“Franchisees in the evolving privatised railway found little value in my area of expertise, convinced that far more sophisticated management systems would be developed. I was labelled a troublesome misfit and offered a redundancy package.”Jim Talbot, MBA 2002, Australia
When privatisation of the Rail Network in Australia meant sweeping changes to his industry, Jim Talbot recognised that change would bring with it new challenges and new opportunities. He decided he needed to upgrade his skills and develop his thinking in order to rise to those challenges and make the most of the opportunity to set out on his own as an entrepreneur and business leader working in this new environment. On the recommendation of an undergraduate teacher, Jim took advantage of a University of Hull MBA course delivered in Australia. This represented the start of an exciting new chapter in his career.
“I was looking for something that would help me understand the big picture with privatisation and how I could become a productive participant in this new world. One of my undergraduate lecturers had completed the Hull MBA, knew my situation well and suggested the Hull MBA, heavily focused on Quality Management Systems (a big deal at the time), delivered by UK lecturers flown to Australia, was my best option. The lecturers I had were highly regarded in academia, for their consulting work in business and generally held senior positions at the university. The Hull MBA provided the life changing panacea I was seeking.
“The impact was instant. I was able to mobilise opportunities of providing well managed rail operational support for private sector companies, focused on their specific requirements. My peers, with similar railway expertise, gained some consultancy work, however my studies at Hull, gave me a tool-kit and the confidence to navigate into the corporate world as an employer. I monopolised the market with an ecological niche, that today employs over 300 safety critical workers deemed essential for railway maintenance and construction activities Australia wide.”
In 1998, as well as starting his MBA, Jim became founder and CEO of Safeworking Solutions, with a mission to maintain and develop traditional skills in Railway Operational/Safeworking management, but within a modern and competitive business environment created by the privatisation.
“At the time of privatisation of the Victorian rail network (1998),” says Jim, “I was considered one of the best performers in safety critical railway operations. My title was Field Operations Manager, a job where any failures were highly visible with devastating consequences. We have competitors entering our space, that are unable to map/measure (manage) a viable business in an that environment that, when you get it wrong, can be brutal and unforgiving. I have over 300 employees confident that as their chief, I am able to lead the company with marketable relevance in a constantly changing industry. Key elements of this success I attribute to my studies at Hull where I was able to grasp a holistic concept of a rapidly changing industry.”
Insights gained from the course combined with his own experience and thorough knowledge of his industry enabled Jim to find a niche for himself and his business, so that he would quickly become indispensable, contracting to the new privatised companies operating on the rail. And a key part of his success lay in the combination of academic learning with a good understanding of people and what makes them tick.
“Without a doubt the most significant achievement from my MBA studies was developing an understanding of middle management and how to harness that skill, loyalty and energy. Several of the course units focused on systems management when designing a business. However middle managers, in those designs, were often viewed as a black box, something unfathomable, that responded in unpredictable ways, to various inputs, often arbitrary to organisational goals. I was a middle manager stuck in that box looking outwards, definitely viewed as arbitrary by my SA senior management and underestimated by commercial companies. Middle managers in my world, construct their career paths with a heavy personal investment in non-transferable, inhouse or industry specific skills. This can cause considerable anxiety and mistrust, with associated behavioural and loyalty issues, if senior management appear indifferent, or inept to deal with, the wellbeing and future prospects of their middle managers and the importance of the skills they possess.
“The core of this problem, to me, was the marginalisation of middle management. In my MBA thesis I researched the way different work groups had slightly different interpretations of the Railway Rule Book (which was established by an act of parliament not by best practice) and how middle management remarkably massaged those at odd practices into a workable cohesive network. My research further found that with the privatisation process those managers tended to be marginalised, with the new management regime failing to grasp what they actually did or fill the missing gaps when they were gone. This bizarre phenomenon became the foundation for an ecological niche. Opportunity came for me where I could talk about the business needs of large construction companies and explain how to promulgate those projects through a myriad of totally unfathomable railway work practices and access regimes; the likes of which they had not encountered before. Project Managers started saying “we can’t explain what this guy actually does, but you need him, he will make an enormous difference on projects working in the rail network.” The challenge I found was to continually adapt and respond to the constant change and demands as the privatisation process matured from creating employment for returned servicemen to the serious challenge of running an efficient and effective private business. This mostly involves ensuring our relevance to the industry.”
In all, the Hull MBA was a positive experience for Jim, and one that he would recommend, as well as being keen to share his experiences with other members of the Hull community.
“The Hull experience worked because we had highly qualified and experienced lecturers here in Australia with a chance to socialise. I would really enjoy the opportunity of sharing my experiences with future entrepreneurs to give something back to a University that totally prepared me for an amazing business venture.”