Business Woman of the year: Gail Rebuck

It’s worthy of note too that Rebuck’s husband is Lord Gould, Tony
Blair’s former strategist. But all that should not take the shine off
Rebuck’s achievement in beating fellow finalists Cath Kidston, designer
and founder of Cath Kidston Ltd, Harriet Green, the CEO of Premier
Farnell Plc, vice chairman of Healthcare Locums Kate Bleasdale, and
MITIE Group’s Ruby McGregor-Smith. The win came 17 years after she was
first shortlisted for it. On winning the award she had this to say
about its heritage and the role of women in business:
“Then and now there’s something special about the award. Partly, and
we were talking about CSR before, because it so totally reflects the
values of the company but also because it was launched 36 years ago.
Just think of that, 36 years ago long before it became fashionable or
indeed necessary to recognise women’s contribution to business. And boy
do we need women in business today.

“Research has shown that if you have teams with equal numbers of men
and women you’re going to get more creativity and more innovation. And
that is exactly what business needs today. And yet, if you look at MPs,
only 19% of MPs are women and FTSE 100 companies, only 11% of directors
are women. And this is in the context of women being responsible for
70% of consumer spend. So again, I think this award is as relevant
today as it was 36 years ago.”

Rebuck joins a fine alumni of winners of Veuve Clicquot’s
prestigious annual award. Entrepreneurs such as Dame Anita Roddick,
Dawn Gibbins MBE of Flowcrete, James Caan’s protégé Rosaline Blair, and
culinary author and restaurateur Prue Leith have held the title, along
with Pearson’s chief executive Dame Marjorie Scardino.

So why did Rebuck take the award this year? Heading a company that
boasts an author list containing Salman Rushdie, Tony Blair, Alistair
Campbell, Ian McEwan and the Marmite-like writer of The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown, who will release his latest tome this year, will have gone some way towards it. Publishing Slumdog Millionaire,
which snapped up most of the major movie industry gongs  was useful.
And the company’s authors winning the three major UK awards, including
the Booker and Orange can’t have hurt either.

But it goes beyond that. Since taking the reins she has presided
over outstanding growth for the business and adapted fast to industry
change, including embracing digital books. Despite incredibly tough
conditions, including the collapse of Entertainment UK, the book
distributor owned by Woolworths, which left Random House with
considerable bad debt, the UK arm’s sales grew by 6% last year with
market share at an impressive 14.8%. For the Random House Group,
however, which encompasses the global subsidiaries under Rebuck’s lens
revenues dropped 6.3% to €1.7bn, with profits down 22% to €137m in 2008.

Rebuck’s  route in to one of the world’s biggest publishers came via
an entrepreneurial background. Her father ran a garments business and
her mother a hairdressers. In 1982 Rebuck herself co-founded Century
Publishing with husband and wife team Anthony and Rosie Cheetham,
remortgaging her flat to invest £5,000.

As publishing director she led the charge, rescued it from a
cashflow crisis soon after the birth of her daughter, and helped take
it through a merger with Hutchinson in 1985. Then, soon after Random
House acquired the business in 1989 she became chair and chief
executive of Random House UK, effectively ousting Anthony Cheetham,
although he continued to consult and bore no ill feeling.

In 1998, when German monolith Bertelsmann bought the business Rebuck
took over the running of the enlarged The Random House Group Ltd. That
same year she launched World Book Day and received a CBE in the 2000
Honours List. She also happens to be a non-executive director of BSkyB,
is a trustee of the The Work Foundation, on the council of the Royal
College of Arts (RCA), and attended the renowned Wharton Business
School. All in all a worthy, and highly entrepreneurial, winner.