Caroline Murphy - the acceptable face of capitalism: 'Why I wanted my £40m to go to the staff'

The Chris Blackhurst Interview: Caroline Murphy is an outspoken champion of left-wing causes. She is also one of Britain’s richest women. So does that make her a champagne socialist? No, this is someone who puts her principles first

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Indy Politics

On my way to meet Caroline Murphy I admit to not knowing what to expect.

She’s the 31-year-old heiress to a construction fortune who has walked out on the family business because it would not pursue her plan to turn the firm into a workers’ co-operative. She was prepared to give up her shares, worth at least £40m, in order for the staff to have some – and she wanted her relatives to do the same.

Murphy is also a rape victim, a sufferer of PTSD, a campaigner against violence to women and children (she has just begun an MA course in the subject), a lesbian due to marry her partner later this year, outspoken on LGBT issues, a member of the Labour party, a Unite union delegate and a supporter of greater employee rights and gender equality.

I wonder, which of that lot, will come to the fore? Within seconds, it’s apparent that Murphy is not some wildly-gesticulating right-on idealist but level-headed – remarkably so. She’s photogenic, intelligent, quick and warm. And passionate about politics. If I was Ed Miliband I’d be putting her on the fastest-track possible.

Murphy supplies that rare combination of Labour views and heavyweight business acumen and experience, as well as ticking numerous other boxes. Until very recently, she was deputy chairman of Murphy Group, overseeing a 3,500 workforce at the north London-based firm, and playing a senior management role in building Crossrail’s tunnels and the replacing of London’s ancient water mains.

Murphy’s, whose distinctive green vans and signs can be spotted all over the capital, enjoyed annual turnover of £656m, according to the latest published accounts, for 2012, and made a profit of £22m. Caroline was a 20 per cent shareholder. She still is, but now she has gone from the board – unsurprisingly she was unable to convince her mother and brothers of the merits of transforming their firm into the John Lewis of the building trade.

It’s a hell of thing you’ve done, I say. And what you were ready to do. She nods in acknowledgement. “I was thinking the other day, I must be a – what’s that phrase? – conviction politician. The same as Tony Benn.”

Her green eyes do not flicker as she says this. Benn renounced a peerage, Murphy gave up running a successful, growing business, and was willing to go further and relinquish her holding. “My thinking started with my father, seeing his values manifest themselves in the workplace and how he ran his life generally. I absorbed a lot of that.”

She repeatedly name-checks her father, John, the founder of the firm (he died in 2009, aged 95) who anointed her his successor. The young John walked across Ireland, from Kerry to Dublin in the 1930s, to seek work. He later came to London and founded Murphy Group in 1945 to clear bomb sites.

John was publicity-shy (Murphy Group still does not court publicity), preferring to let the firm’s work do the talking and act as its advertising. He was a great one for involving the staff. He ate with them in the canteen; he sought their advice and believed by treating them well, they worked more productively. By allowing them shares, Caroline argues, she is only taking his ethic a stage further.

She went to Spain to see Mondragon, a Spanish grocery, factory and banking co-operative, which became her inspiration. Murphy acknowledges, however, that her father did not say the company should become a co-op and the family should give up ownership. “I never talked about it being a mutual during his life and he didn’t either.”

He made her deputy chairman and said she should take charge when he had gone. “I was very close to him all my life. From the age of six, he would bring home drawings of projects, and ask what I thought. He’d go into work and say ‘my daughter said this...’ and often I had in that very simple, direct way that children do. But he’d always feed back the response. He’d say ‘your idea didn’t work for the following reasons, but we went with this instead… ’”

John had two children from his first marriage, Bernard and another son who died before his father. After his wife died, John married Kathy, a former nurse, with whom he had Caroline and her younger brother, James. Her surviving half-brother Bernard, and brother, James, are listed as directors of the family firm.

According to Caroline, they and her mother “were content I should take over. Some of us might have different genes but we also have a common thread”.

John instilled in all of them a sense of how lucky they were. The family was wealthy but not flash. They lived in Kentish Town, and through their father were heavily immersed in the local Irish community. Caroline played Gaelic football, her father was a fluent Gaelic speaker.

Home, she says “was not a big house with lots of bedrooms – Dad’s view was that you can only sleep in one bed and you can only wear one pair of shoes at a time. Probably the most extravagant thing he did was have the occasional steak for breakfast. We always went on holiday to the same places, in France or Ireland. He had a nice car but it wasn’t especially smart – it was a big old white Mercedes he got cheap; someone returned it because they did not like the colour and the garage sold it off. He would never trade it in for a newer model; we used to call it the white ambulance. He once won a Bentley or Rolls-Royce in a raffle and gave it away.”

But, she says, her father had: “This marvellous connection with nature – I suppose it was the Irish in him. He lifted a wheelbarrow in the yard once and there was a whole nest of bees there – they went all over his arm. But not a single bee stung him. He later set up hives for the bees. He’d say to them, referring to me: “This is the new Queen Bee, she’s the deputy chairman. He was very folkloric’.”

She was encouraged by her father to work in the trade during school holidays, learning the ropes. She studied civil engineering at Bristol University and joined the firm full-time in 2006. 

But when her time to take charge did come, she found it exhausting. “I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of what happened,” she says, referring to the rape. “Part of the mechanism for dealing with PTSD is over-work – you try to keep busy. I was doing 16 hours a day, seven days a week. But that’s not a long-term solution – you get exhausted.”

A year after her father died, Murphy took an extended break from the business. She was physically and mentally shattered. She won’t talk about any aspect of the rape, “for legal reasons”. When I press her, her face sets. No. She really will not discuss it.

Murphy returned to the firm, but was less hands-on. For the past year, she’s been working on her employee ownership scheme. “There was nothing secret about it, there was no conflict or dispute.” But then she adds, laughing: “On the other hand if you walked into a room and everybody agreed with you that would not be challenging.”

Her aim was to sell workers shares at heavily-discounted prices; those on the lowest wages would pay the least. There was, she insists, no temper tantrums, no flinging of crockery, when her relatives said no. “We were reasoned and calm.”

When I say I find that very hard to believe – that there she was, recommending to her mother and brothers that they sacrifice their wealth, everything old John had striven for – she shakes her head. She’s adamant there was no anger.

Neither, apparently, was she annoyed when they refused to back her. She was not – repeat, was not – upset. “We had a good exchange of ideas. They don’t want to go along with what I am proposing, which is fine – it liberates me to concentrate on other things that I want to do. I won’t have the onerous responsibility of having to look after the governance of the business. I can focus on politics and social issues; I can be more in control of my life.” There is, she maintains, “no animosity”.

“They did not want to do what I suggested, but I can’t do politics and run a large family business either.”

One of her bugbears is the black-listing of construction workers who blow the whistle on health and safety concerns.

“They’ve done something very brave, but in return, they receive an effective life sentence by not being able to work anywhere again. We have to stop that happening.”

Remember the name: Caroline Murphy. Ed, she’s awaiting your call.

The CV: Caroline Murphy

Age: 31

Education: degree in Civil Engineering, Bristol University; studying for an MA in Violence Against Women and Children

Was: deputy chairman of Murphy Group family  construction firm

But: left board after her brothers and mother refused to back her plan to turn the company into a workers’ co-op

Now: wants to concentrate on political career for Labour

Cares about: LGBT issues, gender equality, employee rights

Cause for celebration: later in the year is due to marry her female partner