Terry O’Brien, Balfour Beatty

Shortlisted for HR Manager of the Year: Personnel Today Awards 2000


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Terry O’Brien was appointed HR director of Balfour Beatty Rail Renewals in October 1998. At that time the business was losing money, but within 12 months it was back in profit and is now exceeding its targets. The turnaround is due largely to good leadership and teamwork at the level of HR.

The company was created in 1998 from the merger of two companies that had been privatised when the Government sold off British Rail. An audit revealed a backward looking culture and a lack of professionalism towards the customer, in this case RailTrack. There were also serious barriers at middle management level to be overcome, and a lack of values, trust and understanding of job roles throughout the company.

In addition, despite the effort being put into training in safety and technical matters, there was no developmental training, nor a performance review system capable of identifying training and development needs. The organisation was also vastly overstaffed for the current workload.

O’Brien worked with the managing director from the start to gain an understanding of his vision, and to share it with senior managers, using visual aids.

She also brought in a strategic planner to help create an HR strategy that supports the business plan.

A key move was to boost the training and development function, focusing on areas such as communication, customer relationships and management development. Joint team events – training courses, conferences and management meetings – are held across the business, to allow employees to meet each other.

The aim was to provide a sense of direction, winning positive change quickly and with minimal cost. To help achieve this, O’Brien encouraged HR and management to try new ideas. “When I first joined the company there was a great deal of scepticism from the staff that anything would happen with regard to their suggestions for improvements,” she says.

“I have worked hard to ensure the business delivers on its promises and does what it says it is going to do. This has increased levels of trust: when we say we will do something, our people believe it will happen.”

She adds, “It is important as a leader of change not only to be strong in influencing and persuading skills, but to give people a vision of the possible, understanding their needs and delivering the solutions. This has been a key factor in our success.”


Company fact file

HR manager Terry O’Brien

Team Balfour Beatty Rail Renewals

Number in HR team 17

Number of employees responsible for 488

Main achievements Helping create a business that understands where it is going and how it is going to get there, with all employees involved and rewarded in line with performance

Priorities for next 12 months Identifying actions where business improvements can be made; sponsoring a “millennium project” aimed at encouraging employees to put forward ideas for innovation; adopting measures within the European Business Excellence Model to measure business performance

Judge’s Comment “The business has made a remarkable turnaround in its financial performance over the past year. There is no doubt in my mind that HR, and Terry O’Brien in particular, have made a real and significant contribution to delivering results through people”

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