I started my first business in a bed-sit in London’s Earl’s court and was lucky to have a landlady who had lost her sense of smell so she had no idea I was cooking commercially upstairs, and since she wisely never climbed to the upper reaches of her house where the students and young South Africans lived, she never knew that the communal bath on the stairs was full of my salad or live crabs and the dressing table had been converted into a work top.
Gradually I built up my embryo catering business by feeding clients in the City and doing parties and weddings in the country. The business grew until it employed 500 people and included Leith’s restaurant in Notting Hill, Leith’s School of Food and Wine in Kensington, Leith’s Management(all those City Lunches and lots of big contracts like the Orient Express Train and the Edinburgh International Conference Centre), and Leith’s Events and Parties. In 1990 I won the Veuve Cliquot Business Woman of the Year which astonished, but of course delighted me.
It wasn’t all an easy ride though. In the early days I was cooking dinner for Princess Alexandra at her house in Windsor Great Park and managed to get locked out of the park with the pheasants in the oven and the guests about to arrive – I’d driven off to get some better grapes for the dessert and forgotten they close the gates at sundown. It was a nightmare. If you read pp 143 – 151 of my novel Sisters, you will understand: I used the incident blow for blow.
The Leith’s businesses, which now belong to Compass, are still going strong, and indeed they run some of the operations rather better than I did I think. In Summer 2008 I had a Glyndebourne picnic in the interval of St Matthews Passion, and it was the only cheerful moment of the outing. The weather was foul, with freezing horizontal rain, and the music-turned-semi-opera was gloomy in the extreme: set in some Eastern European stalag. But Leith’s provide their customers with brollies, car rugs to wrap up in, a hamper full of surprises, and very good booze. But looking around at goosepimply flesh in flimsy dresses, and I rather agree with the French: the English are nuts.
Because I’d done OK in business (with a lot of help, it must be said, from my finance director and Chairman, who just happened to be my husband, and our brilliant staff) I started to get invited to join the boards of other companies. First Sir Peter Parker, then Chair of British Rail, asked me to join his board, which I loved, though I knew damn all about trains. But I banged on about getting better food on stations, better training for service staff and more women into the amazingly male-dominated business.
"As I began to understand the complexities of railway engineering, diagramming (planning which trains go where), staffing, government finance, and union politics I started to feel that it was a perfect miracle that any trains ever ran anywhere at all."
Then Alastair Grant, chairman of Safeway turned up in my office with an invitation to his board, and I learnt a bit about supermarkets. Then the Leeds Permanent Building Society, the Halifax, Whitbread and Woolworths followed, all fascinating businesses.
I doubt if I’d have made it onto any of those boards today. But in the eighties and nineties, the chairman had whomever he wanted on a board. But today everyone is screened by the headhunters and my ignorance would surely have shown up.
I turned down a couple of appointments, one from a Casino company: how would I ever know if the business was dodgy or the rich Arab punters were being bribed with free flights, hospitality and girls to gamble in our palaces? The truth is that Non Executive Directors are accountable for the probity of a business, but if the Executives are hiding something, they haven’t a hope in hell’s chance of spotting it. So I only work with people I really like and trust.
My brother used to ask me why I go on doing it. “I thought you wanted to be a novelist?” Well that’s true, but I enjoy it, it pays rather better than novels, and it provides some good material. But now, in my Seventies I am only on the board of one publicly quoted company, in The Gardener, the protagonist Brody is a dot-com millionaire, and I needed to know something about dot-commery. Which I do, but only because I’ve sat on a couple of Venture Capital Trusts, which invest other people’s money in likely businesses. And a lot of them go bust, as Brody’s does.
And my restaurant experience came in useful in Leaving Patrick, which is as much about a failing restaurateur (Patrick) as about his successful lawyer wife, Jane.
In Choral Society one of my heroines, Joanna, is a successful entrepreneur, and in A Serving of Scandal the heroine is a self employed cook and caterer. So I cannot really get away from business, even in novel-writing.
I have got a bit more professional over the years, and I think I know what I’m doing on the Belmond (formerly the Orient Express) Hotels board. But then the hospitality business is my natural habitat, when maybe banking isn’t.
I’ve always liked business. It suits my organising, bossy mind I guess. Apart from a stint as a Judge’s clerk in South Africa and a disastrous spell as a temp. sec. I’ve always been my own boss.