Geir Isaksen has been one of the most unpopular executives in Norway this past year. After turning 65 this fall, he claims, it was time to ask the board of the state railway to find a new boss.
“This is not very surprising, given his age and all the changes and restructuring lately,” responded the leader of the railway employees’ organization, Jane Sætre. She told state broadcaster NRK that Isaksen has made many “unpopular choices,” not least when he backed the controversial name change for Norway’s state railway. After a long history as Norges Statsbane (NSB), the country’s trademark red trains suddenly started to change color to a silvery green, and the railway became “Vy,” a word few had heard of and which is roughly pronounced “vee.”
“The employees and the union (along with much of the public) did not agree that (a name change) was the way to go,” Sætre told NRK. “We thought that NSB was a very good brand, and that it was strategically unwise to mess around with it.”
The railway, under Eriksen’s leadership, also lost out when forced to compete for operating rights on key train lines, first to the British firm Go Ahead on the line between Oslo, Kristiansand and Stavanger, and later to the Swedish railway SJ on the major line between Oslo and Trondheim, on several regional lines and on the line through Nordland to Bodø.
“When we lost the package of northern lines, there was huge disappointment, not just for Isaksen, but all the employees were surprised by the decision,” Sætre said. Now it’s questionable whether the new “Vy,” which also has had a miserable record regarding punctuality, will retain rights to the few trains lines left in Norway. Rail officials will announce in mid-December who has won the right to run western train lines including the classic Bergensbanen between Oslo and Bergen.
Asked whether Isaksen was a controversial leader, Sæter said “yes, he has made unpopular decisions. He has taken the railway away from its core activity (primarily responsible for running passenger train service) and gone into urban car sharing and tourism. It’s possible he involved himself with too many things.”
The railway, faced with reforms that were supposed to improve service, has also been criticized for being top-heavy with senior management who earn relatively high executive pay of several million kroner a year. Isaksen also has a contract stating that he can move over to a paid “advisory” position until he retires at the age of 67.
Isaksen, who took over as the railway’s chief in 2011, predictably defends his record. He claims all the changes have been necessary to take the railway forward, and still believes the name change was necessary in a new era of competition. It’s also being imposed on all its various businesses, which include the car-sharing and, not least, bus lines.
Railway officials claim Isaksen decided himself it was time to step down, even though he’ll continue until a new boss is named. He thought he’d see out the restructuring process, “but such processes never end, there’s ongoing change all the time throughout the operation,” he told NRK. “I have to take the consequences of being as old as I am and therefore it’s time to turn over the wheel to a new person.”
“New people will bring in new perspectives, and the company, I hope, will profit from that.”