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As head of finance at one of the world’s most congested travel networks, Steve Allen could be expected to have a head for numbers.
At Transport for London (TfL), Allen, 48, is responsible for counting the costs of a £9bn annual budget that covers 27m journeys a day, including 4.2m on the underground and 6.5m on buses, as well as the expense of 580km of roads.
But the Oxford University maths graduate’s journey to a prestigious position running the UK capital’s transport system has been anything but formulaic.
Raised by a print worker and a midwife in the Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington, Allen was the first in his family to go to university and initially felt daunted by his peers at Oxford, who included Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and prime minister David Cameron. Although he works with the mayor now, at university Allen couldn’t afford to join the union club and the two “moved in different circles”.
“I felt socially out of my depth at Oxford,” Allen says. “I don’t think I’d ever met anyone who had been to public school. I did feel like a country bumpkin.”
He cites as an example being told to reply to letters in the third person – “Allen would like to go to dinner,” he says, highlighting the stiff formality that lingered at Oxford during the 1980s. He was also told which knife and fork to use – as “we only used one of each at our house”, he adds.
Despite a successful career that has included stints at Schroders, the merchant bank, and the UK government’s transport department, Allen describes himself as at the “introvert end of the spectrum”.
A four-week advanced management course last year at Insead, the French business school, included practical management advice and self-development, but it was the latter elements of the course that seem to have struck a chord.
One of the key findings during a 360-degree appraisal ahead of the Insead course was that colleagues had little knowledge of who he was outside work. He has made an effort to “open up a bit more” and go out for drinks more often because “there are always challenging conversations to have and it helps if you have a broader relationship.”
Allen is due to get married this month to his partner, an NHS manager, whom he met on a holiday to Cambodia 12 years ago. Although most people close to him have met his future husband, being gay is not something he has “shouted from the rooftop”, although he says this is less because of discrimination and more down to an inherent shyness.
Nevertheless, Allen acknowledges there has been a huge “generational shift” in the acceptance of gay culture, even in the past few years, and that visibility remains important in the business world.
Insead emphasises diversity, limiting the number of people on each course according to their country of origin and industry. With the tranquility of Fontainebleau forest on the doorstep of the Insead campus, Allen says the course was useful as a means of standing back and reassessing priorities. “It’s time to stop and unpack and think what you’re doing personally and for the organisation. At Insead they look at all aspects of your development,” he says.
Although some parts of this didn’t appeal, not least the piece on Jungian psychological theory, there were others that made an impact, including the sessions on decision making, based around Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which helps people understand how they make judgments.
“If you think something is really annoying, it’s because it really challenges a deeply held belief,” he says. “It’s about understanding how the mind works.”
Other lessons included the “seemingly obvious” idea that if a leader is hosting a group discussion on new directions, he shouldn’t lead with his own ideas. “Otherwise people will just follow suit,” he adds.
Allen may have learnt from the course, but the impressive view from the corner office at TfL’s headquarters, between Victoria Station and the Houses of Parliament, is testimony to his own success at driving change in the organisation.
Since being promoted to managing director of finance in 2007, he has helped TfL take over Metronet and Tubelines, the London Underground infrastructure companies, bringing the maintenance work in house. He has also restructured Croydon Tramlink, the two Docklands Light Railway private finance initiative (PFI) projects to City airport and Woolwich, and helped bring the Oyster ticketing back under TfL control.
This may seem slightly at odds with Allen’s role at the then Department of Transport in the early 1990s, when as part of the fast-track programme for civil servants he was involved in advising on the flotation of Railtrack, the owner of the rail infrastructure, and in the creation of rolling stock companies.
He also worked at Schroders, Abbey National and Citigroup on project finance, including controversial PFI schemes for hospitals, alongside City grandees such as Sir Win Bischoff, the veteran of City finance and former chairman of Lloyds banking group.
Asked if he sees any contradiction between working on early PFIs and helping London Underground escape them, Allen says he “didn’t design the schemes”. “I’d like to think that if I had been involved on the client side, I would have advised London Underground to do things differently,” he says.
More recently Allen approved a deal to allow the Hong Kong rail operator MTR to run the new trans-London Crossrail system when it opens in 2016. He says the decision was made to outsource the management, rather than keep it in house, to avoid the tight labour conditions demanded by unions on much of the rest of the TfL network.
On the difference between working in the public sector and the City in the 1990s, Allen says the latter was “much more financially driven. People focused on what they get paid and bonuses.” “It was very sexist,” he adds. “People would talk about who had the prettiest secretary.”
Allen says that, instead, his natural style towards the 28,000 employees of TfL is more “collaborative” rather than “telling people what to do”.
As he embarks on a programme to cut costs and maximise revenues from commercial sources – such as a herb garden that supplies London restaurants from a disused underground station near Clapham – he says he will be trying to use one last lesson from Insead to help staff cope with change.
“People think in narratives. If you are trying to change an organisation, you can help drive that change by providing that narrative,” he says.
1985-1988 Queen’s College, University of Oxford, MA in mathematics.
1988-1991 University of Edinburgh, PhD in pure mathematics.
1991 Department of Transport. Several roles, including private secretary to the secretary of state.
1996 Citigroup, vice-president, project finance.
2001 Abbey National Treasury Services, head of rail infrastructure group.
2003-present Transport for London, joined as director of corporate finance in 2003; appointed managing director, finance in 2007.
This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Insead’s Advanced Management programme is a four-week programme.