Natasha Grice said it’s the romance of rail travel that she’s drawn to. “I just love to think that people are travelling for so many different reasons,” said Virgin Trains’ new people director. “I absolutely love working with the general public and hearing people’s stories.” Birmingham native Natasha will become the people executive director for the West Coast on 16 April, taking over from Patrick McGrath who has held the role for 18 years.
A few weeks before she was due to take over, Natasha spoke to RailStaff about her career at Virgin and how she hopes to bring a new approach to Virgin Trains’ people strategy.
Natasha, 42, joined Virgin Trains 16 years ago as a customer service assistant. She was one of a team of 20 who greeted CrossCountry services into Birmingham New Street. “You got to see a bit of everything working in one of the major hubs on the network,” said Natasha.
Her career at Virgin actually began five years earlier when she joined Virgin Atlantic’s cabin crew. Her decision to leave the airline was prompted, in part, by the September 11th terror attacks but also by a desire to be at home to start a family.
She progressed through the business to become a duty manager in customer relations and then a station manager at Birmingham New Street. She later managed Virgin’s Wolverhampton depot before becoming head of brand and head of talent and employee engagement.
In 2011, she took up a specially created position to coordinate the operator’s preparations for London 2012.
Most recently, Natasha was the general manager for Virgin’s West Midlands to London route, overseeing more than 1,000 members of staff in the region.
“When the opportunity came up, I absolutely had to throw my hat in the ring,” said Natasha, who is now responsible for more than 3,500 employees along the WCML route. She added: “The role is so varied, it’s so exciting. I can’t wait to be part of it.”
Virgin has people directors for both its West Coast and East Coast operations. They look after recruitment, retirement and everything in between, said Natasha.
Although she feels Virgin is already strong at recruiting and retaining staff, Natasha thinks now is the time to try something new.
“We’ve done things in a similar way for quite some time,” said Natasha. “I think there’s an opportunity to look at things differently.”
Technology, particularly around ticketing, is an area she feels needs addressing. Virgin Trains launched its smartphone tickets in the summer of 2016 and, over the next 12 months, the company saw its sales of digital tickets treble.
In 2016, Virgin launched its ‘station of the future’ project at Birmingham International, closing the ticket office and replacing it with a welcome desk and additional ticket machines.
The company needs to have an adult conversation with staff, she said, about what new technology will mean for their role.
Natasha explained how the company was talking about staff “coming from behind the glass” to help customers. “We just need to keep up in the retailing space to keep up with customer demand… Our people are very much part of that not replaced by it.”
She went on: “Change is inevitable that’s one thing we can be certain of… Sometimes we’ve tried to protect a little bit too much and that’s not particularly helpful either.”
Sense of family
In one of her previous roles, Natasha led the development of Virgin’s Talent Academy. Ensuring all staff have the opportunity to progress through the business is something she wants to maintain and improve in the future.
“We are very, very passionate about encouraging people to work their way through the ranks through the business.”
Natasha, a mum-of-two, said there is a strong sense of family throughout the company, something she felt was clear as colleagues at the Wolverhampton depot were transferred over to West Midlands Railway.
Recognising and rewarding staff who are passionate about their role is critical, said Natasha. Where companies make a financial investment in their staff, employees often invest their lives in a business.
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