Karen Boswell OBE: First among equals

In an industry where the perfect fit matters, the new MD at Baxi is just that.

The industry is grappling with a huge shift in its business model caused by the climate emergency. At that exact moment, taking the helm is someone with a proven track record in engineering, low carbon, innovation and diversity.

Karen Boswell OBE joined the Preston-based firm to lead the UK and Ireland business. Announcing the appointment in September, the firm said her priority would be moving the firm towards achieving net zero carbon. She joined from Hitachi Rail UK where she helped rapid growth from annual revenue of £248m to £1.4bn, and circa 300 to 2,500 people. A core project was the Inter City Express replacement programme (IEP).

A clear vision

Her refreshing lack of management speak and her clarity about both the industry and her purpose is what comes across in the video interview.

“Baxi Heating has some of the best-known and respected brands in the market, and people who are passionate and successful in delivering for customers,” she says.

She’s clear the new role is a logical progression and talks passionately about engineering.

“I’d been in the rail industry for 18 years and am immensely proud to have been part of that. My background is working around manufacturing and supply chain. I was involved in building and delivering the £5.7bn high speed rail project.

“The heating and rail industry share many similarities; they’re both driven by decarbonisation and digital technology. Rail has gone from coal to diesel to electric to hydrogen and exploring batteries,” Boswell says. “We design, build and service the units. I’ve got a manufacturing site building heating units and more. And we’re facing the same challenges.”

She adds: “On a personal level, there has always been something about working in an industry that matters; that has social implications, that has a sustainable agenda. Coming into this industry is a really exciting opportunity.”

That means the zero emissions goal which is driving a total reset for the industry. Boswell has already announced a pledge for the firm: commitments to social, environmental and economic sustainability with regular audits to avoid greenwash.

There are big decisions for a firm whose employees will be impacted directly. Boswell sets out the strategy: “It’s being prepared. There’s going to be remote digital systems, heat pumps and hydrogen. I’m not saying there should be a one-stop-shop for hydrogen.

“And by the way, the gas market is going to be with us for some time to come. I’d really like to influence that agenda.”

The decisions can’t be delayed, a fact that seems to have passed the government by.

“If you look at that from a skills perspective, we’ve got people who need to think about how they adapt,” she says.

But the MD is confident an industry built around problem-solving is up for the change – and has proved it in the COVID-19 outbreak.

“I do believe that we have it in our gift to be part of the transformation,” she says. “When you think about the pandemic, the industry has a real part to play. We supported the Nightingale hospitals. We haven’t closed our manufacturing - we’ve been safe – and we’ve serviced people when they’ve needed us. And more people are working from home.”

One of her first big decisions was to work with the Institute to help apprentices hit by the downturn stay in the industry. She says: “I’m a strong advocate of supporting apprenticeships. We’ve already been appointed into the Kickstart Programme.”

And the customer side of the business will also evolve. Motor manufacturer Volvo announced the end of its dealer network, shifting to online selling and brand experiences. That industry has been questioning the need for sales networks for two decades. Volvo has called the market early.

“Good luck to them; it’s brave,” she says. “We’re starting to see the motor industry do some very strategic things. E-commerce is a massive shift. We’ve started a lot of digital training.”

Baxi will also be helping to overhaul training and diversity. Boswell uses the example of her own children and grandchildren to highlight the gaps: “I’m astonished at how clued up they are with tech. There’s also what’s important to them: net-zero carbon and diversity.”

The company will be moving quickly – all products will work with low carbon energy by 2025 and the business will be carbon neutral by 2030.

The other trend she sees coming is a consumer shift to ‘my country first’, partly driven by COVID-19.

Boswell says: “In adversity, something good comes out of it. Homeowners and businesses are making much more conscious purchasing decisions. It’s about self-sufficiency; look at the challenge on PPE. It’s already happened with food. I’m not a futurologist but I think there are going to be some significant changes.”

Facing challenges

Just as challenging is diversity. Black Lives Matter has changed public attitudes; it never was just about policing. There is no going back.

“It does all come back to people,” she says. “There’s a real opportunity to make a difference in the diversity space. Some reports suggest 50% of installers are in their 50s – and they’re mostly men. Most come in on friends and family recommendation.”

The crux of the problem is getting in front of people who see law, finance, medical professions and degrees as the only way forward for the people the industry needs.

Boswell has identified the challenge and will be working with the Institute to solve it. She says: “We’ve got a big job to do in how we influence educators, schools and those wider community leaders. How do we tell people this is a brilliant industry to be in? Why wouldn’t you want to attract and divert people towards us? Diversity is a prerequisite. Our industry should look like the people who we serve.

“When I think about being consumer-focused, coming up with the right carbon solution, part of that needs to be about how we interact with customers. Some people might prefer a female technician and there’s the wider religious aspect.”

There’s also a business case: “You get better earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (used as an indicator of the overall profitability of a business) with representation.”

Working with government, other industry bodies, IAs and more is the only option to make headway on these complex agendas. That’s why Boswell has been keen to forge an alliance with the CIPHE. “The CIPHE is great at getting the industry’s voice heard and explaining where we need to be,” she says.

Boswell has a final prediction: future employees and customers won’t let the industry off. She says: “What I’m hopeful of is the next, Millennial, generation – they are expecting leadership to be doing all this. Future generations will judge us.”

Market intelligence

Baxi Heating is owned by BDR Thermea and focuses on low carbon heating and hot water solutions.

Its factory is in Preston and customer support is in Warwick. The firm has been manufacturing in the UK since 1866. Today, it’s part of the BDR Thermea Group, operating in more than 82 countries and employing over 6,500 people worldwide.

Within the Baxi Heating portfolio, it has some of the best-known brands in the domestic and commercial heating industry including Potterton, Main Heating, Heatrae Sadia, Remeha, Andrews Water Heaters, Potterton Commercial and Packaged Plant Solutions. The main rivals are Worcester Bosch, Viessmann, Vaillant and Ideal.

The brand has a 4.5 trust rating for its products.

Career insight: Right on track

Karen Boswell’s journey to the top started as a management trainee with Allied Lyons.

Her career took off when she joined US retail firm Aramark in the late 90s as a regional managing director. Her break into the rail industry came when she moved to Great Western Railways in 2001 to be their head of onboard services.

Her next big step up was with train firm First Group as deputy MD and customer service director. In 2009 she became the MD for the East Coast mainline, which at the time was in the grip of being re-nationalised. She had a key role in turning customer services around before joining Hitachi in 2015.

At Baxi, she replaced David Pinder, who retired.

A passionate advocate for equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, in 2019, she became a Board Member of Enginuity. It’s an organisation transforming Engineering Skills Productivity in the Advanced Manufacturing Technology and enabling UK industries to compete globally. She received an OBE for contribution and services to the UK railway industry in the Queen’s 2016 Birthday Honours List.

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