THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Val Gooding - Britain's second most powerful woman boss made a tenacious but low-key ascent at BA and she remains media-shy. But with Tony Blair waving public/private partnership agreements at her, BUPA's chief executive is

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Britain's second most powerful woman boss made a tenacious but low-key ascent at BA and she remains media-shy. But with Tony Blair waving public/private partnership agreements at her, BUPA's chief executive is going to undergo a sudden rise in profile

Val Gooding, quietly spoken, round-faced, courteous, is the kind of executive who can catch you off-guard. We're sitting there in her ninth-floor London office, she's running through the reasons she left BA to join BUPA five years ago: the challenge, the timing. And another reason, she says, is that she looked around BA and she didn't really see herself in the running to get to the chief executive slot.

I shake my head, already thinking of my next question, and mutter: 'No, no ...'

'What do you mean, 'No'!' she shouts, 'How dare you!'

Then she breaks into a loud laugh. Aghh, got me. And it's the same when I ask her if she has, as some allege, made the pounds 2 billion-turnover BUPA a more feminine organisation. Promote women over men? 'Never,' she says, quick to spot the trap. Why do I think that? It's a meritocracy.

Or when I ask her how BUPA, Britain's biggest private health insurer and second-biggest healthcare provider, justifies making all that money out of doctors and nurses trained at tax-payers' expense? She starts her pat answer (private work bumps up earnings and prevents a skills drain) when I interrupt: I've heard you say this before ... Fine, Andrew, she says, and just stops.

And that's her style. She uses my name a lot, makes good eye contact, professes herself very worried about the photo shoot and how she'll look, offers the velvet touch and an edge of vulnerability, but it's there to compensate for the steely way that she shoots down some questions (about her parents, her upbringing) and controls just about every area of the conversation. It's like playing tennis with a professional, matching you shot for shot, returning every ball straight to you but hinting that whenever they choose, they could just put it away.

And maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Gooding, say those who've worked with her, is one of British management's great secrets: a top female boss - only Marjorie Scardino at Pearson runs a bigger business - who enjoys both financial success and the warm respect of her staff but has, up to now, chosen to avoid the media attention that all this brings.

'I am amazed she agreed to do the interview and really intrigued,' one ex-BUPA executive says to me. 'So am I,' says her former chairman and the man who hired her, Sir Bryan Nicholson. For despite being one of the most personable bosses around, Gooding remains, by choice, something of a closed book. Aged 51, children still at school, retired husband who runs the home, she's immaculately dressed (today, cream Jean Muir suit), she likes theatre and ballet, she works out in the gym ... 'Well, you can't be boss of BUPA and not be fit, can you?' she laughs.

But beyond that? No-one's quite sure, although they acknowledge that she is tenacious, ambitious and has big plans for BUPA, where she has been chief executive for more than two years. In that time she has helped push the health insurance side, its biggest business, into profit after four bleak years, and is now set on increasing BUPA's interest in the provision of healthcare - hospitals, care homes - as well as moving the company into new areas, such as nursery childcare.

That drive would be moving even faster if the Government, after a Competition Commission report, hadn't blocked her pounds 230 million takeover of rival Community Hospitals earlier this year, arguing that it would give BUPA too many (22%) of Britain's private hospital beds.

Perhaps the Government should plead special interest here. At the same time that it was blocking BUPA's bid it was also indicating that it now wants the National Health Service to use more private hospital beds. Add in the wrinkle that BUPA is not a listed company but a provident association - and hence, perhaps, slightly more acceptable to health service unions than its plc rivals - and you wonder whether blocking the takeover might be a decision the Labour administration comes to regret.

Complicated? Of course, but that is the nature of the sector. Also, BUPA's interests are so wide now - 2.5 million people insured in the UK, 230 nursing and residential homes, 37 hospitals in the British Isles, 40,000 employees, overseas subsidiaries in Spain, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Middle East and India - that Gooding can brush aside the takeover block as a minor irritant.

So it will be interesting to see what emerges when the Government and Gooding get together to plot out just what private medicine can offer. Well, if they get together.

Gooding says that, following the prime minister's promise to partner the public sector with the private sector more effectively, her industry has had 'a lot of very positive signals' from politicians and civil servants at all levels, but nothing concrete yet. And, as she is quick to point out, her loyalty is to BUPA's traditional customer base. Anything that deflects from the service they expect will not be countenanced.

So if, as is promised, we are on the verge of a new era of public-private co-operation, just how much could BUPA do for the NHS? All the hip operations? All the knees? 'You will have to ask them that,' replies Gooding carefully. 'We are followers, not leaders. Our primary customer base is our insured members and other insurance members who are customers of our hospitals, and our first task is to satisfy them. We have to reassure them that they come first - after all, they pay twice (for the NHS through National Insurance and for BUPA through private health insurance). But if the Government wants to use spare capacity in private hospitals in downtime, we are delighted.'

It still seems a potential minefield, especially if you are honest about what BUPA's insurance customers are actually buying. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to work out that NHS waiting lists are probably one of BUPA's best marketing tools; why help to reduce them? And how will premium-payers feel when they wake up with an NHS patient next door? And what about the ethics of private medicine anyway? Quiz Gooding on whether she thinks it is fair that the rich should be able to jump the queue for vital medical treatment, and she squirms only slightly. 'Think of it another way,' she retorts, 'if everyone had access to the same speed and standard of care, whether rich or poor, you could argue - which is the socially equitable argument - that the rich should pay.'

And then get better facilities and equipment? 'I don't think that is true, but we don't have any argument with the system. We just take the system we have got ... We feel our role is to do what we do, give a first-class service to people, whether NHS or private, where the opportunities are there to co-operate with the Government and prove that we are not nasty, money-grabbing people here. We are actually decent people, delivering good care at a reasonable price, at which we have to make a return, and we are not ashamed of that.'

It could all become very confusing, but Gooding puts up a calm, reasoned defence: you work with what you've got, avoid the politics. That pragmatic approach was developed during her 23 years at BA, where she covered the waterfront in the range of her responsibilities: personnel, training, marketing, cabin services. Colleagues who worked with her cite her ability to communicate at all levels as a key strength, and her dislike of bureaucracy and intolerance for those who stood against her as main weaknesses.

She brought the same approach to BUPA when she was appointed managing director of UK operations in 1996. The BUPA board, according to former chairman Nicholson, had already earmarked her for the group CEO job. 'It was hers to lose,' he says.

Since taking the top slot in 1998, she has concentrated on motivating the workforce and continuing the drive to make managers more commercially minded - always a difficult task with no shareholders to push financial performance. The organisation's provident status, which Gooding vows she will keep, is a double-edged sword: useful in persuading service buyers that they are not wholly profit driven but irritating to policy-holders, who query why premiums have to keep going up and up. BUPA's premiums shot up by 14% between 1998 and 2000, for instance, as the market for health insurance contracted.

Why so much?

'Look at what we lost in the last four years,' counters Gooding (pounds 40 million in 1999 alone). 'Our aim is to make a reasonable return in the insurance business compatible with rivals like PPP.' And, increasingly, there are more claims to process, bigger numbers to push through, computer systems to put in, medical inflation running at 15%. That is why Gooding is trying to reduce the group's dependence on insurance as its main business.

She also wants to make the company more customer-sensitive. 'There has been a lot more focus on delivering results, but also on delivering for customers really well ... Even in care homes, I bet nobody else in the industry does regular resident and customer satisfaction surveys, which we do, and we take it right down to the lowest level and go out with the results. Staff are fascinated by it.'

Trying to understand her staff, what drives them, what enthuses them, is another Gooding preoccupation, essential in a business that is care-driven. Old BUPA hands highlight the 360 degree feedback she has introduced, getting comments on executives and staff going both ways. 'She makes everyone do it down the line; it's a very transparent culture,' says one.

Gooding points out that she started at the bottom, joining BA as a reservations agent, and that kind of experience helps. She worked her way up BA to a variety of very senior positions, including head of cabin services and director of business units, but never lost the knack of winning over the troops. 'She was the one who would stop and chat to the cabin crew in the galley on long flights. Other executives didn't,' says one who worked for her.

It was a common touch that made her more popular with her staff than with some other executives at BA. Friends say Gooding wanted the marketing director's job at the airline, and would have been excellent in the role, but she never won round the key decision-makers. 'I think there were a few colleagues who found her arrogant and ambitious and she treated them as fools,' says the same source, 'but they probably deserved it.'

Is that why she left BA? Gooding brushes aside the suggestion of thwarted ambition. She left because she wanted something more interesting to do, she says, and time was running out. 'If I was going to make a big career move, then I was not going to do it in my 50s. I was in my 40s when I was approached. And it was not about ambition, Andrew. You're putting a male framework on this. It was all to do with interest. I felt it was rather narrow spending my whole career in one company and one industry.'

Would she describe herself as being ambitious? 'No,' she shrugs. (Put that to former colleagues and they chuckle wryly.) 'When I started work for BA there were no women managers ... it never entered my head to be boss. I was the same as any other woman of my generation. All we thought was: we want to do something interesting.'

She was certainly, she says, never pushed by her parents. She was brought up in rural east Suffolk, her father sold insurance for the Prudential, her mother was a school secretary. She has one sibling, an elder brother who now works at London City airport. She describes it all as a 'stable family background', then adds that both her parents had 'a very bad war'.

Meaning? Her father was a Japanese prisoner-of-war and she doesn't really want to go into that. 'Dad never talked about it.'

Anyway, she is probably more like her mum in character, she says. Both her mother and grandmother had careers. 'My grandmother was a maths teacher at a time when you had to leave when you got married.'

Gooding knew she wanted to work but was never quite sure what she wanted to do, went happily through grammar school and university (Warwick, where she read French) with no particular aim and joined BEA only by chance because she saw an ad in the Evening Standard. It turned out to be the right choice. 'I never had a job there I didn't enjoy.'

Really? 'There are things you don't like, but the airline business is a very interesting industry, it changes fast and there are always new things coming on stream.'

The biggest of which was privatisation. Gooding joined just before BEA and BOAC - separate nationalised entities - were merged. The new entity was solid, slow and very overmanned, she says. 'But it did a lot of things really well. It had a high standard of safety and operational performance.'

What it did not do well, she adds, was focus on the customer. 'I worked at Heathrow for 18 months and it was a very useful experience. We had awful strikes, the airline would stop, we would be in the front line, passengers thumping the desks, getting violent, shouting: 'We'll never fly you again!' We wouldn't be so rude as to say: 'Oh yes you will.' We would smile sweetly and say: 'Sorry', but we would think it. There wasn't a lot of choice in those days.'

Was it tougher for a woman to be a manager there? No, she says, but it was a very male environment, with a lot of ex-RAF executives and staff. Gooding was one of the first women to work her way up. She held off from starting a family till she was in a senior position, which, she says, made the decision to return to work easier to take.

She was also lucky to have bosses who were very supportive, not least Sir Colin Marshall, BA's chief executive, who had been invited onto the women-in-business lobbying group Opportunity 2000. That, she adds wryly, probably helped. 'Just before I had my second son I had a big promotion to running cabin services, and Colin was quite proud of that; he was able to say: Look, we've just promoted a seven-months-pregnant woman. It was a symbol and it did the company a lot of good. People could see there wasn't any barrier. Of course, they knew me then, they knew I wasn't going to disappear.'

Even so, she acknowledges - certainly more than a male manager would - that she has lost out on time she could have spent with her family. At BA her jobs took her around the world, always on a jet to one place or another. At BUPA she is renowned for being in early, never working at home, always putting in the hours. Her home life, she says, has been bolstered by 'a string of excellent nannies' and a husband, now retired from his job as director of Hampton Court, who runs the family.

'When people ask me what work/life balance I have, I say I have the balance right for me. It's probably not right for you but it comes back to choices.

You cannot be CEO of a pounds 2 billion business and expect to have a full social life, lots of hobbies, plenty of time to take the children on trips and so on. I've had nannies for many years, like most people, and made the best of it, and some of the best was very good indeed.'

But she believes a boss has to be seen - hence the hours she puts in and the frequent tours round BUPA hospitals and homes. The only thing she insists on doing is taking all her holidays. 'I spend good chunks of time with my children. I like going to nice places. But if I spend lots of time at home I just end up doing chores.' So the less time at home means she doesn't do any chores at all? She laughs, and adds that she does like a bit of gardening, and does love cooking, 'but there just isn't time'.

Her experience as a working mum has certainly convinced her of the opportunities in the childcare market. BUPA has already bought a string of nurseries in the south-east, branded Teddies, and aims to amass 100 in total. It has also launched a corporate consultancy service for childcare that Gooding believes has huge potential. The service finds maternity nurses, interviews nannies and reviews local nurseries. 'It's better in many ways than the company just providing a creche, especially if you have a multi-site business.

We can take this country-wide and every employee can access it. There's also a helpline and emergency childcare. I think there is a lot of untapped demand for it.'

It is this kind of innovation, and the fact that BUPA has a high proportion of female managers pushing through, that makes some feel Gooding has feminised the organisation. The observation clearly makes her uneasy.

'I absolutely deny it,' she says. 'This is a meritocracy. We have some very talented and capable women and a large proportion of women managers, but it is nothing to do with the fact that you have a woman at the top but because we have put in policies to promote the best people ... Women go for jobs just as assertively as men round here and - guess what? - in our insurance business it works out roughly 50-50.'

But she still feels there are more pressures on women. When I ask her what she spends her pounds 400,000-a-year salary on, she says: 'What do you think? Don't you know the answer to that is: if you are a woman CEO you have to spend it on clothes to look the part!'

Then she grins so widely that I can't tell if she is joking or not. So how much does she spend a year on clothes?

'Oh no, sorry, no,' she says, waving her hands.

She is not going to tell me. Is it a sexist question? I don't know. Charlie Dunstone once told me he spent pounds 20,000 a year on yachting, his major expense, so if he is happy to tell me ...

'No, I couldn't,' she says, before adding: 'I bet Denise Kingsmill never told you.' Quite right. I forgot to ask.

Kingsmill, a past MT interviewee, is also deputy chair of the Competition Commission and clearly, after blocking BUPA's Community Hospital bid, she is under Gooding surveillance. Then Gooding says that, actually, Harry Borden's photos of Kingsmill (MT September 2000) were one of her main reasons for giving the go-ahead for this interview.

Really? Maybe she was joking; it's so hard to tell. I left feeling she was holding something back. By then, she was fretting about the photo shoot. Oh, I'll look terrible, she says, in vulnerable mode, it'll be awful. No, you'll look fine, her staff reassure her.

How long will she stay at BUPA? For the rest of her working life, she says, when I ask her. She cites Marshall's 13 years as CEO at BA. If it seems right, you stay. Yet one former colleague tells me that he wouldn't be surprised to see her back in the airline business at the very top in the next five years, if the right offer came along. We shall see.

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