Eurostar. When we first started, we used to do special trains for events. We need to bring back that fun element,” he suggests.
This quirkiness, whether train routes through France’s wine regions, special trains for football fans at summer tournaments, or culinary experiences onboard (Raymond Blanc is Eurostar’s culinary director) is what sets Eurostar apart from its rivals.
Honest and open HR
For Jacques, HR can play its part by ensuring employees feel free to contribute to all elements of Eurostar – and by being visible throughout the business.
“HR needs to be out there, proactive. What I want is an honest conversation whenever I meet with people. These conversations are the only way we’ll get total alignment. Nothing hidden, everything on the table, all aware of what we need to do,” says Jacques.
“We want simplification everywhere, not just in HR, because delivering simpler processes internally also simplifies our customer processes.”