Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year: the prize that comes before a fall?

Michelle McDowell has just been named Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year. Trouble is, for many of her predecessors it was a poisoned chalice
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The Independent Online

It is not so much a poisoned chalice as a poisoned flute glass. Being named Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year might be the most sparkling accolade for women in industry, but all too often the fizz goes flat, with recipients resigning soon after they have been honoured.

Carolyn McCall resigned as director of Tesco two days after winning the award in 2008, while Vivienne Cox, who was honoured in 2006, stepped down as head of BP's alternative energy unit when it closed its London office last year.

Yesterday, Michelle McDowell, 47, the engineer named this year's winner, had no qualms over her future. She was the driving force behind the £70m redevelopment of the Royal Albert Hall and also worked on the revamp of Wimbledon's All England Club. Ms McDowell, chair of civil and structural engineering at the design firm BDP, said: "It's a huge personal honour and I hope it will raise the profile of engineering."

She has thrived in the male-dominated industry, and said she had become used to being surrounded by men. "It can feel intimidating, as if you don't belong," she said. "At the same time, it makes you memorable and sets you apart. Things are improving now with more women coming into the industry, but it's a slow process." The most disquieting moments were walking into a "sea of male faces" at industry events, she said.

Ms McDowell grew up in the village of Garvagh, near Coleraine in Northern Ireland, where there were occasional terrorist-linked shootings and bomb scares at school. "It spurred me to go to university," she said. She met her partner, Jason Fox, 49, a systems director for the information technology company DDS, in her first week at Bristol University. "He was studying English and I was studying engineering," she remembers. "I think he helped me to develop my creative side. I couldn't be where I am without him, he's a wonderful sounding board."

Neither of their careers put pressure on their relationship, she said. "We both thrive on work – and on our lives outside work."

They also share a passion for travel, and are currently renovating a Grade II listed house they bought last year in the Cotswolds. She is able to fit all her interests, including watching the television programmes The Killing and Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets, and meeting up with friends who she has kept up with since university days, into her "relatively balanced" 45-hour working week.

"If I'm working really long hours then I'm not managing things properly, or the resources aren't right," she said. "As an engineer, it's quite technical work and if you make mistakes a building could fall down. So it's important to be relatively fresh and clear thinking. I'm also not a fan of presenteeism."

She said one of her greatest career successes at BDP, which has an £96m annual turnover, was working on the Royal Albert Hall, where her team excavated a four-storey basement next to the "national treasure", which is used, among other things, for articulated lorries to offload scenery underground. She is also proud of her "very rewarding" work on Brighton Children's Hospital, which was designed for young people, with low windows and a sea view in every bedroom. It was awarded the Prime Minister's Better Public Building Award.

The secrets of her success include being very well organised, she said. "I prioritise, what's important gets done. I don't panic under pressure, it's hard to phase me."

While some people think "women only" awards are sexist, Ms McDowell believes they will remain important until there are an equal number of men and women in senior boardroom positions. Her hopes for the future include continuing to grow the company; she currently manages a team of 400 people. She also wants to continue her work for the industry, improving the lot of engineers.

"The image of engineering is totally outdated," she said. "I work in a design studio alongside architects, sketching and coming up with ideas." Her future looks bright – provided she can keep the curse of Clicquot at bay.

Previous winners

Vivienne Cox

The former BP executive accepted the award in 2006 but Ms Cox stepped down as head of BP's alternative energy unit when it closed its London office last year. She is now Chairman of Climate Change Capital Asset Management.

Sophie Mirman

Honoured in 1988 but soon after collecting the trophy she was forced to step down as head of Sock Shop after publishing poor financial results. The company collapsed two years later. She now runs Trotters child clothing stores.

Barbara Cassani

The first leader of London's 2012 Olympics bid won the award in 2002, when she was founder of budget airline Go Fly. Later that year, the airline was bought by easyJet but she was not offered a position in the merged company.