The business on... Lillian Tan, Chief executive, Laura Ashley

Click to follow

The first lady of middle England?

If so, she is an unlikely one. Ms Tan is Malaysian, speaks English as asecond language, and has spent most of her career working in insurance.

She doesn't sound as if she knows much about floral prints?

Maybe she didn't but she does now: she's run the fashion and furnishings retailer for five years.

So how did she get the job?

Courtesy of Laura Ashley's largest shareholder, the MUI Group, where Ms Tan spent a long period working in insurance before becoming managing director of the management services unit. Having taken a controlling stake in the retailer in 1998, MUI moved her into the job in 2005.

A curious choice.

Maybe, though Ms Tan was not entirely devoid of retail experience, having run one of Malaysia's largest superstores for three years prior to moving to Britain.

Still, does she understand this quintessentially British brand?

She seems to. Before Ms Tan came along, the retailer had been going through a tricky period and was lacking stability – 10 chief executives had been and gone over the previous 14 years. She put the business on an even keel and sales have been impressive. Yesterday saw Laura Ashley shares rise 20 per cent as it upgraded profits forecasts for the second time in the space of a month.

So what's she like?

Very private. The retail sectorcontains some of the business world's most gregarious bosses, but Ms Tan has kept a low profile. She spends her weekends checking out its shops around the country rather than giving interviews. Friends describe her as hard-working.

Does no one have a bad word to say about her?

Well, shareholders like the business's performance, but there have been one or two complaints about the way MUI has filled the board with its representatives. The fact Ms Tan used to work for the company has thus been controversial with some investors.