The sky's the limit for BBA alumna

Collette Roche

16 May 2016

Collette Roche talks about how studying Management at Lancaster helped her career to take off.

Buying and selling planes using a programme to simulate owning and running an airline was simply a novel study exercise at the time for the undergraduate Collette Roche during her studies at Lancaster. The unsuspected relevance of her choice has only become clear to her now that she is helping to run an airport herself.

As Deputy Chief Executive of Manchester Airport and Group HR and Transformation Director for Manchester Airports Group (MAG), Collette (BBA Management, 1997) does not believe in leaving life to chance. She has plotted every stage of her business career since her first job as an office junior aged 14. However she holds up her hands and says she did not foresee she would join the aviation industry.

“If you had told me when I was completing the airline management module that 15-20 years down the line I would be running an airport, I would just have laughed,” admits Collette. “This is an example of how Lancaster really did set me up for life.”

Her energy, hard work and vision have gained Collette a place in the North West Business Insider ‘Women 100’ for 2015, where she figures as Number 31. She believes she was ahead of the game even from Day 1 after graduation, thanks to the future-looking course content at Lancaster and, in particular, her year out in industry. In her case this was as a management trainee at WH Smith Retail in Liverpool. This meant she left university having led teams and developed talent, with people the age of her parents, whilst graduates from other universities were starting out from scratch.

“Life’s too short to hang around,” she states. “I work hard to understand where I want to get to and have been very structured about the roles I have taken and when.”

This attitude has driven her construction of a career covering a wide range of the human resources spectrum, beginning with her baptism of fire as a Ford Motor Graduate Trainee - with day-to-day responsibilities for 700 employees on the Dagenham assembly plant - moving to HR Executive at Siemens Business Services, then to United Utilities during a period of company growth from 500 to 7500 employees, until joining MAG in 2010.

Work is clearly more than a job to Collette. Until recently her current role as Group HR and Transformation Director across four airports - Manchester, Stansted, East Midlands and Bournemouth - kept her busy across a range of tasks from the strategic to the day-to-day management of individual talented people. But after five years, Colette needed a new challenge and asked the chief executive to provide one, so he did - a trial as deputy chief executive at Manchester Airport, sitting on the board of an organisation which moves 24 million passengers every year and with 21,000 employees.

This new role, on top of her HR role, has changed her day. She is awake checking her phone at 4.30-5am to make sure the operation is set for the passenger rush at around 6-7am. She is into the airport around 7.30am, keeping an eye on all operational matters and ensuring a safe, secure and positive journey for all the airport’s customers, whether they be travelling VIPs, such as the Chinese President, or groups of football supporters. She is also responsible for the account management of 50-60 airlines, and for dealing with the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

“A big driver is the change in customer and airline expectations and the infrastructure around delivering a positive customer and airline experience has become much more sophisticated. In Manchester Airport, we are investing over £1bn over the next 10 years to position the airport as the gateway of the North, increasing routes and enhancing this experience. This in turn is leading to the creation of an additional 1500 jobs in the region and £5.6bn total contribution to the UK economy.”

Even today she says she refers to some of the learning sets from her Lancaster BBA - particularly the accounting and finance modules which help her make sound investment decisions. She also finds her strategy and marketing grounding invaluable.

“It gives you so much more confidence in the board room when you understand the issues and know the questions that need to be asked,” she says.

Brought up in Parbold, Lancashire, Collette went to Lancaster University having identified business as her chosen career path in her mid-teens. She was impressed by Lancaster’s reputation for business management and the prospect of a year out in industry acted as a magnet. She studied the BBA with German.

She loved the city and the campus with its family feel, but it is the academic scene and integrated work experience she talks about with the greatest enthusiasm.

“Having a year’s placement in business was a fantastic opportunity", says Collette. “The experience very much informed my final year at university, which made my studies really enjoyable. I also found that it gave me an advantage at interview, when compared to other graduates because I could talk about what I had done, rather than what I would do.”

She is clear that she went to university to learn, but she also enjoyed a lively social life. It helped her to build relationships and she made friends who she still sees today.

Sport was also big on her agenda, and still is. She played for Lancaster’s 1st Netball team. She also did gymnastics until the age of 21 and represented Britain in Sports Acrobatics. Today she runs frequently and goes to the gym to keep fit and coaches her two daughters in netball.

Collette is often asked about how she juggles her work and her private life, as she is also a Non-Executive Director for brewers JW Lees and for Marketing Manchester, as well as a Governor at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her answer is to talk about prioritisation, delegation and organisation.

There is more to it. Collette clearly has a passion for leading people and delivering great customer service, and her belief in HR as the ‘conscience’ of the organisation is a powerful driver. She says: “When you are on a board, you have the responsibility to hold up the mirror to some of the judgements and decisions made, which have implications for the customers and the workforce. I often position myself as a critical coach, providing balance and counsel. My motto is ‘You might not want to hear what I have to say, but you really need to.’”