BusinessCompany NewsOn the frontline: Network Rail FD Ron Henderson

On the frontline: Network Rail FD Ron Henderson

It was never going to be easy. But last week, after the publication of the latest set of results, the job of group finance director at Network Rail looked particularly painful. So painful, in fact, that you wonder why Ron Henderson has decided to stick it out.

Maybe it is because, despite the obvious downside of working for one of the country’s most controversial public organisations, the rewards are good. Indeed, at the same time Network Rail reported it had made an operating loss of £758m, compared to a profit of £80m last year, Henderson and the other executives were still entitled to hefty bonuses.

Is that why he stays there? It is difficult to tell. He is a man used to taking control in top companies, so the pressures are probably containable for him. But for how long?

Quite a while if last week is anything to go by because the public view of Network Rail may be softening. This can only bode well for Henderson, as he and his fellow executives work to ensure next year’s result look better.

At 58, Henderson has been in a string of senior positions. He was group FD at BICC plc, Balfour Beatty and, most recently, chief executive of Tuberail, one of the preferred bidders for the London Underground public/private partnerships. He has had plenty of time to get a handle on how a company is run. The outcry over the involvement of private companies in the underground would also have given him an early insight into the kind of pressures that meet those providing essential public services.

If you are in that game you can’t win of course. Which is no excuse for shoddy work. But you know the pressure is going to be relentless. Take a look at the results Henderson published last week alongside his fellow executives.

There was a 7% reduction in ‘delay minutes’. That’s 13.7 million instead of 14.7 million. As a result 81.2% of trains are now running on time instead of 79.2%. More track has been laid, broken rails have been reduced and the installation of the train protection and warning system has been completed.

But there was, as we’ve already noted, an operating loss of £758m compared to £80m of profits last year and net debt stands at £12.6bn, though it is down more than £1bn.

Most significantly though, Network Rail failed to meet its target under the public performance measure, provoking swathes of criticism in the press. The executives still got their bonuses – roughly 24% of their salaries, though they could have taken 32%.

So is this the hardest financial director position in the UK? Well, it’s worth remembering Network Rail since taking over from Railtrack, isn’t in the business of making money for shareholders. Its primary focus is the delivery of a ‘safe, reliable and efficient rail network’.

That may mean the immediate pressures are off for Henderson, but he has a whole set of other difficulties such as managing the company’s debt, making sure the money is there to meet the brief and ensuring that costs do not run out of control. Put that way it doesn’t seem so easy.

And if he makes a hash of it?

He has to remember that everyone with a travelcard is gunning for him, and his errors are likely to make the front end of the broadsheets rather than the City pages.

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