Leathley, 43, the genial squash-playing Lancastrian ex-hack who joined as director of corporate affairs last month, has a relationship with Virgin Trains that goes back to its creation in 1996. In his modest first-floor office at Euston he has a framed caricature from his last journalistic job at The Times – it’s an amusing sketch of him on a railway line with the caption:
‘Delays due to transport correspondent on the line.’
It is a neat double irony: Leathley’s day job is now part-devoted to explaining train delays, but also the sketch was commissioned by Virgin Trains’ in-house PROs. ‘I wasn’t always kind to them at The Times,’ Leathley reflects, with a nod to his new colleagues.
Virgin Trains, 51 per cent of which is owned by Branson’s Virgin Group (the rest is owned by Stagecoach), has the franchise for the Cross Country and West Coast lines that runs until 2012 and is bidding for the East Coast franchise. With delays plaguing the West Coast line and problems affecting the famous Pendolino tilting trains, the Virgin brand’s extension into Britain’s railways has hitherto been far from glorious.
‘I don’t pretend this is an easy job and I wouldn’t have taken it if it was,’ reflects Leathley. ‘I’m not a railway romantic, I’m a railway realist. This is a customer-service business, it’s about getting people [from London] to Manchester in under two and a half hours,’ he adds.
Born in Lytham St Annes, Leathley once worked on the Evening Gazette in Blackpool; he got a ‘real buzz’ out of his first page-lead (Lytham’s pier going up in flames). He also worked on papers in Sheffield, Northampton and Leicester (meeting his wife at the Leicester Mercury) before freelancing and then joining The Times in 1991.
He spent a decade at the paper, firstly as a political writer, then as a transport reporter. Times political editor Philip Webster praises Leathley’s journalistic nous, adding: ‘He’s a popular person, his leaving do was packed – everyone likes Arthur.’ Similarly, former Railtrack corporate affairs director Philip Dewhurst, now at BNFL, lauds Leathley’s ‘good sense of fun’ and ‘terrific journalistic skills’.
Leathley left The Times to join transport public affairs and PR specialist The Waterfront Partnership. Explaining his switch to PR, Leathley says he felt he had reached a stage when he was tired of breaking new journalistic patches and starting again with fresh contacts.
But, on a brighter note, he adds: ‘As a journalist you are always looking for a darker side – you can’t escape that in PR, but at least you can bring out the positive more.’
Leathley was a transport hack during the railways’ privatisation. What this much-criticised process led to, he reflects, was ‘100 companies scrapping over every penny – none of this got passengers to their destinations but it got a lot of lawyers wealthy’.
But private firms, he argues, have brought unprecedented investment and innovation. Leathley points to Virgin’s Pendolinos and customer-service training. ‘Virgin is an outsider in the rail industry,’ he says. ‘[But for customers] Virgin is the big brand on the railways; we get calls from people in East Anglia about services to Norwich – we don’t service Norwich.’
He adds: ‘Despite the fact that Network Rail maintains the track, when there are engineering works customers say: “Bloody Virgin!” – they think Branson should take responsibility.’
Leathley plays squash, is a fan of Blackpool FC (he once played at their home ground for a press gallery team), is a golf-club member and enjoys travel – charmingly on-message, he grins: ‘We fly Virgin Atlantic, of course!’
Already on board, then, with the sort of brand advocacy to make the Virgin King proud.