Secretarial: Alongside the woman in the driving seat

I Work For: Bernadette Dawson Is Nicola Foulston's Secretary At Brands Hatch Leisure
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FOR SEVENTEEN years I worked for the Zambian government's copper mining company, but the day President Kenneth Kaunda lost his position I lost mine too, although I can't think why the new government was worried about me.

I spotted the Brands Hatch job in the paper. I knew very little about the place but it looked like an exciting and dynamic job that would allow me to travel to work through green fields and country lanes rather than commuting to London.

I was shown into Nicola's office and saw a young woman who I assumed to be her secretary, tidying the desk. I was so surprised to learn that she was the boss that we both burst out laughing. She asked what I had been expecting and I answered, "A dowdy, 55-year-old spinster with greying hair and a hatpin." She cancelled all of her other interviews and offered me the job.

Nicola was only 24 then and she ruled by fear, not because she wanted to frighten people but because she wanted things to be done properly. But I wasn't scared of her; I was used to looking after tough people. It set me apart a bit, but I respected her because I recognised that initially she was struggling to be taken seriously in a man's world. A lot of people thought that she had come to the company to play around with her dad's hobby, so she had to be tough to be taken seriously.

We had a boss/secretary relationship for a long time, but when I fell pregnant, Nicky was the first person I told. I just broke down on the phone and she was wonderful; she said that she would support me in whatever decision I made, so much so that she linked my home up with her office to allow me to do a nine-to-five and be at home if my son got ill. I was very upset when she was incorrectly quoted as being unsympathetic to working mothers.

I may be protective of Nicola but I know that she is perfectly capable of looking after herself. We are great friends, but we behave differently inside the working environment, where a certain amount of formality is important.

Out of the office she's wonderful company and there are few secrets we don't share. When she recently came to my Roman Catholic gospel choir practice she said, "So now I know what I could do with my spare time if I had it." She's put everything into work at the expense of her social life, yet she copes marvellously.

This position was a secretarial role when I started, and I had to mould Nicky into using me properly as a PA. Initially I think she was scared of losing control, but now she trusts me enough to allow me to organise her life. I book all her appointments, from business meetings to massages, and at the moment I'm supposed to be finding her a personal trainer. I now have my own assistant too.

Since Nicola floated the company on the stock market she spends most of the time working from the City. She can run up to 10 different deals at one time, which means 10 deadline lists, and when I arrive in the morning there may be as many as 60 e-mails waiting for me, particularly if she has been working through the night.

It upsets me if I disappoint her, but she's mellowed over the years and when we do have difficulties we tend to iron them out quickly.

When Nicky was working from Brands I used to meet some of the racing car drivers - Damon Hill struck me as being a particularly gentle and unassuming man. My office overlooks the race track, which Nicky drives me around when she gets a new car such as a Porsche or a Ferrari. But she's not a petrolhead - although she used to manage a racing team - and I love Brands more for its greenness than for its fast cars.

My son tells me that since he's too big for nursery school it's time for him to come to work for Nicola at Brands, and whenever there's motor- racing on TV he says proudly, "That's where my mum works." I am very loyal to Nicky and will stay with her as long as she needs me. She knows that I always have her best interests at heart.

As for the future, I intend to follow God's plan for me, whatever that may be.

Interview by Katie Sampson