Where did your business journey begin?
After leaving Edinburgh University with a Masters in Sociology I applied for jobs with some national retail brands. Marks & Spencers turned me down for not wearing a suit, despite the fact I was wearing a smart M&S blouse and skirt. I had never had a suit and certainly could not afford one! I have never forgotten that message about first appearances and I have rigorously worn smart matching suits to work, often trouser suits which helped remove the element of sexual differentiation. My message was ‘don’t treat me any differently’.
I joined Fine Fare at an exciting time when large superstores were arriving in the UK and we were having a big battle with Tesco for retail sites. I was involved in my first year in many new store openings across the country and learned to live out of a suitcase.
Can you recount some highlights of your business career?
I am very proud of winning the contract to design, manufacture and sell Harry Potter stationery and school bags. As MD of a stationery manufacturing business, I remember negotiating with Warner Bros Publishing for the UK, European and Antipodes license. All we had was this little book with one sketch of Harry with his forehead scar.
I am also hugely proud of leading the team of editors and copywriters to write, design, and print the best selling book called the People’s Princess within seven days of Diana’s death. We were awarded the Guinness world record for the fastest published book. Our sales team sold 4 million copies worldwide for the first print run which we had to print simultaneously in four continents.
The most poignant highlight was when I was the over-the-counter medicines Buying Manager at Boots. I was called into the boss’s office to meet the UK’s Chief Medical Officer. He asked me to sign a confidential agreement and then instructed me to stock up our warehouses and shops with prophylactics in ridiculously great numbers over the next six months. Buyers are normally rewarded for keeping stock low, so retail managers immediately complained about my idiotic ordering.
I spent the next six months working with the London Rubber Company placing orders of such a number that they had to work 24 hours a day. We also developed a Durex especially for the gay community which was a first.
Of course, it turned out that this was all in preparation for the famous Aids Tombstone campaign in 1986. The stock disappeared within two weeks! In later years standing in front of 200 grey haired members of the CBI to speak at their conference, I broke the ice by saying that I had bought more Durex than the whole of the room had or will do in their lifetimes!
Another exciting time was being heavily involved in the breakdown of the net book agreement (NBA) which was a cosy 1899 arrangement to allow publishers to set the retail price of books and to collectively refuse to stock anyone that tried to discount. I was at the Pentos Group which owned Dillon’s Bookstores and my boss fervently wanted to break the NBA. I had to make the case to the press and for the first time my face appeared in the nationals. This was also my first job on the main board of a publicly listed company. I was the first and only woman and I did find it difficult when the men would adjourn to the loo and I would miss out on valuable conversations.
You became an MD of a business of 120 people in your early 30s. How did you manage to achieve this?
I was just in the right place at the right time. I was headhunted to be put forward for the job of MD of a £20m turnover stationery manufacturing company in Oldham. The employer said they already had a strong manufacturing team, but they wanted a leader who could capitalise on their strengths and take them into new markets and national retailers. I fitted the bill and got the job. The chairman then told me six months later that the company was being put up for sale to avoid an unwelcome takeover bid for the holding group.
My proudest achievement was having the temerity to walk alone into 3i Manchester with no appointment to ask for financial backing to lead an MBO of the company. After the usual venture capital due diligence, I was so proud as a 34 year old women to be offered £13.64m by 3i to buy the company as an MBO in 1989. I knew nothing about venture capital nor mezzanine finance, but boy do you learn quickly, when you need to mortgage your own home to show your commitment.
Why do you think you were awarded an OBE in 2014?
I am guessing it was because of my work in the 2000’s as the MD of Business Link Surrey when I hassled the DTI to change the way they were asking the Business Links to give business support. They scoffed at my suggestion that many women think about starting business in a different way and for different reasons to men and have the right to fit-for-purpose business support. They even suggested that I was being discriminatory with public money!
I stormed out of the meeting and set about putting on a day’s workshop which would include inspirational female speakers - women who had started businesses with other mothers at the school gate, in their dining room, between baby feeds and picking the kids up from school, and so on. We also provided workshops on finance, the newly emerging internet, sales and marketing, and employing staff.
I asked my events manager to plan an event for up to 30 women but over 100 women wanted to attend and we had to book a much larger room. The day was a great success and we started holding more of them.
With the Labour government appointing a women’s minister, Jacquie Smith, the Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were asked to fund Business Links women starting or leading a business. In our region, the number of women owned businesses in the South East increased from around 16% to 22%.
Can you recall the occasion?
You are never told either who nominated you nor on what basis. Nor has anyone every owned up to nominating me. All I got was a short letter saying I was being awarded it for ‘Services to Women in Business’ which created hoots of laughter from my husband who asked when I had been a call girl! Then there was the difficulty in keeping it a secret from my family and friends.
I was one of the last groups of people being awarded honours that was given by the Queen at Windsor Castle. I was completely overawed by the splendour of the rooms and by the ceremony. I decided that the three people to accompany me to the ceremony would be other successful women: my sister who owns and runs a large dental practice, my school friend who is an HR Director with a national retailer and my friend from Boots who was now a Marketing Director for a very large corporate group. I felt that all four of us should get an award for services to women in business and I was representing all of us.