Catherine Mason, the woman who runs the five companies that form Translink and is responsible for a workforce of 4,000 and an annual turnover of over £168m, is gracious enough to offer me a cup of tea.
Not only that, she is prepared to make it herself. “If you don’t have a drink, I can’t finish my mug of tea — it would be rude. And I don’t function without that morning cup of tea.” Nambarrie with milk, no sugar, since you ask.
Clearly very hands on, Catherine (48) came to Belfast in Spring 2008 to become group chief executive of Translink from England, where she was MD of Arriva Midlands.
This may not have been the ideal time in the economic cycle to take on the job, but Mrs Mason is full of praise for the way in which her large team has been coping.
The challenge, as Catherine sees it, is to maintain good customer service while husbanding resources. “It’s the way everybody has to do business now.”
She states that Translink is thriving in this difficult environment, with an improved passenger rating.
Catherine says: “Our customer satisfaction is increasing, according to independent market research conducted by the Department for Regional Development and the Consumer Council. It’s a real accolade which Northern Ireland isn’t as proud of as it should be. Our railways also won the Rail Business of the Year Award, ahead of companies like Eurostar and FirstGroup.”
Given that people were talking about the possible closure of NI Railways 10 years ago, that is quite a turnaround.
This is one CEO who leads by example.
Catherine and her husband Peter live in the centre of town and she doesn’t own a car. She walks to work, uses buses and trains when she can, gaining some impression of the ordinary passenger’s experience.
“The problem is,” she laughs, “I can’t travel incognito as my photo is on the weekly email that goes out to staff, and on health and safety posters.”
This woman’s route to her current position has been as smooth as the 7a chugging through Botanic into town, but with a slightly unexpected pick-up point.
Initially, Catherine wanted to be a research scientist and studied genetics at Liverpool. She recalls: “I was definitely going to do lab work but, at university, a whole new world opened up and I ended up going into marketing which I found a fascinating area.”
Early in her career, Catherine was responsible for promoting Lucozade and Ribena. She had the innovative idea of setting up the Lucozade Sport sponsorship deal with the Premier League which still exists. Asked which football stars she has met, Catherine smiles and is discreet.
As far as the glass ceiling is concerned, Catherine has effortlessly found a way through and doesn’t think gender necessarily boosts or hinders career.
She comments: “The key thing is for women to be as confident as they can be, and not to see gender as an issue. I don’t see the glass ceiling as an issue, it’s about your aspiration.”
Catherine adds that, when she is looking for staff at Translink, she selects the right people for the post, regardless of sex. Impressively, the company employs quite a few women bus drivers — 10% of the total — and Catherine, who has her own bus driving qualification, wants to encourage more females behind the wheel.
“We run Have a Go! days, with the buses off road, when women can try their hand at it. The job fits in with women’s schedules well and you don’t need to be muscly. I’m slight but I have my PCV.”
Translink sponsored this year’s BT Woman of the Year business category this year, and the company was a good fit. Catherine says: “It’s really important to celebrate women’s achievement”
Her own achievements since joining the company include developing i-Link, the first travel integrated card in Northern Ireland.
Catherine says: “We have some of the best ticketing arrangements and a smart card that’s second only to Oyster in London. But we didn’t have an integrated rail and bus card and now we do.”
The good management techniques Catherine employs at work have also served her well on the home front. Although juggling career and family life can’t have been easy, it helped that Catherine’s husband Peter was happy to take on the role of househusband.
“I have two daughters, Emily (20), studying an arts subject at university, and Laura (16), who wants to be an engineer.
“My maternity leaves lasted six weeks and I was happy to go back to work, which was easier than looking after babies.
“When the girls were five and two, Peter became a househusband and was their primary carer. He loved it and had a great time.”
Mr Mason is now studying theology at Queen’s University, Belfast.
It was a question of deploying the right person in the right role; as Catherine says, she isn’t the homemaking type.
“I open a fridge and see cheese on toast; he opens the fridge and sees a proper meal.”
From her office window overlooking Great Victoria Street, Catherine can see the facade of the Grand Opera House.
It’s clear she loves the view, although she hastens to show me a picture with two views of Great Victoria Street, one gummed with traffic, the other showing a couple of buses which could easily transport all the drivers in the other image.
But she does escape occasionally. Travel is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a passion for the Mason family. They’ve visited China, Egypt and South East Asia.
It can be hard leaving her professional interests behind, though. A family holiday to Italy earlier this year became a bit of a buswoman’s holiday as Catherine liked the look of some Italian train seats so much that she took photos. She adds: “I got quite a lot of stick from the girls for that ...”