Before abruptly leaving her job last week, Harriet Green had a print in her office at Thomas Cook displaying one of her favourite quotes: the observation by American writer Maya Angelou that people will forget what you did and said, but never how you made them feel.
The framed words were a gift from staff of the world’s oldest travel operator to the most alpha of alpha females – a 52-year-old City turnaround specialist who had arrived at the package holiday operator in 2012 when it had become Britain’s least admired company – and there were genuine fears about its survival. Green’s achievement was to change that and radically alter how employees and the City felt about the business: she is widely credited with saving the travel agent, whose shares were up tenfold just before her premature departure was announced.
She also transformed the way the business community perceived Harriet Green, culminating with her being named as Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year in May. But with hindsight, that gift from her underlings is tinged with irony.
While Green routinely describes herself as a “landa”, which she defines as a cross between a cuddly panda and a ferocious lion, it is not hard to find staff at Thomas Cook who remember feeling more like they were battling the latter. One former colleague talks about Green’s colleagues living “in fear of her public humiliations”, a state of anxiety that even, perhaps, extends to her brother, Jimmy, whom she hired as her driver and who took “ballistic” public reprimands from his sister and boss. Green strongly denies suggestions that her style is overly aggressive (although she does admit to ticking off Jimmy). She counters: “These anonymous quotes do not reflect the reality of my leadership of Thomas Cook, which was declared positive by 93% of staff respondents to my recent appraisal. I am proud of what I and the wonderful team at Thomas Cook has achieved in the past two years and wish them well in the future.”
Still, an ally of hers put forward by her press adviser to offer an insight into Green would only speak on condition of anonymity, saying: “She is hugely charismatic through an abundance of energy and drive. And she has a lot of people who just want to work for her. But that’s not for everybody.”
That energy manifests itself with tales that are exhausting to listen to, never mind live. She works through much of the night, insisting she requires fewer hours sleep than Margaret Thatcher once did, rising around 3am. By 5.30am, in her time at Thomas Cook, she was lifting 16kg kettlebells in the gym of a five-star Mayfair hotel, where she lived during the week, with a former marine who acted as her personal trainer three days each week. Green would have liked it to be four times, he said, but the Afghanistan veteran could not face any additional early starts. She believes this energy comes from the loss of her father, who died from a brain tumour when she was 14. “That was a formative moment,” she has said, “but I was a pretty strong kid and the message I took from it was, ‘shit happens, so you have to pack a lot in and make the most of every day’.”
Even critics generally agree with that self-assessment. “She is incredibly tenacious when she gets the bit between her teeth,” says one, who worked with her at Thomas Cook, “but she is also the most complex individual I’ve ever met. She doesn’t really know what she is. She’s worked on several continents, speaks with a transatlantic accent and doesn’t quite know if she is British, Asian or American.”
That professional life in Asia, where she worked for a small business called Arrow Electronics, has left her with some far eastern tastes, including a devotion to yoga, and another language. “To go and run sales in China was pretty bold because I’m not the best salesperson in the world and I didn’t speak Mandarin,” she said. “But I could fix one of those – I learned to speak Mandarin”.
A move in 2006 to become chief executive of Premier Farnell, another electronics group, increased her exposure in the City, and then, with Thomas Cook in crisis and without a full-time chief executive, she emailed the travel group’s chairman, Frank Meysman, to tell him how he might solve his problems: he should hire Harriet Green.
What followed astonished even Meysman. With the company’s survival in doubt and the shares languishing at just 14p each, she instigated a savage cost-cutting plan to save £440m by axing 2,500 jobs and 400 high street branches. The credibility of that strategy, and the speed of Green’s execution, boosted confidence in the City and then the share price. The rise in the value of the business eventually made it possible to raise £425m by selling more shares, eradicating questions over the company’s future. The day before Green’s departure was announced, the shares were changing hands at about 137p each.
All of which prompts the question: why did she leave last week with immediate effect? The most plausible view in the City is that Green, despite Meysman’s insistence that her job had been completed, had used up all of her tricks. While the overall performance under her was stellar, the shares had dropped 20% this year as the business’s performance stuttered. When a further £400m vanished from the value of the company on news of her departure, many believed a chunk was attributable to Thomas Cook warning that trading had become more difficult and growth would be slower in the current financial year. Certainly, Green was expecting to remain in her post beyond now. In May, she told the Daily Telegraph: “I’ve always said that I’m going to stay six year” and just days before her departure, she explained to an Inspiring Women conference: “You can’t do a transformation on this sort of scale in a year or two years.”
There had been talk for weeks that Green actually knew very little about the travel industry and that weakness was beginning to show, which chimed with Meysman’s comments last week that “it’s a different balance of requirements that is needed going forward”. Even his praise for Green hinted at a lack of travel expertise: “She can do any transformation job,” he said, while another former colleague adds: “She’s like a sponge. She can pick anything up quickly, but it is not retained for long.”
Green’s fate was sealed last Sunday, when the travel group’s directors met for dinner without her, at an evening arranged by chairman Meysman, and decided the time had come for a change. The decision was unanimous and she was informed the next day. Green’s number two, Peter Fankhauser, was promoted.
As one Thomas Cook insider put it: “Is she going maybe a year earlier than she wanted? Probably.” Still, there are those left wondering if the ending might have been different for a male boss, even one whose personal style divides opinion like Green.
Newspapers would never headline a story about a man leaving his chief executive role with the description “blonde”, as the Daily Mail did. It is equally unlikely that a “Harry Green” would be criticised for “training” the staff at Brown’s hotel in Mayfair to comply with his wishes.
As Green was one of the few women executives on the board of a British public company, there are some who wonder whether a recent self-promoting magazine photoshoot was the final irritation for the Thomas Cook board. Insiders say Green had no respect for her fellow directors and could not hide her feelings. In the article, she talked at length about her idiosyncrasies, including how each day her hairdresser had “exactly 10 minutes to blow-dry my hair, and then I’m in the car at seven”.
Her office insists that she won’t be waiting that long before starting her next role, although it is unlikely to be revealed before 2015. In the meantime, she can still live the luxurious lifestyle she has been so keen to talk to journalists about. She earned £2.9m last year and is set for another £9m or so from her Thomas Cook share options.
“She has a following who will invest in whatever business she is running, which is extremely rare,” says one City associate and fan. “And it really was a quite extraordinary thing to turnaround a group like Thomas Cook.”
In that sense, Green may hope that she – or at least Angelou – has got things wrong. Her most positive legacy at Thomas Cook is not how she made people feel, more what she actually did.
THE GREEN FILE
Born 12 December 1961 in Cheltenham. She attended Westwood’s grammar school in Northleach and grew up in Shipton, Gloucestershire. She is married and lives in Oxford.
Best of times She became chief executive of Thomas Cook Group in 2012 and garnered investor plaudits, and an award for businesswoman of the year, for turning around a business that was recovering from the brink of bankruptcy.
Worst of times Possibly last week, if she was not entirely ready to leave Thomas Cook. The company’s chairman did appear to suggest that the group needed a leader with more knowledge of the leisure industry.
What she says “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… we’re absolutely not done.” Speaking at an Inspiring Women conference earlier this month.
What others say “Is she going maybe a year earlier than she wanted? Probably … If your management style is shaking people by the throat, there is only so long that people can put up with that.” Company insider
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