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March 23, 2014 10:46 pm
Ask anyone who knows Moya Greene, the Canadian chief executive who last year steered Royal Mail, the UK’s 500-year-old postal service, into the private sector, and the same phrases come up. “She’s relentless, a force of nature, a tough lady,” says one admirer.
It took a determined personality to get this behemoth, with £9bn of revenues and 150,000 staff, into a healthy enough state to be floated on the London Stock Exchange, where it went straight into the FTSE 100 index. The goal of privatising Royal Mail had defeated governments for 40 years.
Greene, 59, has been Royal Mail’s chief executive for almost four years, the first woman and first non-Briton to run it since Henry VIII established a “master of the posts” in 1512. Her previous role heading Canada’s postal service – and as a civil servant overseeing the privatisation of that country’s railway and deregulation of its airline and ports systems – gave her the necessary blend of industrial and political experience.
Even prime minister Margaret Thatcher balked at the political risk of selling off a public service that carried the Queen’s head on its stamps. This time, the legislation went through parliament. There was a storm of protest that Royal Mail was sold off too cheaply, however, after the government floated 60 per cent of it last October at 330p a share, valuing it at £3.3bn. The shares jumped more than a third on the first day of trading and broke through 550p within a week.
The government and its investment bank advisers took most of the flak for that. Some bankers suspected Greene’s influence lay behind the choice of banks and even the pricing, which ministers and those around her deny. Hers was certainly a strong voice in favour of achieving the privatisation through an initial public offering, giving Royal Mail a wide shareholder base, rather than a sale to an industry buyer or financial investor.
She has turned round the business: a transformation plan had been agreed before she arrived in 2010, but there was still much to do. “This was a company that was not profitable in its core market, was cash-negative and had a failed and absolutely wrong-headed system of regulation that made it impossible for it to be successful,” she says. “The balance sheet was swamped by a historical pension liability.”
Greene persuaded ministers and officials to liberalise the regulation system and the UK Treasury took over the £9.5bn pension deficit. She speeded up modernisation and set about reshaping Royal Mail as a business focused on parcels, to take advantage of the boom in internet shopping. Pre-tax profit in the year to March 2013 was up 60 per cent at £324m.
“That she came from outside Britain helped,” says an ally. “British people have a tendency to be incrementalist. She looked at it in the global context and saw what needed to be done.”
Greene talks politely in a resonant voice and is unafraid to speak her mind. In response to descriptions of her tenacity and even abrasiveness, she says: “‘Determined’ I recognise, but I do know when to throw in the towel. There is no sense in going at it like a dog with a bone.”
Divorced with a grown-up daughter, Greene says she loves the UK and has embraced its way of life. “Oh my God, I use the bus a lot,” she said. “Where would I be in London without it?”
Despite her work-focused image, she has a cultural hinterland. She reads poetry, including Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, Emily Dickinson and Philip Larkin, because, she says, it is easier to fit into a busy executive’s life than novels. “You can get through a poem in 15 or 20 minutes as long as it’s not TS Eliot,” she says.
Greene was the second of four children born to a special-education teacher and a hardware shop owner in St John’s, Newfoundland, on Canada’s eastern tip. Her mother told her: “Never let anything go to your head.” But she says her parents also “really believed their kids could do anything”.
She studied classics at Memorial University of Newfoundland, went to Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School and quickly found her way into government. She held federal positions in seven ministries and gained a reputation for fearless management of complex projects. The biggest of these came in the early 1990s, when, as assistant deputy minister of Transport Canada, Greene oversaw the privatisation of CN Rail and the deregulation of the airline and ports systems. At Employment and Immigration Canada, another government office, she overhauled the unemployment insurance system.
Greene moved to the private sector as managing director for infrastructure finance at TD Securities, a Canadian broker. At Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce she ran retail products before becoming senior vice-president for operational effectiveness at Bombardier, the engineering company. In turning round its operations in Europe, she closed seven factories and cut 8,000 jobs.
In 2005, Greene became chief executive of Canada Post, which serves an area larger than Europe but with half as many households as the UK. She spent her first few months with letter sorters on night shifts, walking delivery routes and meeting all the organisation’s 3,000 frontline supervisors.
She cut costs by reducing absenteeism and increasing automation, and she trebled profits despite a drop in revenues. She had her critics. “She was a neoconservative ideologist,” said one union leader. “Always thinking about profit. She was always going after disabilities, sick leave, pension.”
In the UK, she has formed a better relationship with the main postal union, the Communication Workers’ Union, though she was disappointed by its opposition to privatisation. A threatened strike in the autumn could have disrupted the flotation but, once the sale happened, the union became more amenable. A three-year pay deal worth 9.06 per cent was agreed, including a legally binding agreement to prevent industrial disruption and protect terms and conditions.
Donald Brydon, the Royal Mail chairman, who hired her in 2010 after her predecessor Adam Crozier left for ITV, describes her as the “best hire I’ve ever made”. He is pushing for a rise in her £1.5m pay package, saying she is the lowest-paid chief executive in the FTSE 100 and that an increase is a “necessary part of making sure we keep her”.
Greene will be wary of appearing greedy: last year she handed back a £250,000 housing allowance after fierce criticism of the size of the payment.
She is one of only four female FTSE 100 chief executives, alongside Carolyn McCall at easyJet, Angela Ahrendts at Burberry and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco. Liv Garfield takes over at water company Severn Trent this spring, though Ahrendts is scheduled to leave Burberry for Apple halfway through the year.
In 2012, Greene ruffled feathers by volunteering to lead the campaign for recruitment quotas for women in the workplace, including the boardroom. This is an approach unpopular among many British female executives, who prefer to see themselves as appointed on merit.
“If you want quotas, I am open to leading that discussion,” she told a conference of female trade unionists.
“There is something about the UK – for all its egalitarianism, women are not represented as they should be in society or companies.”
She recently declared herself mystified that there were so few female bosses. “There is no great shortage of female talent in this country. Sometimes tradition is great for stability, but it’s not great for change,” she said. At Royal Mail, three other members of the executive committee are women.
“Ambition is not a four-letter word,” Greene also once said. “Women have to want the job and not treat ambition as something they should hide.”
Much remains to test her at Royal Mail, not least the need to continue its efficiency drive, to cope with the decline of mail as a result of electronic media and to handle a competitive threat in mail delivery from Dutch-owned TNT Post.
“This is not a job for the faint-hearted,” says Alex Paterson, an analyst at financial group Espirito Santo. “It is a genuinely challenging job to keep pushing the business forward.”
Moya Greene timeline
1954: Born in St John’s, Newfoundland
1991: Assistant deputy minister, Transport Canada, where she oversaw privatisation of CN Rail
2003: Senior vice president for operational effectiveness, Bombardier
2005: Chief executive, Canada Post
2010: Chief executive, Royal Mail
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