Dame Mary Perkins set up her first chain of opticians in the West Country in the seventies before selling it for £2m and moving to Guernsey. There, on a table-tennis table in her spare bedroom, she developed a visionary business idea – taking advantage of market deregulation, which allowed the optometry profession to advertise products and services for the first time.
She grew her business using a partnership approach, whereby each store is a joint venture between the company and the individual optician – to great commercial success. Today, her 1,503 worldwide stores employ 126,000 members of staff, and turn over an annual £1.36bn.
Judges of last night’s First Women Awards, held in association with Lloyds Banking Group and supported by the CBI and Real Business, praised Dame Mary’s “business acumen, ability to juggle family and professional commitments and her focus on giving to charitable organisations”.
The Lifetime Achievement Award, supported by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, was picked up by Dame Mary’s daughter Julie, who runs Specsavers’ Netherlands operations. “My mother is far too modest to blow her own trumpet. But I can do it for her. Over the years, she has brought a woman’s touch to the business: she continues to write birthday cards to everyone in the company and never misses a special occasion. She has also worked tirelessly for charities including Guide Dogs for the Blind and anti-bullying charity Kidscape.”
First Women Awards patron Sarah Brown told the audience she hopes to see a “rise in the still shamefully number of women on UK boards”. She told the story of her Scottish grandmother who completed a degree before becoming a teacher: “She had to give that all up the minute she got married. Ladies, it doesn’t have to be like that anymore.” Judges included Chrissie Rucker, founder of the White Company, Gaynor Coley, managing director of The Eden Project and Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and writer.
The ceremony was attended by more than 450 guests including Home Secretary The Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Minister of State for Security Baroness Neville-Jones, Helen Alexander of the CBI, Fru Hazlitt, soon-to-be ITV’s managing director of commercial and online, and royal biographer Penny Junor.
The winners of the 2010 First Women Awards were:
SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY (sponsored by BAE Systems)
Angela Strank: Angela joined BP in 1982 as a geologist and biostratigrapher in exploration and production. In 1989, she set up Frontiers Exploration Methods, a new team charged with research and development of new exploration techniques including magnetotellurics, seep geochemistry, airborne remote sensing and slimhole drilling. Subsequent roles with the company have ranged from senior business analyst to reputation manager in Angola. She was appointed BP’s technology vice president in May 2008.
TOURISM & LEISURE
Kristine Landon-Smith and Sudha Bhuchar: Kristine and Sudha are joint founders and artistic directors of London-based theatre company Tamasha. Kristine has directed all of the company’s shows. Sudha is both an actor and playwright. The pair aim to create a space where British Asian talent takes centre stage, through original writing and productions that provoke debate, ideas, passion and laughter.
FINANCE (Sponsored by ICAEW)
Marion King: Marion joined VocaLink as CEO in 2002 and is the first female, first non-banker to lead the company. She is responsible for revolutionising payments in the UK and transforming VocaLink from a domestic back-office supplier into an international payments transaction specialist.
PUBLIC SERVICE (sponsored by Benenden Healthcare)
Emma Harrison: Emma founded training company A4e in 1991 and has built it into a £200m-turnover business operating in 11 countries and employing over 3,300 people. Her Sheffield-based business works with people and communities to tackle unemployment and deliver skills, advice, guidance and enterprise. Emma is a mentor and supporter of many small businesses and is a non-executive on the board of the Institute of Directors.
Caroline Shaw: Caroline was appointed chief executive of The Christie NHS Foundation Trust – one of Europe’s leading cancer centers – in 2005 and is responsible for more than 40,000 patients a year. She has worked in the NHS for 25 years, with a meteoric rise from midwife to chief executive.
Annabel Karmel: Annabel is the prolific, best-selling author of books on nutrition and cooking for babies, children and families. By October this year, Annabel will have published 22 cookery books and sold four million copies. Annabel was awarded an MBE in 2006 for her outstanding work in the field of child nutrition. A regular consultant with food manufacturers, she writes regularly for national newspapers and has appeared on radio and TV as the UK’s expert on nutritional issues. Annabel has also launched a range of food products for children called Eat Fussy.
RETAIL & CONSUMER
Sally Bailey: Following stints at Miss Selfridge, Debenhams, Freemans and Arcadia, Sally Bailey joined White Stuff as COO in 2004 and was appointed chief executive a year later. Sally has helped transform White Stuff from a small skiwear retailer to a lifestyle brand with a portfolio of over 60 stores and a growing online and mail-order channel. White Stuff is opening ten new stores per year and eyeing international opportunities.
Johanna Dow: Johanna started her career as a chartered accountant in private practice. By 2001, she was a group finance manager with Scottish Water and has worked her way up the ladder to reach her current board position as Business Stream’s finance director. She is one of the key players in the opening of the water and waste water market to retail competition and has been instrumental in forming new competitive markets.
Michelle Rushbrook: Michelle has worked at British defence, security and aerospace company BAE Systems for 30 years. She has progressed from a commercial apprentice to senior executive in a traditionally male-dominated environment. She now negotiates weapon and aircraft contracts all over the globe and champions women in the defence industry.
Michelle McDowell: Michelle is the first ever female chair of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering. She is also a company director at BDP – the largest interdisciplinary practice of architects, designers, engineers and urbanists in Europe – where she leads the company’s civil and structural engineering group. Michelle has over 25 years experience in the engineering profession and has worked on many award-winning projects, including the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC’s offices.
BUSINESS OF THE YEAR (Sponsored by Lloyds Banking Group)
The Olympic Delivery Authority: This organisation that operates under unrelenting public scrutiny. Yet, despite these huge pressures, it has put a commitment to diversity at the heart of its strategy and operations. While the organisation itself will be disbanded after 2012, its positive impact on its workforce will be felt long after. Some 93 per cent of its people say they are proud to work for the organisation. More than ten per cent of its workforce were previously unemployed. Many come from neighbouring boroughs. And in its core work – construction – the organisation is working hard to change attitudes. Championed by the spirited Loraine Martins, the Women into Construction programme is encouraging more and more women into this traditional sector.
Over the years, First Women Awards have been presented to fashion designer Nicole Farhi CBE, leading businesswoman Baroness Sarah Hogg and philanthropreneur Ann Gloag OBE.
They have also celebrated unsung heroines of British public life and business, including Julie Spence, chief constable of Cambridge Constabulary, Rosalind Murray, the most senior woman in the UK submarine industry and Perween Warsi, founder of S&A Foods, now a major Indian food supplier to some of the UK’s largest grocery retailers.
“This year’s winners are a tremendous example of the breadth of female talent now operating in business and public service. they also send the vital message to young women across the UK that with hard work and determination. They too can succeed,” says Diana Brightmore-Armour, CEO of Corporate Banking at Lloyds Banking Group.
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