PA to the chief executive - Margaret Fowles, Marvens Plc

It's barely 10 o'clock and already Margaret has brushed off three senior executives.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Dispatched a brace of broadsheet journalists and told a bright young thing in the Cabinet that 'no really does mean no'.

Not that she's been rude or dismissive to any of these people. Just resolutely firm, telling them where they stand, where she stands, and making it clear that if they ever want to speak to Sir Ian, they will do it on her terms - or not at all.

Margaret Fowles sits in a panelled anteroom, gatekeeper to the office of Sir Ian Austin, chief executive of the retail giant Marvens Plc. She is a woman of a certain age, subtly but deeply intimidating, the kind of secretary you might find in the pages of a John Le Carre novel. Efficient, proper, no nonsense... no, let's be honest - get on the wrong side of her and you'll know what it is to be savaged by rottweiler in a twinset and pearls.

Margaret (or Ms Fowles, as she is more respectfully known) has been with Sir Ian for as long as anyone can remember, ever since, as a newly made middle manager in the mid '70s, he gained a Rover P6 and a secretary of his very own. Back then, plain young Ian Austin was clearly destined for great things and so, by association, was the young, almost pretty, Margaret Fowles. Apart from a trial separation in the early '80s (three painful months, after which they rushed back into each other's Rolodexes), they've always been together.

Margaret's role has grown in line with her boss's. Over the past half-decade - thanks to Sir Ian's trenchant leadership - Marvens has gone from being an also-ran to a front runner in the retail Derby. As a result, its maximum chief is now a man politicos want to sup with and the media's retail boss of choice. Sir Ian is in demand as never before and his PA (who else?) finds herself the final arbiter of requests for audiences with the great man.

Many - especially journalists - try to bypass Margaret by e-mailing Sir Ian directly or dialling his surprisingly well known ('but you didn't get this from me') mobile number. They are wasting their time - there is no back door to his office. For all Marvens' vaunted online sales prowess, the computer on Sir Ian's desk is entirely for show, his mobile an uncharged brick on permanent divert to its fixed counterpart on his PA's desk.

Those who chance other channels find themselves similarly stymied. Investor relations, the various functions, the press office and even other board members - all roads inexorably lead to Ms Fowles. But it should not be imagined that she is entirely inflexible. She even gave out Sir Ian's home number once, to a nice young man from the Labour party who became prime minister three days later. With good reason, she prides herself on being hard but fair. Mostly hard, though.

Those who find Margaret a royal pain in the arse tend to take the line that her proximity to power has given her ideas above her station. But to do this is to miss the point. Margaret and Sir Ian have spent so long together that they are a sort of yin and yang, totally symbiotic. She has become the part of his corporate persona that he is no good at, specifically organisation and prioritisation. There is ample evidence for this. The few who get their 15 minutes with Sir Ian find him open, almost to the point of naivete - and disorganised as hell. He may be adept at steering the good ship Marvens through the choppy seas of the global economy, but he has no idea what he's doing after lunch.

Inevitably, the duo's extraordinary closeness has led to speculation among Marvens' younger ranks that they must have, well, 'done it' at some point in the past. Idle gossip. Although Sir Ian may have occasionally wondered what it might be like (for all men, even Knights of the Realm and captains of industry, do), he would never dream of jeopardising his most important working relationship. As for Margaret, well, she's never dreamed of it, full stop. In any case, they are far too close to be lovers.

Of course, the reason that the youth of today find this relationship so remarkable is that it's a relic of the corporate past. Had she been born 20 years later, Margaret would be a terrifying corporate player in her own right, with a high-status job and a plutocratic package. It is, however, unlikely that she'd wield more power.

Just because someone makes your coffee doesn't mean she can't end your career.

THE FOWLES FILE

1948 Born Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham. Educated Sutton Coldfield Ladies' College, West Kensington Secretarial College

1968 Secretary, Hammersmith & Fulham Conservative Association

1970 Pool secretary, Headquarters Building, Marvens

1974 Personal secretary to Ian Austin

1981 Marketing trainee, Marvens

1981 Personal secretary to Ian Austin

1984 Executive secretary to Ian Austin, marketing director

1989 Executive PA to Ian Austin, finance director

1997 PA to Ian Austin, CEO

2000 PA to Sir Ian Austin, CEO.

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