Caroline Michel: A woman with the write stuff

The head of the UK's premier literary agency has always had a love of storytelling
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The Independent Online

"Something is going wrong for women at the top of business," says Caroline Michel, shaking her glamorous head: "There's no shortage of talent – you see superb women working throughout industry right through to senior management. But then, at the top, at boardroom level, they disappear."

"Why is that? Is it childcare? Or is it because women don't play the game – they don't go shooting or fishing or play golf with the right men – the cabals of CEOs and chairmen of big business?"

Whatever the reason – and it's probably a mixture – Ms Michel doesn't believe fixed quotas for women at the boardroom table will fix the problem either: "I feel uneasy with the idea of quotas because I believe absolutely in merit. Women would feel they are there as tokens. But we have to do more to improve the situation and if voluntary quotas can provide a kick-start, then that's positive."

Ms Michel doesn't have a gender issue, or at least a female one. As chief executive of the UK's premier literary agency, Peters Fraser Dunlop (PFD), Ms Michel runs a business that employs 33 people – 30 of whom are women.

"Actually, I'm looking for a man – we need a male agent to join us. Man wanted," she laughs. Maybe she needs to introduce male quotas? "Yes, maybe. It's about getting the dynamic right and that means having a good mix in the workplace. We do everywhere else in life so why not at work?"

Ms Michel has been running PFD for five years following the £4m buy-out from Stellar, led by journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil. Since then, PFD has merged with Michael Foster's Rights House, raising capital from new shareholders including PR boss Matthew Freud, Martin Gilbert of Aberdeen Trust and banker Ian Hannam, who resigned from JPMorgan Cazenove last week after being fined £450,000 by the Financial Services Authority for alleged market abuse. They are fantastic backers and helped expand the business, says Ms Michel, who describes Mr Hannam as an "absolute giant of a man".

It's now one of the biggest literary and talent agencies in the UK, representing hundreds of authors and journalists ranging from Simon Schama to Jeanette Winterson to Monty Don, with a back catalogue running into thousands and thousands of imprints.

We meet in Ms Michel's offices on Drury Lane and it's like stepping back into an old-fashioned bookshop; volumes line the walls in the entrance and the walls in her office, while others are piled high on her desk and tables. There's not a Kindle or digital book in sight, but they're not out of mind.

"It's a vibrant time to be in publishing; whether its new apps, the e-book or readers, these new forms are helping transform the business and they can co-exist," she said.

"It's not books that are dead but the book publishing model needed reinventing. Something had to change as publishers had huge overheads and the system of royalties wasn't working. Now authors and journalists can work across the different models whether its traditional books, digital books or TV; it benefits everyone."

Ms Michel dates her love for storytelling back to her early teens while visiting her father, a commodities broker, in India during the school holidays.

"He put me with Indian families to look after me while he was at work and they used to tell the most fascinating and magical stories. I think that's where it comes from," she said, and why she studied Sanskrit at university.

And it's true that she only needs a couple of hours of sleep a night and most of her reading is done from about 3.30am in the morning.

"It's complete hell and I would like nothing better than to have eight hours sleep at night. But I can't – I just wake up," she said.

Right now she's reading Anne Tyler's "brilliant" The Beginner's Goodbye and one of her most recent favourites is Ms Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

We're here to discuss women as she is one of the judges for this year's Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year to be announced next Wednesday.

It's no surprise that Ms Michel – she's renowned for having one of the best contacts book in town – knows two of the women on the shortlist of three – Ruth Rogers, owner of the River Café and Anya Hindmarch, the handbag entrepreneur, well, and thinks they are both "brilliant and successful". The third is Helena Morrissey, a City fund manager and founder of the City's Thirty Per Cent Club to promote more women into the UK's boardrooms. (Even more impressive is that Ms Morrissey has nine children.)

Ms Michel approves of awards: "All awards – like the Orange Prize for women's literature – are a great way of recognising excellence. It's interesting that two on the Veuve Cliquot short-list did their own thing rather than climb the corporate ladder?"

Maybe women are just not ruthless enough? "O no! Women are just as vicious; I've seen as many ruthless women in business as men. I'll admit too that there have been times when I've discovered a ruthless side that I didn't realise I had. But women are also more insecure. It's a female thing. I keep thinking someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I've been found out."

Somehow, looking at Ms Michel's killer heels, several inches of Dolce & Gabbana's finest, I doubt that.

Award winners? Veuve Cliquot Businesswoman of the Year candidates

Ruth Rogers

Ruth Rogers started the River Café as a canteen for the staff of her husband, the architect Lord (Richard) Rogers. With the late Rose Gray, she has made it one of most popular Italian restaurants in London.

Helena Morrissey

A mother of nine, Helena Morrissey is also chief executive of Newton Investment Management. She set up the Thirty Per Cent Club to lobby for more women in the boardroom.

Anya Hindmarch

Anya Hindmarch is the founder of the eponymous luxury handbag company. She's also behind the "I am not a plastic bag" initiative, which raised the issue of plastic bag waste.

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