Denise Kingsmill, CBE, stands behind her desk like an elegant, rather mournful heron, transfixed by a spot on the floor, as if watching a particularly enticing fish swimming by, just out of reach. She is posing for Harry Borden, the photographer. She says: 'I did a photo-shoot with Jerry Hall last week' - for a colour supplement feature on society hair colourist Josh Wood and his A-list clients - 'and I asked Jerry what she thinks about when she is having her photo taken. And she said (mock Texan drawl): 'Ah just think - gawdess.''
We laugh. Kingsmill smiles, hand on chin, adding that she doesn't feel very goddess-like this morning. Even so, as a famously elegant dresser with, at 5' 10', a determinedly tall and limber frame, she could probably make a brave stab at it. Kingsmill, you swiftly ascertain on meeting her, is not someone to blend blandly into anyone's background. Especially at an establishment as grey - OK, I apologise in advance to its legions of academics, statisticians and economists - as the Competition Commission.
Nothing at the organisation quite prepares you for Kingsmill. Her sixth-floor office sits atop a drab, squat '60s block off Chancery Lane. The room, long and thin and uncluttered, rather like its owner, has a lock to prevent snooping, a handwritten 'Denise Kingsmill' sign on the door and a couple of rather large rubber plants. 'They have flourished here, like me,' says Kingsmill, waving a well-manicured hand.
She is prone to these not-slow-in-coming-forward remarks, the sort that make some uneasy. Others love her directness, but agree it can cause her problems. Says one (male) colleague: 'In a male-dominated society, if you are a powerful woman who is tall, blonde and attractive, it is inevitable that you are going to be treated with suspicion. Most men are simply shit-scared of her.'
Just how scared became a subject for debate recently. Kingsmill, one of the most prominent women lawyers in the land, has been deputy chairman of the Competition Commission for four years, helping to co-ordinate its investigations into mergers and monopolies, with a brief to bring 'added transparency' to its backroom role. Earlier this year she was tipped to take over as director general of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), a higher-profile, front-of-house post, in charge of policing Britain's increasingly complicated consumer society. Then, in a wonderful example of the grey man's backlash, she didn't. After being asked by the Department of Trade and Industry to put her name forward, she was promptly bounced off the short-list. 'Not enough gravitas' and 'too exotic' was how one 'DTI insider' torpedoed her chances in a particularly spiteful briefing to the Financial Times.
Now what is 'too exotic' code for? I wonder. Pushy woman? Kingsmill has campaigned openly to encourage more women into senior positions in the law and elsewhere. Or was her rejection simply founded in the fear that too many would be remarking on her striking appearance, as I have just done, before acknowledging her undoubted abilities? And indeed, as motor manufacturers grumbled cussedly after her inquiry into car prices last year, she seems to enjoy that kind of public attention rather too much.
Kingsmill, 52, who is also deputy chairman of MFI, is no stranger to the world of corporate cat-fighting. An employment law expert, she made something of a speciality out of representing sacked senior executives, George Walker among them. You would think she could take the flak as readily as she dishes it out. But the OFT episode has clearly hurt. It is not why she agreed to give this interview - she is, she says, always happy to promote the works of the commission and the revival at MFI - but nor is it something she is going to pretend never happened.
What was galling, she says, was not the fact that she missed out on the job but the way it was handled. 'I was flattered to be asked to put my name up for it,' she says, spreading her hands in front of her, 'and mightily relieved that I didn't have to do the job, mostly because I love what I do here, and the balance between this and having a business involvement.'
She was furious, though, at being accused by a newspaper of 'shameless lobbying' for the job, the result of some curious briefing by the DTI, which first told journalists she was the frontrunner, then, having changed its mind, savaged her. But 'lobbying'?
'Outrageous,' she says, looking rather steely, 'absolutely, bloody outrageous. I was stunned, it was such a lie. I actually took legal advice but decided, what the hell, it's just tomorrow's chip paper. I was seriously pissed off about it, though. It was one of those times when you think, you've got to nail that lie, but ... '
In the end she followed the advice she used to give clients who itched to bring libel cases: Don't touch it with a barge pole. And she doesn't want to say any more than that.
She is clearly a woman who provokes extreme reactions. Tall, good-looking, with a mop of short, blonde hair and inquisitive grey-green eyes, she has worked her way through careers in marketing, the law and now regulatory authorities, while bringing up a family and chairing a health authority almost in her spare time. All of this has been conducted with open ambition and a knack for reinventing herself when necessary. Those who have worked with her seem split between admiration and unease.
'We always used to say that you could drop Denise in the Gobi Desert and she would emerge on the other side with not a hair out of place and two new clients in tow,' says one lawyer who worked with her, 'but ask her to serve a writ ... ?'
'She is caring, committed and incisive, goes straight to the point and doesn't suffer fools gladly,' says Sir William Wells, president of Chestertons International, who was her regional health authority chairman when she ran the Optimum Health Trust in Lewisham. He adds that the DTI's behaviour was 'particularly shitty': 'I suspect rather a lot of men are just jealous of her. After all, there are quite a few who crave publicity and never get it.'
In the end, it is probably the amount of publicity she gets - even for her hair colourist - that makes DTI officials query her 'gravitas'. You can imagine them asking, would Baroness Jay do this? Yet it was also one of the reasons she was appointed to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) by the last Conservative government, before it was renamed the Competition Commission. As Kingsmill herself puts it: 'They wanted someone with the legal rigour of analysis and good communication skills.'
In other words, someone who was a bit more press-friendly than the heads of these part-regulatory/part-academic bodies normally are. And Kingsmill clearly loves explaining her job, how she puts together her panels of experts, what she's got on the boil at the moment - 'a scale monopoly, a merger and a big electricity inquiry, the sort of balance I like'. But it is one of those ripe old ironies that, in all the column inches expended on her, no-one ever seems to remember who her boss is (Derek Morris, commission chairman, 'lovely guy, Oxford academic'), possibly because he is not a man ever to discuss his grooming arrangements.
Isn't the fact that she overshadows Morris a bit odd? 'No,' says Kingsmill, 'I think I have a greater commitment to transparency than anyone else. We are a public body taking a public role. It is important that the arguments and issues that we deal with should be put before the public.'
This commitment has proved controversial. She drew flak in January for inviting journalists to discuss her ongoing investigation into the merger of Cable & Wireless Communications and NTL. Last year carmakers were stunned by her insistence on holding an 'open day' - with journalists, members of the public, and manufacturers 'invited' to testify (they declined) - in the midst of her investigation into car prices. 'You could only describe it as a circus,' sniffs Christopher Macgowan, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, pointing out that investigations involve sensitive commercial data. 'We do not think it is an appropriate way for commission inquiries to be conducted.'
Yet her gusto certainly pleased the tabloids and, with the report now in, she promises we will see some action on pricing soon. When? 'The fundamental point about car prices is that distribution is organised by the block exemption and only Mario Monti at the European Commission can remove that.'
So has anything been achieved? She gives me a sharp look. 'It does make a difference - that's why one does it - to make a recommendation to the secretary of state, but it doesn't happen overnight. I did the BSkyB-Vivendi merger at the start of the year, and those mergers shape the future of the industry for years.'
That determination to 'make a difference' is one of Kingsmill's signature marks and infuses her extra-curricular work, such as chairing the health trust and, earlier, working for the Citizens' Advice Bureau. Any suggestion that such work can be useful career moves for an ambitious lawyer is, rightly, given short shrift. 'I don't think everyone does public service for advancement, you know,' she says, pursing her lips. 'Optimum provided community medicine in one of the poorest areas of the UK, and we never got enough money. We were pretty much a backwater. It did not benefit my career but I feel prouder of that than almost anything I have done, mostly because I was working with a terrific bunch of women.'
One of them, Barbara Cassani, chief executive of Go, the budget airline, who sat on the Optimum board, describes Kingsmill as 'incredibly effective in the way she got things done, always with incredible style and humour'. Others in the health service attest to the admiration in which she was held, especially among female managers. It is men who find her rather more threatening.
Kingsmill is, you sense, very much her own creation. She was born Denise Byrne in Rotorua, New Zealand, the eldest child of a Kiwi pilot and a Welsh mother. Her parents met in Wales during the war, fell in love, married and headed back to the southern hemisphere. When Kingsmill was eight, they returned to Wales, ostensibly to visit relatives, but never went back to New Zealand. Kingsmill was plonked into the local primary, a gangly outsider - 'I was about 10 inches taller than anyone else'. She went on to excel at grammar school and win a place at Girton, Cambridge.
Pulling up sticks and starting afresh has become a recurring refrain in her working and personal life. She chucked in a career in marketing at ICI and the International Wool Secretariat to be a lawyer. She dropped that 20 years later to join the Competition Commission. And she makes it plain that her next career step will probably be to leave that behind to become chairman of a big plc.
Likewise, as a student at Cambridge she once, in effect, dropped her parents, not going back to Wales 'for years'. After her own son and daughter had grown up and moved out, she ended her marriage to banker David Kingsmill, exchanging the comfy, rambling family home in Kew for a minimalist, Seth Stein-designed apartment in chic Holland Park, where she now lives with Jazz FM boss Richard Wheatley, a former boyfriend from her Cambridge days. Options are changed, you move on.
If that makes her sound flinty, you have to ask, would you criticise that in a man? Probably not. 'I don't know how many women you have interviewed who have children as old as mine (24 and 26),' she says, ' but for every mother whose children leave home, it is a difficult time. It makes you rethink your life a lot.' Husbands note.
But not everyone is as comfortable in making these life-shifts. Kingsmill believes all things are possible because she had parents who, perhaps unknowingly, showed her how. 'My trooping off to Cambridge, which was a hell of a long way away from Wales, was not that different to my mum going off to New Zealand, against strong parental opposition,' she smiles. 'It's about escaping restraints. She did it through marriage, I did it through university.'
And her dad, who settled down to 'a variety of white-collar jobs' in Wales, always made it plain he thought she was fantastic. 'I could do no wrong, I was the best thing going. And, you know, that arms someone with an enormous amount of confidence.' But confident kids, as any parent will tell you, are not always the ones who make the most friends. By reputation, Kingsmill combines a short fuse at work with a drive for results that some have found difficult.
She can also charm or chill in equal measure. One minute she surprises me by saying she really can't remember which regional newspaper her brother works for in Exeter, the next she's enthusiastically describing her father's warmth and sense of humour. 'He's always made me laugh, and that,' she says, eyeing me beadily, 'is an immensely attractive quality in men.'
Gulp. Just as some male bosses like to throw their weight around, Kingsmill is not shy of doing the same with her looks.
She is probably tired of people remarking on her devotion to haute couture. 'Oh, this isn't glamorous,' she says, when I ask her if she ever dressed down for her NHS work. 'This is just an old cardie and a blue dress, and anyway, I would never patronise people like that.' But in the fusty world of the law, she has always stood out. She was taught to dress, she says, during her stint at the wool secretariat in Paris. After that, she followed her husband to New York, gave up work to have a baby, and swiftly decided enough was enough. 'I suddenly realised that I didn't want to be a full-time mother. I needed to do something serious with my life.'
She brought her husband back to Britain so she could enter law school. 'And that's what I did,' she says. 'Had a baby, sat an exam, had a baby, sat an exam.' The only reason she chose law, she says, was because in America she could see how broad a profession it was. 'Before, I had just thought it was something grey men in suits did in serious places in the City.'
But why leave management? 'Because,' she says, 'at that time there was no Marjorie Scardino, no women chief executives. It was difficult to see how you could progress in business as a woman.'
She qualified for the Bar but chose to be a solicitor, started doing trade union law - so she wasn't shunted into matrimonial like so many other women lawyers - and, against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher's anti-union legislation, found a plethora of cases suddenly coming her way.
As soon as she could, she set up her own firm. Other people's law firms, she says, are 'not the most exciting places to be and certainly not women-friendly'. Running her own firm meant she could bring her kids to work when she needed to. 'They became very good filers,' she laughs. The employment work led to more corporate work. After a few years of flying solo, she changed tack again and took her whole team into a bigger firm, DJ Freeman, the litigation specialist. Why change? Because, she says, having established her own reputation meant she could go in at the top rather than 'climbing the greasy pole'. After Freeman she had an unhappy few months at City firm Clyde & Co before leaping into Denton Hall and then the MMC.
A colleague from that time describes her as a brilliant lateral thinker who could always find fresh approaches to a problem, but oversensitive to criticism. She was, however, very good at marketing herself, as top lawyers have to be, appearing on the conference circuit, getting written about in the law journals, giving speeches at her old school and college. This, perhaps more than anything, has probably skewed the views of some of her male peers, among whom she carries the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of spreading herself too thin, attempting too much in her drive to get to the top.
Some are surprised she didn't follow her politics and become an MP. She was an active Labour party member in the '80s and '90s. 'We established a women's group but it was always in a constituency that never had a hope: Kew and Richmond!' Yet, when asked if she fancied standing for Parliament, she always said no.
'I just don't think I would be a very good constituency MP,' she says. Why? 'Rubber chicken dinners are not my thing.'
Which is odd, as most people think she would probably make rather a good MP, concerned about her constituents and brilliant at raising issues with the media. Perhaps it's the money. She moans about how much less she earns at the Competition Commission than as a lawyer and later, discussing her boardroom ambitions, says with a laugh: 'I don't think I shall go back to full-time work unless someone gives me an enormous amount of money.'
Her experience at MFI, her first plc board directorship, has been instructive, she adds. Headhunted by Yve Newbold, the former Hanson director, she found the company in rather poorer health than she expected. 'Let's say Yve sold it to me beautifully. A pounds 1 billion firm, manufacturing and retail interests, expanding overseas ... When I got there I found a completely dysfunctional company. It had lost its way, as so often happens when the founders hang on.' Since then, nearly all the board has changed, and Kingsmill was instrumental in hiring a new chief executive, John Hancock, from WH Smith. Getting rid of the former chief executive was 'long and bloody', she says. When I ask if he had good representation, she laughs and mutters: 'Not good enough.'
She also helped bring in a new chairman, Ian Peacock. Didn't she fancy it herself? 'It was not compatible with what I do here,' she says. MFI recently announced sparkling interims to a general murmur of City approval, so something must be going right.
Given her ability to attract the media, you would think bigger firms than MFI might, until recently, have been tempted to put Kingsmill on top. First female chairman of a FTSE100 company? Don't bet against it. She can't even go fly-fishing, sighs one friend, without it making a story. Fishing is Kingsmill's newest hobby, and her hooking of a twelve-and-a-half-pound salmon in Scotland earlier this year caused excitement in Trout and Salmon magazine.
She began fishing ('I adore it!' she says) because she wanted to do something 'companionable' with Wheatley. And it's 'therapeutic', a world away from their social life in London, out at concerts and the theatre, a 'power couple' if ever there was one. Wheatley, before Jazz FM, used to run the Leo Burnett ad agency. 'I spend a lot of time in jazz clubs with him. He doesn't spend so much time at Commission hearings,' she says wryly, 'though he did come to the car inquiry open day, as a media representative, of course.'
The question now is, will the 'exotic' tag dent her ambitions? And if so, what message does it send out to other high-flying women? Be a drone, be grey, be serious. I wonder.
Andrew Davidson was Magazine Journalist of the Year in the WorkWorld 2000 Awards of the Industrial Society.
KINGSMILL IN A MINUTE
1947 born 24 April in Rotorua, New Zealand. Educated in Wales; then Girton, Cambridge
1968-75 joins ICI Fibres division in marketing, and then International Wool Secretariat
1973-75 has family and studies law
1979-85 joins Robin Thompson and Partners law firm, then Russell Jones Walker, later setting out on her own
1990-93 joins DJ Freeman as partner, then Denton Hall
1997-99 board director of MFI, then deputy chair
1997 deputy chairman Monopolies and Mergers Commission (now Competition Commission)
2000 awarded CBE in New Year's Honours.