In the driving seat of public transport security
It’s 3 years since German engineer Andrea Soehnchen was appointed to the role of Strategic Development Director for public transport security at the Securitas international business centre in Brussels. HEADWAY hears about her passion for her work and the ongoing challenges in this high profile field…

Andrea_SoenchenWhenever something happens it's a big story in the news, so people consider public transport much more insecure than it actually is. Often we see a big discrepancy between real security and perceived security. Public transport is a public place -  it's open to everybody and so it reflects the general problems of society. How we try to help our customers is to develop coherent security concepts that help to prevent problems rather than always making up for incidents that have already happened.
How has this field changed in recent years, say since 9/11.?

In our PT world the reference date was more the Madrid Bombings in 2004 and London in 2005. Since then PT security has received a lot more attention, but sometimes the focus is too narrowly placed on catastrophic incidents. Public transport is crucial for mobility in cities. Basically people use PT to get quickly and comfortably from A to B and your travel experience is determined by the fact that you trust a transport system to be reliable, clean, that you feel well among your fellow travellers, that you feel taken care of. Well-trained security staff has that service and assistance attitude, so they can play a major role in making passengers return to public transport.

Is it more about technology nowadays or about people?

You need both sides in a security concept. Technology has made great progress during the last years, but public transport is a very special environment, where technology is not always able to help yet. Very often, there is a comparison with aviation, but while London Heathrow counted 66Mio passengers in 2010, about 1,1 billion people use the Tube! In PT you have to cope with passenger streams that don't allow airport-like solutions -  and besides - technology might be great to detect a problem, but if you call for help it's people that have to intervene.

Clearly it's a niche area. How did you come to specialise in this field?

By education I am Civil Engineer and specialised in urban planning and infrastructure design, so I have long been working with the Man-infrastructure interface. From there it’s just a small hop to PT Security, and clearly the bombings of 2004/2005 brought a huge increase of focus on the subject. Once I started to work in that field I realised how crucial security is for the everyday operation of a PT system. It's a massive playing field that still offers a lot of challenges.

When you joined Securitas in 2008 you had previously spent time as a consultant and in an international transport association. How did you find the transition to a large global company? What's different?

When I was approached by AHEAD this sort of move was not on my radar at all. But it turns out that it’s been a very good step indeed and a perfect match for my skillset and experience. I came from the world of our customers and had the chance to build up an international network, so I can bring a new perspective into Securitas. On the other side, working in an association, you can develop ideas and give advice, but those ideas are picked up in other organisations. Now in Securitas I have the chance to make things really happen! Solutions and products that we create are really put in place with our customers.

By the very nature of its work and perhaps its Scandinavian roots, Securitas has a strong focus on people. To what extent is that reflected in its culture?

People are indeed key in Securitas; they are our capital and a lot of effort is put to maintain and develop them. In my view, Securitas is unique for the career and development opportunities it provides. I see colleagues who have started to work as a guard and are now in senior management positions. Being a global player your colleagues might be very far away, so communication across borders is very important. Securitas has been investing in tools, such as the MySecuritas portal,  that facilitate exchange and collaboration, so wherever you are based you have access to the knowledge of your colleagues. Most importantly perhaps is a very strong company culture. Securitas has grown a lot over the last years, but wherever you go, we share the same business model, the same values and ethical principles, which is a strong common denominator.

In Brussels you are part of their international strategic business centre. How does this concept work?

This small central team focuses on specialized solutions for sectors, including also maritime and retail, which have special needs. Like PT, these arenas require different solutions fromother customers. By focusing on these specific needs we have the chance to create targeted solutions that tackle individual problems and fit into the operational procedures of a PT operator. So basically the Business Centre aims to develop our footprint and activities in the public transport business. In my case, it’s supported by the managers who are responsible for out PT-related contracts, so together we keep our finger on the pulse of trends and challenges in public transport to develop innovative products and solutions. Everybody brings in individual experience and everybody benefits from the expertise in the other countries. It’s been a real highlight to watch this group evolving, from a hesitant start to really flying now…

What does your job entail today?

I consider myself a spider in the web, connected to all our country organisations. I can spot good ideas and help spread them further. Very often you have a small good idea here, another one there, but if you combine them and develop them further, you actually have a great concept. Besides that, I am the international face for our customers as we involve them in our international network as much as we can.

What do you gain personally from such an international mix of colleagues and markets from your hub here in Brussels?

An international profile in a specialised business segment makes a great mix. Concentrating on PT allows a clear focus, yet the variety of markets, customers and colleagues avoids the one-size-fits all boredom, because it doesn't! Even if you transfer concepts, there is always something different and you always get new ideas. I am sure all colleagues involved in our business centre would agree there is not one person or one organisation who knows it all. Instead it's a very lively exchange, where everybody brings something in and gets a lot more back. Also, Brussels has a very international atmosphere, yet it is a manageable and not a hectic city.

People often think that national sterotypes remain today – such as, well organised Germans, reserved British, effervescent Italians. What is your experience?

Of course these stereotypes are exaggerated and yet you do see differences. But for me they just add a lot of value and fun to my work. Value, because they all add to the group, you need the chaotic generator of crazy ideas and you need the cool thinker who brings the focus and clear line. Of course you sometimes have misunderstandings as you use the same words but mean different things, but what matters most is the respect for different approaches and the will to contribute to a common objective.

Of course, in a job like mine it’s also vital to walk the talk. As a champion of public transport I always encourage colleagues of all nationalities to take the bus or the metro to my meetings as a matter of principle!

AHEAD is a leading search firm specialising in high achievers. Headquartered in Brussels, we were formerly YESS International Brussels, created in 1990 by Egon Zehnder International.  Today AHEAD forms part of the extensive network covering Europe and beyond.
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