Profile: Bean-counting in the blood: Sainsbury finance director Rosemary Thorne has survived tough tests of her skills to shine in 'male citadels'. Patrick Hosking reports

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The Independent Online
Things might have turned out very differently for Rosemary Thorne, the finance director of J Sainsbury. Soon after leaving university, she applied for a job with the Bank of England and was invited for an interview at Threadneedle Street. 'It took them 20 minutes to find a ladies' loo for me.' It was then she decided the Bank probably wasn't for her.

In the early 1970s, a lack of loos was the least of the problems facing ambitious businesswomen. They don't fare much better today. Of the 1,370 managing directors and chief executives of quoted companies, just five are women, though that is two more than a year ago.

Elsewhere in the boardroom, they do slightly better. Eleven quoted companies have women finance directors, according to a survey by Crawford's Directory of City Connections, and 88 have female company secretaries, though they rarely sit on the board. Yve Newbold, the company secretary of Hanson and one of the most visible and most quoted businesswomen, is not a director.

Last week Ann Iverson, the innovative American who runs Mothercare, was appointed to the board of its parent, Storehouse. Women are now reaching top positions in middle-ranking companies, but the largest UK groups remain men-only citadels. There are just two female executive directors among the quoted companies that make up the FT-SE 100 index. One is Kathleen O'Donovan, finance director of industrial conglomerate BTR. The other is Thorne, who joined the supermarkets group last March.

She says the media attention sparked by her gender is 'a bit wearing'. She has already been invited to appear on BBC Television's Question Time: 'I turned it down. I felt I wanted to be in this job a full 12 months before getting cross-examined about the so-called profiteering of the supermarkets.'

Since arriving at Sainsbury, she has frequently been asked to address audiences on women in business and is involved with Opportunity 2000, the campaign to get more women into positions of power. But she is no drum- beating feminist: 'The glass ceiling that some women talk about - I've yet to experience it. I'm sure in 20 years' time we'll see more women at the top.'

Of Sainsbury's 85,000 employees, 56,000 are women. Of its millions of customers, the vast majority are women. But in the upper echelons of the company, women are thin on the ground. Of its 36 departmental directors, the layer immediately below the board, there is just one woman: the personnel director. Thorne did not rise through the ranks; she was head- hunted from outside.

According to chairman David Sainsbury, who once held the finance post himself, 'it was extremely nice to appoint a woman, but the choice was straightforwardly on merit. She was by quite a wide margin the best candidate. She has the intellectual ability to do the job, a high energy level and strong commercial sense'.

Thorne attributes her success to hard work and ambition, and is content to have sacrificed any family life. She goes to bed with a copy of Checkout, the grocery trade magazine. 'My career comes first. My career and my job are the most important thing in my life, so to find someone who would marry me would be rather unlikely,' she says.

This turns out to be somewhat misleading. Although Thorne describes herself as 'Miss', she later confirmed that she was in fact married for most of her twenties to someone she met at Warwick University. They later separated amicably. (While at Warwick, she was also close friends with Gus O'Donnell, now the Prime Minister's press secretary.)

Thorne's avoidance of the 'baby gap' - the maternity years that slow or stall so many women's careers - doubtless accelerated her glittering rise. But her charm has also been a great asset. She seems to have captivated most of her former chiefs. Sir Terence Conran, who was her boss at Storehouse, enthuses: 'I think she's absolutely wonderful.' Sir Allen Sheppard, chairman of food and drinks group Grand Metropolitan and another former employer, has just co-opted her as honorary treasurer of the Prince of Wales' Youth Business Trust.

The fan club is still growing. She confesses: 'Everyone I've worked with in the past I'm still the best of friends with. I'm not sure many men could say the same thing.'

She was born 41 years ago last Friday, the daughter of an accountant father and a bookkeeper mother. Bean-counting was in the blood. She gained the reputation of being a swot at her fee-paying convent school near Bristol, accumulating no fewer than 20 'O' levels. She was brilliant at mathematics (though a poor speller) and won a year's scholarship to study at a school in California, receiving tuition from a Berkeley professor.

She followed the professor when he moved to Warwick University. 'Till the middle of my second year I was destined to be an academic. But then I decided there was a real world out there.' She opted to become a management accountant, surprising her parents. 'It was the era when accountants were boring. It was just when John Cleese was strutting around the stage,' she says, referring to Monty Python's famous lampooning.

She joined BOC, the industrial gases group, as a management accountant trainee. But she found she could not fully immerse herself in the business of heavy engineering. Retailing she could relate to. She joined Mothercare as financial controller in 1977, her empire rapidly expanding as Sir Terence Conran pursued his ill-fated drive to bring good design to the masses. His buying spree started with Mothercare and culminated with BhS. Thorne ended up as financial controller of the whole sprawling Storehouse empire.

It was ghastly. Storehouse was more of a civil war than a retail group. She stood the in- fighting for eight months before quitting. She contrasts that period with her feelings on at Sainsbury: 'It's a wonderful feeling that everyone is pulling in the same direction after the bad experience of Storehouse, where everyone was pulling in different directions.'

Sir Terence said: 'I was very sad when I was unable to keep her in the company.' And in a startling admission, he now says: 'If I had my time again, she would have had the role of Michael Julien, the chief executive. Apart from her financial acumen, she's a human being with it. She understands the world. She's not just a financial person, she understands buying and selling and the point of view of the customer. If I had not merged with BhS, she would probably still be there. And so might I,' he adds ruefully.

During her stint at Storehouse, she also revealed a tougher side to her girl-next-door image. Sir Terence says: 'She speaks her mind. She got frustrated with some of the fools around her (during the merger with BhS). She was not at all tolerant of some of the people on the other side of the fence.'

Her new employers had problems of their own. She joined House of Fraser as finance director of Harrods. It was 1986, a year after the Egyptian Fayed brothers had launched their controversial pounds 615m takeover of HoF, but before it was confirmed they had repeatedly lied about their wealth and origins.

'I enjoyed it. I learned an awful lot. The battles with Tiny Rowland were going on around me, but I was basically in charge of making sure the Harrods doors opened every day.' She was also put in charge of Harrods Bank, as the Bank of England insisted the Fayeds keep a distance from it.

At home she still has a 10-inch pile of propaganda put out by Rowland. Documents attacking the Fayeds were often delivered to her home by Lonrho messengers, sometimes in the small hours, demanding she sign for them - quite scary for a woman living alone, she says.

A former colleague at Harrods says: 'She was very capable, very efficient, extremely conscientious and very hard working.' The Knightsbridge store insists that one of its directors always goes in on a Saturday. 'Rosemary seemed to do more Saturdays than anyone else.'

Versions differ about her parting from Harrods. According to her own CV, she remained employed by the store till March 1990. According to one well-placed source, she was dismissed with compensation on 1 January 1990. Relations between her and David Simons, the then HoF finance director (now chief executive of Isosceles, the owner of Gateway), are said to have become increasingly strained.

It was in her next job as financial controller of Grand Metropolitan that Thorne came close to the wheeler-dealer end of finance, playing a part in a welter of acquisitions and disposals. She arrived in time to sew up the loose ends of the Pillsbury takeover, and then worked on the sale of William Hill bookmakers to Brent Walker (the two sides are still squabbling over the price), forged the Inntrepreneur joint venture with Courage and sold the Peter Dominic off-licence chain to Whitbread.

By comparison, the Sainsbury job looks rather tame - more planning and controls than mergers and acquisitions. She has kept her head down so far. According to one of her staff, she is systems-oriented, a good delegator and uncharismatic. In the City she is still little known, barely opening her mouth in a company presentation to one stockbroker.

Despite the cautious start, she looks destined for greater things. And she is booked in for a TV training course next week. Peter Sissons may yet persuade her to grace the Question Time panel.

(Photograph omitted)