Through the glass ceiling: The right chemistry means she's got it all

Nick Gilbert talks to ICI's Rona Fairhead

YOU CAN have it all: job, money, family ... except maybe playing squash.

Rona Fairhead is 36, executive vice president for strategy at ICI, one of the 10 top people in a company with over pounds 10bn in sales and heavily involved in the current corporate makeover started by Charles Miller Smith, ICI's chief executive and next chairman.

The highest ranking woman in ICI's history, she earns lots. She is now pregnant - married to Tom, a former merchant banker, now a Tory councillor in Kensington and Chelsea - mother of James, 2, with the second baby expected in a few weeks.

The squash has had to go - a blow for a woman who, undeterred by surgery on her spine in her teens, used to spend a lot of time on the court. "I have to be very focused since my priorities are my job and my family," says Mrs Fairhead.

So what does she think about Nicola Horlick, who has put fancily paid, fecund females on the map? "I think she has shown that you can have children and still be successful," says Mrs Fairhead. "That's an important message for people to receive since there has been a feeling recently you can't have both."

Yet shareholders can relax about her work ethic. "When I was interviewed by Charles, I questioned whether I would have enough to do," she laughs at herself. She was soon put right about that. When she joined ICI in October 1996 her three-month induction course came to a speedy end. "It finished on day two," she says. "I was asked to make a presentation to the whole board on whether we should buy Unilever's speciality chemicals business."

She became an important member of the team that last year was in charge of the pounds 4.8bn purchase of the Unilever operations and the associated pounds 3bn sale of businesses, including selling commodity and intermediate chemicals, to Dupont.

Instead of making bulk chemicals, ICI wants to concentrate on applications science and special chemicals where high margins go along with what she calls "less capital-intensive, less cyclical" operations. Out with polyester film, in with special adhesives like those used on the Thrust land-speed record holder vehicle and made-to-order coatings like those Intel buys for its Pentium microchips.

Mr Miller Smith and his new team of executives want the stock market to give the company the kind of fancy rating enjoyed by Zeneca, the pharmaceuticals division ICI spun off nearly five years ago.

The team is part of what the ICI boss has called "widening the gene pool". The jury is out on the restructuring. This week ICI announces what will be another dreadful set of results with pre-tax profits likely to fall to around pounds 380m for 1997. That inheritance of the old ICI is the problem that people like Mrs Fairhead have been imported to fix.

"The results should start to come through in terms of improved performance this year, with 1999 and 2000 showing increased cash generation and better Ronas," she says. By a nice coincidence ICI calls its benchmark figure for measuring itself "Rona" - return on net assets.

The young Rona Haig was more or less made to measure for ICI, growing up on Teeside, the company's heartland. Her own gene pool is of undoubted quality. The scion of the highly educated Edinburgh meritocracy, her mother worked as a maths teacher, her father was a physicist who worked for the old Atomic Energy Authority.

Head girl at school was followed by Cambridge where she coxed a rowing eight, acted in a light entertainment group, and picked up a double first class honours degree in law. It seems to have been effortless. Was she a swot? "Not really; I had a flatmate who took good notes at lectures," she grins.

"Rona is very smart, very organised and very pleasant," says Gavin MacDonald, managing director of investment banking at Morgan Stanley, who met her "across a crowded library at Cambridge".

She is unpompous, a brainbox with laughing eyes and an attractive open face. Her speech is, for someone who started in business as a management consultant, pretty much free of jargon. There is no power-dressing, no big hair. ICI insiders reckon she is a star in the making.

From Cambridge she went to work for consultants Bain and Company, taking time out to pick up a Harvard MBA. She was one of the 100-plus "Bainies" who worked on the notorious Guinness acquisition of Distillers. "It was a huge success aside from the scandal," she says.

She spent four years working for hi-tech weapons group Short Brothers in Belfast, and she is still involved in business groups involved in attracting new private-sector jobs to the troubled province.

At just 34, she was general manager of Short's UK Aviation Services Business, involved in operations like maintaining trainer jets for the RAF and modifying Hercules transport planes.

More singular than her gender is her rarity value as one of the elite who has opted not for the professions but business.

But will she stay with ICI? "Do I see myself here in five years time? Yes. Do I see myself in the same job? No."

So what's next? "I could be in a general management role or do something in the financial area," replies Mrs Fairhead. She has no intention of letting her own Rona slip.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Graduate / Trainee Recruitment Consultant - IT

£25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: Orgtel are seeking Graduate Trainee Re...

HR Business Partner - Banking Finance - Brentwood - £45K

£45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: ** HR Business Partner - Senior H...

PA / Team Secretary - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: PA / Team Secretary - Mat...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz