An Interview with Clare Gilmartin
Passenger train travel in Europe is on the up. Having been in decline for about 50 years until the late 1990s, much its rebirth is driven by the rise and ubiquity of Europe’s high-speed rail network, which has grown from about 1,000 kilometers ten years ago, to about 6,000 kilometers today.
And yet, astonishingly, about 80% of rail journeys are still paid for by customers queuing at station windows. One statistic claims European rail travelers on average spend three and a half months of their working lives standing in line to buy train tickets.
“Nobody’s going to tell you that lining up to buy a ticket is an enjoyable experience,” says Clare Gilmartin (London, 2000-2003), CEO of Trainline, Europe’s leading independent retailer of train tickets. Trainline sells tickets worldwide on behalf of 44 train companies in and across 24 countries and has offices in London, Edinburgh, and Paris.
“We’ve brought the ticket purchasing process online, making it easier, cheaper, and readily accessible to all. By delivering tickets via a fast, intuitive mobile app and world-class website, we help people get anywhere they want with just a few quick clicks on their phone or computer.”
And, Clare says, train travel these days can be both faster and more sustainable than short-haul air or car.
Clare gives the example of a rail passenger making it from Milan to Rome in well under three hours—and without the air traveler’s time-and-patience-draining hassles of an airport commute, check in, security, boarding, deboarding, and luggage retrieval.
Rail travel is also less demanding on the environment. That Milan-to-Rome train ride is likely to produce about 95% less CO2 emissions versus an equivalent short-haul air trip.
There are 40 million rail journeys made in the UK each month—count Clare’s commute among them—and hundreds of millions across Europe.
As such, Trainline is very much a consumer-facing business and one which Clare—who was previously vice president of eBay Europe—likes to lead by example. She makes time every week to listen to customer calls and respond personally to customer emails. “As an online business, we need to touch the customer. This starts with me as CEO, but applies to anybody throughout the company. This ‘touch’ helps us understand our customers’ needs and helps create an emotional response that prompts all of us at Trainline to go that extra mile to serve them better.”
Like any fast-growing tech business, Trainline is in constant need of new talent. An ability to hire and nurture the best people, says Clare, is vital. “I’m a generalist; there’s no way I’m going to understand as much as each of our functional experts. It’s my job to draw out the best in individuals, and to draw out the best in us all as a team.
“Further, it’s not just about hiring the right people, but also about helping those people grow and thrive. If built well, a strong, diverse team will outlive any leader and bring sustainable business growth.”
It’s critical, too, she says, to nurture diversity, whether in terms of age, gender, nationality, or job function—she has absolutely no doubt that diverse teams deliver better outcomes for customers.
“Throughout my career, I’ve built and led diverse teams. I would argue that it is important for any customer-facing business to do so and, in particular, to have good female representation at every level. Half of Trainline’s customers are women and it’s important for us to have employees who are representative of those customers.”
Indeed, Clare, who in 2012—along with 18 other women—was named to the “40 Under 40 European Young Leaders” list, says she is “quite bloody minded” about pushing for better balance and visibility for women in leadership.
“We need more women at the top, not just in business, but in politics, sciences, the arts, and many other walks of life. Even for a woman with kids, it can be done; it is possible to have a challenging career and to be present for your family.”
Again, she leads by doing.
“I’m a busy working mum with three children. I could easily spend 15 hours a day at the office, but I’d never get to see my kids. That’s too high of a price to pay. As such, I stay highly focused while on the job and measure myself on results—not on hours spent at work.”
She does, however, concede that before more women can step into leadership roles, some systemic issues need to be addressed. Clare sees three hurdles.
“First, we must to do more to encourage school-aged girls to study maths, and to be more participatory in areas such as the arts and sports. We’ve understated the impact choices made at school have on later careers. Too often, girls rule themselves out of future business and tech careers as a result of choices made at school.”
Also, she says, she’s seen too many women struggle to assert themselves at the early stages of their careers, particularly in male-dominated environments. “I say ‘practice makes you perfect.’ The more you push yourself to speak up, the easier it gets—it did for me. So just dive in and get on with it.”
Thirdly, there’s the correlation between women starting families and the drop-off in the number of females in middle management roles. “Women shouldn’t be timid or apologetic about fighting for flexibility at a given life stage. There’s much more room for negotiation and compromise in the workplace than many realize. It might mean a new parent taking a leave of absence, or going to a three-day week for a few months—whatever it takes.”
From a CEO’s perspective, Clare says, she’ll bend over backwards to retain strong female talent. “At Trainline, we’re extremely open as to where, when, and how you work, because, if you’re a talented part of our team, we want you to stay.”
A look back at Clare’s own career path shows a readiness and drive to explore new challenges. Having spent four years as a category manager with Unilever, she came to BCG, attracted to the firm and to consulting, she says, because she liked the idea of working across different businesses, accepting big challenges, and solving big problems. She knew she’d learn a lot but, equally, she was confident she’d bring valuable real-world business experience and a factory-floor perspective.
Although she does not have an MBA, Clare likes to say that BCG provided her with the “working woman’s equivalent.”
“My BCG experience was a vital part of my career journey. In consulting, you must get rapidly up to speed with the client’s world—the context, the market, the challenges—and translate it all into a workable strategy. BCG helped me become a black belt in strategy, and taught me how to identify relevant information; solve problems quickly; and come up with pragmatic, growth-driving solutions—all essential in my CEO role today.
“I took this job at Trainline because I firmly believe in its mission, and because I know we can make everyday life a little better for a lot of people. One of the delights for me is seeing how much of a positive impact our product has had. Our customer reviews show genuine, raw enthusiasm and gratitude for what we do. That’s very rewarding.”