Through the glass ceiling: The right chemistry means she's got it all

Nick Gilbert talks to ICI's Rona Fairhead

Nick Gilbert
Sunday 01 February 1998 00:02

YOU CAN have it all: job, money, family ... except maybe playing squash.

Rona Fairhead is 36, executive vice president for strategy at ICI, one of the 10 top people in a company with over pounds 10bn in sales and heavily involved in the current corporate makeover started by Charles Miller Smith, ICI's chief executive and next chairman.

The highest ranking woman in ICI's history, she earns lots. She is now pregnant - married to Tom, a former merchant banker, now a Tory councillor in Kensington and Chelsea - mother of James, 2, with the second baby expected in a few weeks.

The squash has had to go - a blow for a woman who, undeterred by surgery on her spine in her teens, used to spend a lot of time on the court. "I have to be very focused since my priorities are my job and my family," says Mrs Fairhead.

So what does she think about Nicola Horlick, who has put fancily paid, fecund females on the map? "I think she has shown that you can have children and still be successful," says Mrs Fairhead. "That's an important message for people to receive since there has been a feeling recently you can't have both."

Yet shareholders can relax about her work ethic. "When I was interviewed by Charles, I questioned whether I would have enough to do," she laughs at herself. She was soon put right about that. When she joined ICI in October 1996 her three-month induction course came to a speedy end. "It finished on day two," she says. "I was asked to make a presentation to the whole board on whether we should buy Unilever's speciality chemicals business."

She became an important member of the team that last year was in charge of the pounds 4.8bn purchase of the Unilever operations and the associated pounds 3bn sale of businesses, including selling commodity and intermediate chemicals, to Dupont.

Instead of making bulk chemicals, ICI wants to concentrate on applications science and special chemicals where high margins go along with what she calls "less capital-intensive, less cyclical" operations. Out with polyester film, in with special adhesives like those used on the Thrust land-speed record holder vehicle and made-to-order coatings like those Intel buys for its Pentium microchips.

Mr Miller Smith and his new team of executives want the stock market to give the company the kind of fancy rating enjoyed by Zeneca, the pharmaceuticals division ICI spun off nearly five years ago.

The team is part of what the ICI boss has called "widening the gene pool". The jury is out on the restructuring. This week ICI announces what will be another dreadful set of results with pre-tax profits likely to fall to around pounds 380m for 1997. That inheritance of the old ICI is the problem that people like Mrs Fairhead have been imported to fix.

"The results should start to come through in terms of improved performance this year, with 1999 and 2000 showing increased cash generation and better Ronas," she says. By a nice coincidence ICI calls its benchmark figure for measuring itself "Rona" - return on net assets.

The young Rona Haig was more or less made to measure for ICI, growing up on Teeside, the company's heartland. Her own gene pool is of undoubted quality. The scion of the highly educated Edinburgh meritocracy, her mother worked as a maths teacher, her father was a physicist who worked for the old Atomic Energy Authority.

Head girl at school was followed by Cambridge where she coxed a rowing eight, acted in a light entertainment group, and picked up a double first class honours degree in law. It seems to have been effortless. Was she a swot? "Not really; I had a flatmate who took good notes at lectures," she grins.

"Rona is very smart, very organised and very pleasant," says Gavin MacDonald, managing director of investment banking at Morgan Stanley, who met her "across a crowded library at Cambridge".

She is unpompous, a brainbox with laughing eyes and an attractive open face. Her speech is, for someone who started in business as a management consultant, pretty much free of jargon. There is no power-dressing, no big hair. ICI insiders reckon she is a star in the making.

From Cambridge she went to work for consultants Bain and Company, taking time out to pick up a Harvard MBA. She was one of the 100-plus "Bainies" who worked on the notorious Guinness acquisition of Distillers. "It was a huge success aside from the scandal," she says.

She spent four years working for hi-tech weapons group Short Brothers in Belfast, and she is still involved in business groups involved in attracting new private-sector jobs to the troubled province.

At just 34, she was general manager of Short's UK Aviation Services Business, involved in operations like maintaining trainer jets for the RAF and modifying Hercules transport planes.

More singular than her gender is her rarity value as one of the elite who has opted not for the professions but business.

But will she stay with ICI? "Do I see myself here in five years time? Yes. Do I see myself in the same job? No."

So what's next? "I could be in a general management role or do something in the financial area," replies Mrs Fairhead. She has no intention of letting her own Rona slip.

Copyright: IOS & Bloomberg

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