- Harriet Green said her management style was ‘part lion and part panda’
- The former Thomas Cook chief executive ‘transformed’ the ailing company
- She axed 2,500 jobs and 400 high street stores as part of her rescue plan
- Ms Green is expected to receive £8 million worth of shares as part of deal
- Scroll down for video
Paul Bracchi for the Daily Mail
Harriet Green, pictured, most commonly described her management style as ‘part lion and part panda’
Harriet Green, the recently departed chief executive of Thomas Cook, has a typically colourful way of describing her own management style. ‘Part lion, part panda,’ is the phrase she most frequently uses, meaning that she can be ‘gentle’ but if needed she can also ‘roar’.
It was the ‘lion’ in her that invariably made headlines, though, during her two-and-a-half years at the helm of the world’s oldest travel operator (most famous slogan: ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it.’)
The City diary pages were awash with stories of this driven woman who famously needs even less sleep than Margaret Thatcher did; just four hours a night to be precise.
They included tales of employees being given dressings-down in the presence of Ms Green’s beautician, as the boss received a manicure, and the ‘ballistic’ reprimands she handed out to her own brother, whom she hired as a driver.
‘These anonymous quotes do not reflect the reality of my leadership of Thomas Cook,’ she insisted, pointing out that, unlike many bosses, staff were allowed, and indeed encouraged, to contact her directly by email with problems — her so-called ‘Ask Harriet’ policy — and could expect a reply within 24 hours.
What is undeniable is Ms Green’s record in transforming the fortunes of a company that, prior to her arrival, went through a ‘near-death experience’, to quote the Financial Times.
Yes, there was blood on the carpet along the road to recovery with 2,500 jobs axed and 400 High Street branches closed, but the firm’s stock market value soared from £148 million, when she joined in July 2012, to £2.7 billion earlier this year.
Ms Green, 52, was rewarded with a flood of accolades — she won the coveted Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year award in May — and became a member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle of top business advisers.
But perhaps the greatest compliment she — or anyone in her position — could ever receive was that £360 million was wiped off the share price following her sudden exit from Thomas Cook earlier this week.
Why did she go? That is a question that is now the subject of rumour, gossip and speculation in the Square Mile.
Might the answer, or at least the catalyst for her leaving the travel group, lie in a jaw-dropping interview she gave to The Times Magazine only a few weeks ago?
From the front, Harriet Green, pictured left with husband Graham Clarkson, looks like a conventional chief executive, but from behind, right, she has a large Celtic tattoo in honor of her Welsh mother
Conducted in the gym of Brown’s, a five-star Mayfair hotel, where Ms Green, who lives in Oxford, stays during the week, it was accompanied by a photograph of her wearing a low-cut, little black number, high-heels, diamond necklace and red sweatbands on each wrist under the headline: ‘Harriet Green: how to be a superboss.’
It would be difficult to envisage one of the nine other women running a FTSE 250 company striking such a pose, or speaking so candidly about her husband (she chose him in seven seconds), her hairdo (a daily blow-dry before 7am), and her exercise regime (with a former-Marine personal trainer at 5.30am).
In the past, she has also spoken about her biological clock (the ‘must have children’ alarm never rang), other women taking maternity leave (they take too much time off) and her taste for Far Eastern culture (her office desk is — or was — adorned with a miniature Zen Buddhist garden).
Apparently, no one at Thomas Cook knew about Ms Green’s most recent foray into the media spotlight until it appeared last month and it was greeted with ‘sniggers’ by a number of (male) directors at a subsequent board meeting, we were told by someone who was present. Another City figure put it more bluntly: ‘It really p***ed off the blokes in the boardroom.’
Harriet Green had a controversial interview recently, titled ‘how to be a superboss’ where she posed in a little black dress, high heels, red sweat bands and a kettle weight in the middle of a Mayfair gym, pictured
One cannot help wondering, however, if their attitude — the culmination, it seems, of growing frustration with Ms Green’s ebullient personal style — would have been the same had she been a man.
Either way, news of her resignation, in a written statement to the Stock Exchange on Wednesday, took the City by surprise. ‘I have always said that I would move on to another company with fresh challenges once my work was complete. That time is now,’ Ms Green revealed. Yet there was little evidence of the meticulous succession plan, drawn up a year ago according to the company, supposedly to prepare for this moment.
Ms Green was still listed as the boss on the firm’s website hours after she had cleared her desk and chief operating officer Peter Fankhauser, a Thomas Cook veteran, had been unveiled as her replacement.
Only a week ago, in fact, Ms Green was suggesting she needed more time to see through her transformation of the company. She told the audience at a trade publication conference: ‘You can’t do a transformation on this sort of scale in a year or two years. I usually say it’s about six years.’
Which perhaps explains why the official explanation for her departure has been met with scepticism.
The company’s annual report lists the fruition date for Ms Green’s multi-million-pound, performance-related share plan as September 2015.
Right up to the end, moreover, Thomas Cook’s own PR was busy arranging press interviews with Ms Green set to take place in January.
All this obviously calls into question whether she really did choose to go, or whether she was pushed after more conservative senior figures in Thomas Cook, increasingly irritated by her flamboyant public profile, decided to act. That this irritation played at least some part in her demise is now gaining currency in the City.
For the moment, the City will certainly be a much less interesting and colourful place without the glamorous, diamond-loving, Gucci-wearing, outspoken Harriet Green.
One day they may make a film or TV show about her. There is certainly a wealth of material — including an intriguing personal back story.
Ms Green is expected to receive £8 million worth of shares and £340,000 as part of her leaving package
She was born in Cheltenham, the oldest of three children, and went to Westwood’s Grammar School.
The defining event of her childhood was the death of her engineer father when she was 14. From him she had learnt the value of that old saying carpe diem — ‘seize the day.’
In particular, he taught her how to deal with sleepless nights. ‘It’s only really a curse if you have toothache or you are feeling down about things,’ he would tell her, which perhaps explains his daughter’s almost nocturnal existence today, waking up at 3.30am answering emails and working out at an ungodly hour.
There is one surprising fact that emerges from the numerous articles that have been written about her. At King’s College London, where she studied medieval history, she was a ‘rebellious student in bovver boots and safety pins’ (her words). There is a permanent reminder of Ms Green’s wild, punk days in her early 20s between her shoulder blades — a Celtic design tattoo (‘a tribute’ to her Welsh mother), which is visible when she wears a cocktail dress and inevitably raises a few eyebrows when she attends swanky business functions.
Her business career began by accident on leaving university, when she saw an ad in a magazine appealing for women ‘with integrity and drive who want to learn about business’.
It led to a graduate training job with a distribution company. Harriet Green never looked back. Her 20s and 30s were spent travelling the world, running businesses in northern Europe, South Africa, Asia and China.
She met her husband, Graham Clarkson, who runs his own engineering companies and was separated from the mother of his children, in 2001 when he visited friends she was working with in New York. ‘I knew after seven seconds I wanted to marry him,’ she says. ‘It took him nine months but that’s men for you.’
They were married two years later, when Ms Green was 42. They began married life, with her husband’s teenage children from a previous relationship, in the leafy academic Oxford suburb of Summertown. Ms Green refers to them as ‘our children’, but says she has no regrets about being a stepmother.
‘Women try to do too much,’ she said in a recent interview. ‘I think you have to make some choices. The choice I made was to run businesses around the world. Some people say: “Didn’t your biological clock ring?” If it did, I didn’t hear it.’
The step up to CEO came in 2006, when she joined electronics distribution business Premier Farnell with a mandate to overhaul it.
The move from there to Thomas Cook was now ‘only an email away — albeit an unsolicited one’, the magazine Management Today revealed in a profile of Ms Green back in January.
She cold-called Thomas Cook chairman Frank Meysman, having read of the firm’s financial difficulties in the Press. She was invited for a chat and was made chief executive in July 2012.
The organisation’s familiar red-and-white logo and the slogan: ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’, soon went, and was replaced with a gold-coloured ‘sunny heart’ and a new slogan: ‘Let’s Go!’
When she took over, her management team was made up almost exclusively of men. ‘Goldenballs,’ she called many of them; her word for a certain type of boastful male executive for whom she had little respect. Many were sacked and replaced by women. Ms Green, who stands at just 5ft 3in, was always immaculately turned out. But there was also a racy element to her designer wardrobe. She often wore a leopard-print coat to work and, at the Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year reception, was photographed displaying a hint of stocking top when her evening dress rose up after she sat down to have her picture taken.
But behind that glossy image was a frightening force of nature.
The most revealing insight into her regime at Thomas Cook was within that interview at Brown’s. Her workout in the hotel gym began at 5.30am with her ex-Army trainer — a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. At 6.30am, she went to her room and had a quick soak in the bath before exchanging ‘gym gear for Gucci’.
Every morning, Ms Green’s hairdresser arrived shortly before 7am and had ‘exactly ten minutes to blow-dry my hair, and I’m in the car by seven’. At 7.15, Ms Green was behind her desk in the office.
Her breakfasts were green tea and lots of water. Later in the morning, we learn, she was partial to a salmon salad. ‘I do generally think people eat and sleep too much,’ she said.
The City expressed surprise when Harriet Green announced her resignation from Thomas Cook last week
Both her ‘lion’ and ‘panda’ manifested itself during a meeting at the office which The Times journalist sat in on.
She told one executive that a marketing campaign he produced was ‘cheap, cheerful and ugh’, adding: ‘Are we deliberately attracting the illiterate?’
There was a silence while her stinging putdown was digested. The scolded executive then said (somewhat implausibly) that it was good to get such feedback.
The next moment Ms Green was the panda, telling him: ‘You’re the king.’
What did the chairman of Thomas Cook think of The Times interview? ‘I would have not done it,’ Mr Meysman is quoted as saying this week. Should she have done it? ‘Everybody has their own style,’ Mr Meysman said. ‘I can only reply that it is not my style.’
But he categorically denied that The Times profile played any part in Ms Green leaving the company, or that there was any ‘personality clash’ between them or any sexism involved in her departure.
Ms Green’s mother, Elizabeth, has remarried, but still lives in Cheltenham. ‘I have heard from Harriet,’ she said, when she answered the door of her bungalow this week.
‘She was quite happy when I spoke to her [on Wednesday night] and although we talk on a frequent basis, we don’t often talk about work. She resigned because she said she’d done what she set out to do. She is feeling very positive, absolutely.’
Yesterday, a Thomas Cook spokesman told the Mail it was decided a year ago that Peter Fankhauser would succeed Harriet Green, with the timing left open.
That ‘ongoing discussion came to a head’ earlier this week, with a ‘unanimous board decision that included Harriet’. He denied any personality clash with Frank Meysman or that her Times interview played a part in her departure.
Apart from anything else, Miss Green is in line to pocket more than £8 million in shares built up during her two years at Thomas Cook, plus six months’ pay worth £340,000.
And it surely won’t be long before this part-lion, part-panda will be padding across another boardroom floor.
- Additional reporting: Tim Stewart.
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