Profile: Personal, and most decidedly private: Colette Bowe: The Westland affair behind her, the head of the Personal Investment Authority plays it strictly by the book. William Kay met her

William Kay
Saturday 02 April 1994 23:02

IT SEEMS that something as trivial as a hobby does not figure large in the life of Colette Bowe, chief executive of the embryonic Personal Investment Authority.

In the carefree days at university, she says, and even now, after a hard day's toil near the pinnacle of Britain's regulatory system, chatting with friends over coffee is as much as she craves by way of relaxation.

'I also go to movies,' she added helpfully. 'The Joy Luck Club was a real three-hanky weepy.'

As Bowe, 47, is a determined woman who guards her private life closely, this picture may be a trifle oversimplified for public consumption. But there is no doubt that she takes life seriously and is equally determined to make a success of her task at the PIA.

With a double first and a doctorate in economics, Bowe is not one for half-measures. Her off- duty life is off-limits, as is any account of the episode in which she briefly merited front-page headlines: the Westland affair.

That was the 1986 row between Michael Heseltine and Sir Leon Brittan over whether Westland Group, the helicopter maker, should come under the control of the US-based UTC or a European consortium led by Aerospatiale of France.

Bowe was Brittan's chief press officer at the Department of Trade and Industry. She was named in the House of Commons as having leaked a letter in which the then solicitor-general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, attempted to discredit Heseltine.

Westland stayed independent, Heseltine walked out of a Cabinet meeting, and Brittan was posted to Brussels. Bowe stayed at the DTI for 10 months before moving to a similar job at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, predecessor of the present Independent Television Commission.

Dressed in a sensible green business suit with the obligatory dark stockings on the day we met, Bowe dominates her compact ground-floor office behind the City's Royal Exchange.

She has wasted no time in staking out her territory. Last month Bowe wrested from Godfrey Jillings, chief executive of Fimbra, the investment managers' regulator, responsibility for supervising admissions to PIA membership. The hapless Jillings was also deposed as Bowe's deputy.

Roddy Kohn, a Bristol insurance broker who is on the PIA admissions committee, said: 'I admire her, but she doesn't like dissension. You are either on her side or you are not. She will listen to people's opinions: how much she will be influenced is questionable, because she will often have come to her own conclusions already, and be driving them forward. She is not a half-measures person.'

Bowe declared that her aim was 'to have a regulatory system that is stable and really delivers on investment protection by working with its industry, where there is an identifiable and strong community of interest.'

That community of interest has been elusive, particularly in terms of persuading potential member firms to join the authority.

On the face of it, the PIA should become the best-known financial regulator, because it will have the most to do with the public. When it formally opens for business in July, it is due to regulate the life assurance and unit trust giants as well as the high street insurance broker and financial adviser.

''We have had more than a thousand applications already,' Bowe reported, 'and I expect we shall end up with about 6,000 members.'

Sadly, as things stand, the final total will exclude the daddy of the industry, Prudential Corporation, and its larger-than-life chief executive, Mick Newmarch.

He has been vociferous in his opposition to the PIA as presently constituted, and has formally opted for having the Pru directly supervised by the PIA's parent, the Securities and Investments Board.

At the other end of the spectrum, Garry Heath, chief executive of the National Federation of Independent Financial Advisers, said: 'I do not see any point in sending our members into something that might be a white elephant.'

Bowe is unfazed. 'The debate has been all about statutory versus self-regulation,' she said. 'As I have said before, what I am concerned about is effective regulation.'

That remark not only betrays the practised straight bat of the career civil servant. It also indicates what a political minefield Bowe must cross if she is to get the PIA operating credibly by July.

She is well-equipped, having learnt her political in-fighting at the feet of a master, Norman (now Lord) Tebbit.

Colette Bowe, one of four children (two daughters and two sons) of a Persil salesman in Liverpool, left a Roman Catholic convent school to pick up economics degrees at Queen Mary College, London, and the London School of Economics, before starting her career constructing foreign trade models for the National Ports Council.

In search of something a touch livelier, in 1975 she moved to the Department of Industry to immerse herself in the economics of the steel industry.

Four years later, as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power, Bowe graduated to being a policy adviser for Sir Keith (now Lord) Joseph.

In 1981, after that year's riots on Merseyside, she was seconded to a team of civil servants that followed Heseltine to her home town in an effort to revive Liverpool.

'Heseltine is a fantastically effective minister,' said Bowe. 'It was terrific to go back to Liverpool and clean up the city and start things like the Merseyside Development Corporation.'

On her return to the remerged DTI, Bowe found Tebbit in charge. He plucked her out of the minutiae of shipbuilding privatisation legislation and made her his chief press officer.

'He said, 'You'll kick yourself if you don't do it.' It was a very subtle, manipulative ploy,' she recalled.

'Yes,' Tebbit agreed with a characteristic chuckle, 'Colette was a bit unsure about it. But she was very articulate and outgoing, with a very shrewd sense of how far one should go in speaking for the department. She has a powerful intellect and a strong streak of common sense - quite a rare combination.'

Tebbit insists that Bowe was the only person to come out of the Westland affair with any credit. So whose fault was the leaked letter? 'I believe the blame aways stops at the top in any department,' he said, referring to Leon Brittan.

When the PIA job came up, a job Bowe had helped to formulate when she was at the SIB, she went for it in typically determined style. But she is likely to move on in a few years.

'I don't think you should be in regulation for ever,' Bowe explained. 'It needs a certain kind of mindset, and I am fearful that if you stay in regulation for a long time you develop a systematic bias towards looking for scams. I don't want to be a career regulator.'

So, perhaps in her mid-fifties, we can expect her to make one more leap. She would by then be a valuable asset in one of the many financial services companies she is about to supervise - and a daunting poacher for future gamekeepers to keep their eye on.

(Photograph omitted)

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