At home amid the hurly-burly

Interview: Sue Birley

One of the first reactions to Sue Birley's appointment as a non- executive director of NatWest Group is bewilderment at how she will find the time. Professor of management at Imperial College, London's management school since 1990, she is also a consultant to the accountants Grant Thornton and is chairman of Newchurch & Company, a consultancy specialising in advising organisations in "social markets", such as health-care, that she co-founded 10 years ago. Professor Birley acknowledges it is not the first time the question has arisen, but adds: "I'm afraid of being idle. I like the variety. There are so many interesting things going on."

Such a view is perhaps inevitable from somebody who seems to have fought all her life against pigeon-holing. Announcing her appointment earlier this month, NatWest drew attention to her knowledge and experience of strategic management and the small business sector. But that does not really cover the half of it.

For more than 20 years, she has taught at leading educational establishments in Britain, Europe and the United States, and in the past 10 she has combined this varied career withworking with a number of bodies promoting economic development in Northern Ireland, being a member of the Department of Trade and Industry's advisory panel for deregulation and serving as a governor of the Harris City Technology College.

Professor Birley is adamant that each feeds off the others: teaching benefits from her practical experience while the business enables her to test theories. "My focus is entrepreneurship and I happen to do it in different guises," she says. Moreover, she maintains that "where I am physically at any one time isn't an indication of anything".

The only girl from her year at a mixed grammar school in Lancashire to go to university, she started as a mathematics specialist, but moved on, first, to statistics and then strategy "because I wanted to do something different". The result, she says, is that she has both a command of detail and the ability to see the wider picture.

Her interest in entrepreneurs has developed through teaching stints at institutions in several countries and this expertise has no doubt attracted the interest of NatWest, which claims to be the leading lender to the small business sector.

But Professor Birley, who will join the bank's remuneration and audit committees and be the bank's only female director when former minister Baroness Young retires at April's annual meeting, is unlikely to limit herself to this sphere. She thinks strategy and small business issues are closely linked and also believes large organisations can learn from smaller counter-parts.

"People assume you start a business and grow it, but don't think about what happens next. Industry is a bit like an amoeba, constantly changing."

General attitudes are changing, too. After her teaching experience in the US she agrees with the general contention that there is greater acceptance of enterprise and tolerance of failure across the Atlantic.

But she points out that because Britain was hit by unemployment earlier than most of its competitors, it was among the first countries to grapple with settling up enterprise agencies and the like.

Not all have been successful, but, as she says, "people are more interested in and aware of the option of doing their own thing, being their own boss, buying into a business. And this is not just because the threat of unemployment is clearly there. It's also because it's now accepted as a fun and exciting thing to do."

The bank, which last week reported a 10 per cent increase in pre-tax profits to pounds 1.75bn, has signalled one change, since the planned purchase of Gartmore is seen as a precursor to other moves in the fund management and life insurance field. But Professor Birley also sees developments in other areas, notably the already fast-moving retail banking sector.

One of her contributions will be to look at the information about the various businesses. "I will need to get a feel for the data - to roll around on the ground just to get a feel of how it works," she says. So much for the theory. She also sees her own business experience having a key impact. "The value of Newchurch [her consultancy] is that you know what it's like to be a founder of a business and to write personal guarantees and to raise venture capital. We've gone through all the growing pains."

Such a background also gives her valuable insights into the controversial topic of late payment. "Late payment is a serious issue for any business, but the impact on smaller ones is usually more because they are less stable. In some cases they are paid late because they invoice late, or they don't chase or the clients don't pay. You need to understand the simple things, such as if you don't get an invoice to the client before the date at which they do the invoices you lose a month."

It is the sort of forthright, no-nonsense talk that is likely to endear her to NatWest colleagues when she joins them on 1 March. Equally, her lack of sentimentality might disappoint those who think that because she has joined that select group of women who have penetrated the old boys' club of the City she will become a champion of female promotion.

Pointing out that she does not believe in positive discrimination, she says: "The female thing isn't my area. I don't think of myself as a woman professor. I get on with it. I've not encountered any problems."

She accepts that not having any children - she has step-children through her 20-year marriage to David Norburn, director of the Imperial College management school - has made a difference.

But, true to her academic calling, she has a statistical explanation for the dearth of women in the boardroom.

When Professor Birley, 52, was starting out few women were going on to higher education and embarking on careers. Consequently, she says: "There's what's called a supply issue which will take time to work its way through the system. The situation will change as the supply base changes."

Roger Trapp

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Client Services Manager - Relationship Management - London

£30000 - £32000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Credit Controller / Customer Service

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding business...

Guru Careers: In-House / Internal Recruiter

£25 - 28k + Bonus: Guru Careers: An In-house / Internal Recruiter is needed to...

Recruitment Genius: Tax Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Tax Assistant is required to join a leading ...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea