Aurizon boss Lance Hockridge has recalled his struggles with the bureaucracy, lack of customer focus and “appalling” approach to safety he witnessed upon joining the bulk and freight rail operator in 2007, when it was part of state-owned Queensland Rail.
Hockridge spoke last week at a Leadership Series lunch at Bond University, on the Gold Coast.
He has been the chief executive of what is now the ASX-listed rail operator Aurizon since 2007, when he moved from his role as president of Bluescope Steel’s North American operations in Dallas, Texas.
“Multi-national, publicly listed companies had been my comfort zone for 30 years,” Hockridge recalled, “and I found myself the CEO of a state railway owned by the Queensland Government.”
Two years after his arrival, the state government announced it would separate QR’s commercial activities from passenger rail, by floating ‘QR National’ on the ASX, where it later became Aurizon.
And from what Hockridge said last week, that move couldn’t have come soon enough.
“While QR was a respected rail operator with extraordinary potential, on occasions it felt like I had gone back in time,” he said.
“We were buried in bureaucracy, customers took a backseat and safety was appalling. The matter of safety,” he added, “was truly the one thing that kept me up at night.”
Hockridge recalled in his early years with the company, he often found himself “caught in the crossfire” between the social considerations of the government, and the commercial needs of the customers.
“I managed to dodge a few bullets but also took my fair share of ‘robust’ phone calls from George Street,” he said, referring to the major Brisbane street housing State Parliament, the Treasury Building and several other key sites.
“In November 2010, we floated in what would be the largest float on the ASX in over a decade – worth $4.6 billion. While the privatisation backlash for government was huge, it was a true catalyst of change for the company, our leaders and the broader employee base.”
The transition was not an easy one to make, with a company owned for more than 140 years by the government, becoming a top 50 ASX listing in a five-year stretch.
“It sounds simple but, of course, the journey has been complex, nuanced and colourful,” Hockridge said. “It’s been a hard slog at times. Transformational change is not easy. We’ve hit many speed bumps but momentum has been sustained.”
Hockridge is particularly proud of the transition Aurizon has undergone in terms of safety.
“The safety performance when I first began at the company, measured by the standard metric of Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate, was simply unacceptable,” he said.
“From trackside to senior management, I was told that accidents were inevitable, unavoidable, because we worked in the rail industry. Lots of heavy machines and moving parts ‘apparently’.
“I could not accept this. I’d worked for decades in the steel industry; my experience was very different. It had to change.”
Aurizon started a sustained program, he said, with an investment of three to five years at a minimum. “It could be no less,” he said, “and unsurprisingly, it continues today.”
By focusing on behavioural change, and a mandate that safety must prevail over production, Aurizon has been able to reduce its Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate by 97% since 2010, meaning the number of employees seriously injured since 2010 is over 100 less than it might have been at rates prior to the change.
“We’ve turned the dial, in terms of results and in our belief,” the chief executive said. “Most employees now believe all injuries are preventable.
“The cultural shift is well underway; it’s now about continuous improvement and there’s still a way to go. The safety journey is analogous of broader transformation, and increasingly, of a values-based approach by employees.
“This is as much about how we go about our work, not only focusing on what we achieve.”