Gail Rebuck is the latest winner of Veuve Clicquot's celebrated Business Woman of the Year accolade. Emma de Vita meets half a dozen of its 36 title-holders.
In the elegant, sun-filled ballroom of Veuve Clicquot's London office are six of its Business Woman Award winners from the past three decades, here to divulge the secrets of their success. With a clutch of CEO-sized egos in the room, things could get a little bitchy, and the risk of a frayed temper or a difficult demand runs high. Yet the drama-queen quotient is low. In fact, with all the air-kissing, considerate questions and generous compliments, it's more hairdressing salon than power meeting.
It's easy to imagine Madame Clicquot, after whom the award is named, peering down approvingly on those present. At just 27, the grande dame of champagne took the reins of her husband's business when he died in 1805, going on to build a thriving company. The annual Business Woman Award was founded in France in 1972 and the UK in 1973 (it now runs in 17 countries) as a homage to Clicquot's pioneering success. It rewards outstanding businesswomen for their achievement, enterprise and business acumen. Other past winners include Dame Anita Roddick, Prue Leith and Dame Marjorie Scardino.
But celebrations are now in order for this year's winner, Random House Group's chair and chief executive Gail Rebuck, who took the helm of the book publisher in 1991. She was the first woman to head a major British publishing group, despite the industry being notoriously female-dominated. Rebuck says she's never been conscious of her gender making a difference at work. 'I would rather - like most women - get on with the job in hand than waste a lot of time having anxious moments as to whether or not we're there either because we are women, or in spite of it.'
Rebuck never expected to get so far. 'Women in my days didn't have ambitions. We basically kept our heads down. When people came to me and said "Would you do this?", it was always a surprise. I never asked for it.'
Her success, she says, is partly down to being authentic. Apart from a cringe-worthy phase when she fell for the 'dress for success' movement of the '80s that told women to power-dress, she never sought to emulate men. 'It tried to make women look and behave like men, but it was actually denying something that was absolutely authentic about women.'
Colossal shoulder-pads might be a thing of the past, but longstanding barriers blocking the rise of women persist. 'It's not the glass ceiling, it's the sticky floor,' says Rebuck. 'Women don't particularly want to progress onto the next stage - it doesn't look very pleasant, because it is full of stress or because it might interfere with other aspects of their lives. They are happy to stick where they get to within an organisation or opt out completely and live a more entrepreneurial life.'
Dawn Gibbins, founder of concrete flooring specialist Flowcrete and Veuve Clicquot winner in 2003, knows all about the obstacles that women face. A whirlwind of energy (she lets slip her office nickname, the Tasmanian Devil), she founded the business with her inventor father in 1982. She was a novelty. 'When I went to construction sites, I couldn't get steel toe-capped boots or jackets to fit. There were naughty pictures in the site huts - it was all we were, sex objects.'
And there was Gibbins, out doing site specifications and training contractors on how to lay floors. When customers phoned to speak to someone technical and got through to her, they thought she was the secretary. 'I laughed it off,' she says generously.
Her biggest gripe about women in manufacturing is how they undervalue themselves. 'Women don't seem to go for risk - they stay small. Women need a big confidence boost.'
They could do no better than follow her lead. At the age of 50, Gibbins is launching a start-up. She sold Flowcrete last year for £30m to US firm RPM International, to pursue her ambition of bringing her seamless concrete flooring into the home market. 'I shared my idea with Flowcrete's board but nobody wanted to come with me. So I'm going to step out there alone and be a start-up business again.' Watch out for Barefoot Living.
Some might say launching a new business in a recession is madness, but that's just what Debbie Moore did when she founded London dance studio Pineapple in 1979. 'It was almost a good time for me to open when everything was so tough, because I was well-equipped to deal with the difficulties that would come along as I grew the business,' she says. 'It's similar to now. There's nothing like this kind of recession to make people look at their values. In the end, we will all emerge better for it.'
In 1982, she became the first woman to float a company on the London Stock Exchange and won the Veuve Clicquot award two years later. Margaret Thatcher was PM, but Moore was everything the Iron Lady wasn't: a young ex-model from Manchester who'd left school at 15. 'It sent out a message that anything was possible,' she says.
Moore faced a problem in getting her business open during a time of three-day weeks, and another closer to home. Her daughter Lara was 10 when she became paralysed after a spinal haemorrhage. 'That was probably the most difficult time,' she says. Moore spent her days between the office and her daughter's bedside, keeping their ordeal secret so as not to jeopardise the business, which had floated. 'When a crisis comes along, you can't afford to let it wipe you out. You need the right state of mind, because too many people get stressed about trivia. It's a job, and you can deal with it. The number one thing for success in business or life is to be healthy and to have stamina and energy.'
Moore's passion for what she does is written all over her. In fact, all six winners admit that they couldn't have got as far as they did without it. 'I love what I do,' says Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Media Group and recipient of last year's award. 'Even when there are the most enormous challenges - which I think we are facing at the moment - I still wake up wanting to go to work every day.'
She believes the issues have become more complex for women since she started out. 'This concept that you can have it all and it's easy is not quite true - there are compromises.'
Has she made too many sacrifices? 'If I didn't like what I did it would be a massive sacrifice - and sacrifice is the wrong word, isn't it? You wouldn't ask Terry Leahy or Stuart Rose that, and they have children. It's about are you good at what you do? Are you a good family person, whether or not you are a man or a woman? I'm not different to other CEOs who are male.'
Organisational agility - that is, the flexibility of a company to give what both men and women now expect from work - is critical. Says McCall: 'What I find more and more is this is not a women-only issue. It's very much about how men work as well. A lot of younger men on boards want paternity leave, and they want to get home in time to see their children. The concept of an absent working father is not prevalent today, as it used to be. That is a significant change. I think organisations that aren't agile enough will lose a lot of people.'
And 2007 award winner Rosaleen Blair, the Dublin-born founder of recruitment service Alexander Mann Solutions, might be the one to mop up the talent. She agrees that men and women with young families want more flexibility, but admits that 'we've got an awful lot to do'. She has steadfastly created an enlightened corporate culture, and it's testament to her leadership that 70% of her employees are women, and many occupy senior roles.
Not that she hasn't made mistakes. 'I used to work horrendous hours because I enjoyed it, but I realised five or six years ago that this was having a bad impact on the company.' Her constant presence created a damaging culture of presenteeism. 'That was a really hard lesson,' she recalls painfully. Now, she makes sure she's not in the office 24/7. 'I have a three-year-old son and I want to be there when he gets up and I want to be there to read his story at night.'
Superwoman she does not want to be. 'One of the things that is quite damaging is the view that women can have it all. That puts an enormous strain and challenge on young women, because they feel that they are going to have to make choices, and I don't think that's true. You can have it all, but it needs to be at different stages in your life and your career. It's about life balance, as opposed to work/life balance.'
And women should not emulate the way men do business - something Blair has refused to do. 'I've always done the opposite to some of their behaviours, but a lot of it has died out in the past few years,' she says. 'I've learnt brilliant things from men on the way up, but there have also been things that I wouldn't want to encourage in my organisation.'
Another winner is Patricia Vaz, who received the award in 1995 while director of BT Payphones. Leaving school at 17 with just one A-level ('I enjoyed life too much!'), she didn't have much ambition until having her son at 20. She joined BT. There were 27 layers between clerical officer and MD, but she had the courage to cut through the lot.
'That is one of the lessons I've never forgotten,' says Vaz. 'Don't stay in your comfort zone, because too many people do that and then 20 years later say they never had the chance to move on.' She broke new ground climbing the ranks. 'At each stage I was almost always the first woman to do something. It was quite useful to be different, because you were noticed.'
Like all the other award-winners present, Vaz values a talented team. 'I was very lucky to be able to build a team of people that would always help me to achieve more than I could.' It was the secret of her success.
Any advice to those looking to follow in her footsteps? 'You can achieve almost anything you want to if you really set your mind to it, so long as you are prepared to work hard and have the courage that it takes to step out and put your head above the parapet.' Sante to that.
MT spoke to:
Carolyn McCall 2008 winner, chief executive, Guardian Media Group
Patricia Vaz 1995 winner, director, BT payphones, now retired
Rosaleen Blair 2007 winner, CEO, Alexander Mann Solutions
Dawn Gibbins 2003 winner, chairman, Flowcrete, now CEO of Barefoot Living
Gail Rebuck 2009 winner, chair and chief executive, Random House Group
Debbie Moore 1984 winner, founder and MD, Pineapple Dance Studios