Judith Young: On set with Labour: the Tory lord's daughter who 'keeps people awake'

Having a famous father hasn't opened doors for the founder of events organiser Potcakes. But neither, as she tells Jason Nissé, has it shut any in her face
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The Independent Online

And behind Potcakes is Judith Young, the 45-year-old daughter of Lord Young, the former Conservative trade secretary and deputy chairman. Potcakes was founded by Judith in 2000 after she had spent more than a decade in event organisation, and the company secured its breakthrough in July 2002 when it bid initially to design the sets for the 2003 conferences of all three parties.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were not interested, but Labour was so pleased with what Judith offered that it asked her to turn round a set for the 2002 conference, which meant designing, building and installing it in just two months. "I said to them, just as I was signing the contract, 'You know who my father is?' A look of shock came over their faces. 'Don't tell me.' But it was OK. I've had to handle a few jokes."

Lord Young, who advises his daughter but isn't involved in the running of Potcakes, was able to enjoy his own joke at Labour's expense. "I ran into Tony Blair after the deal was done, and told him I was prepared to throw in the policies for free," he laughs.

Father and daughter are close - Lord Young calls Judith "the son I never had" - and when The Independent on Sunday went to interview her at Potcakes' trendy Soho offices, the Tory peer had popped over for a cup of tea and a cake.

He recalls that his daughter gave no impression of having an entrepreneurial spirit in her youth. "Judith never showed any sign of wanting to work for herself."

When she launched Potcakes, Judith took an office next door to her father's in London's West End and was always dropping in for advice and equipment to borrow. Lord Young is a technology nut who claims to have been one of the first people in the UK to own a desktop computer - the famous Apple II in the early 1980s. His business, Young Associates, is an investor in growing tech companies and has floated three of them on the Alternative Investment Market.

As Potcakes developed, it acquired a video-editing firm to add to the services it could offer. Judith had never bought a company before and was a little nervous. "Whenever I am scared, I phone up Daddy and he says: 'Of course you can do it.' "

Having a father who has been a cabinet minister, the chairman of a FTSE 100 company (Cable & Wireless) and has enjoyed a successful business career could have opened many doors for Judith. But she chose not to knock on any of them. "I picked the one industry where Daddy hadn't any involvement," she laughs.

What Potcakes offers is an entire event management service. It will hire the hall, design the sets, book speakers, organise video presentations - either standalone or to go with speeches - and make sure the whole event runs as smoothly as possible. It handles anything from a management away day to a Labour campaign. This year's general election involved setting up 11 rallies (with up to 1,200 people at each) and 22 lectures, as well as running a media centre and a party at the end, which Tony and Cherie Blair turned up to at 6.30am on election night.

In those three weeks, Judith organised nearly 70 workers - while Potcakes has only nine permanent staff, it has more than 100 freelancers on its books - as well as four trucks, scores of venues and a few recalcitrant politicians. "There were set-ups that would usually take four days, which we did in nine hours," she says.

Lord Young knows what it is like to take on such a task. "I ran the 1987 election campaign," he recalls. "It was the most horrendous six weeks of my life. But there was light at the end of the tunnel - we won."

Judith relishes the idea of doing it again. "You don't have an election every year," she says. "But now I've got the taste for doing the big events."

Most of Potcakes' clients, though, are rather lower profile. They stretch from small firms through to large plcs such as Rentokil Initial, Waitrose and the AA, and all benefit from Judith's strong belief that event organisers have to marry creativity ("it's how you keep people awake in the audience") with a desire to listen - if not always to obey. "A lot of people know what they want to do but people on our side won't let them. The artsiness tends to get in the way."

Possibly because of her background, she has a fascination for the companies she works with. Her industry, she claims, is typically bad at retaining clients, and she wants to change this. "The normal cycle is to keep clients for two years and then they move on, but we have kept ours for four or five years."

But listening to the customers is not enough. In modern event presentations you need the latest technology, and Potcakes uses a system called Spider that "streams" video, PowerPoint presentations and other computer-generated information on one big screen, which in turn can be split up to carry multiple images. Judith confesses that she doesn't understand any of this and has a production manager who runs the video side. But her father, who originally wanted to be a film director but was forced to go into accounting instead, loves it. He regularly spends hours chatting with Potcakes' technical people and comparing notes.

Ultimately, Lord Young is a proud father, if a surprised one. "When I first went on to a set, here was my scatty daughter in the midst of it, giving everyone orders," he recalls. "It was a side to my daughter I had never seen before."

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 12 January 1960.

Education: Queen's College, Harley Street; Istituto Via Vittorio Emanuele, Florence.

Career (1982-85): travel trade.

1985-88: Sotheby's auction house - specialising in fine English furniture.

1988-92: NML Presentation - assistant producer.

1992-2000: BWP - conference producer.

2000 to now: Potcakes.

Interests: dogs, animal welfare, music and being a "townie".

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