The article below was published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Spring 2018.
It can be a challenge, but I decided pretty early on that I had to do things in my own way and not just be like everyone else in the world of business.
When Bridget McIntyre became UK CEO of Royal & Sun Alliance, she was one of only 16 women nationally to make executive director of a FTSE100 company.
However, she is the first to point out that her corporate success was despite being told at school that her personality didn’t fit the academic model and she needed to curb her enthusiasm if she was going to succeed.
“My sister was very clever and at school I was always being told “if only you could be like your sister”. Although I was quite sporty – I played tennis for Lancashire – my school reports weren’t that good and were full of comments like “if only Bridget could concentrate more, her grades would improve”.
Bridget grew up in Lancashire as the youngest of three children. Her Dad was a businessman and her Mum, a teacher. Her childhood was happy, and she describes herself as carefree, mischievous, and lively.
I had parents who encouraged individuality and they never told me off for bad reports, they just said they liked my personality and I wasn’t a bad girl, just a bit mischievous.
“Looking back, I know I was bored, and education wasn’t taught the way I learnt best. I don’t learn by being told to read and repeat. I learn by discussing, considering and researching. Nonetheless, I worked hard enough to get my grades to go to university, but I was only ever just ‘Miss Mediocre’.
“Having never been particularly good at anything, I studied Business at Aston University and found I was particularly good at finance.”
When she was 18, her parents had moved to Suffolk and her home was now in Sproughton. And, during her degree, Bridget took a year out and worked at Ensors Accountants in Ipswich.
“My intention was to become a Chartered Accountant, but the experience at Ensors made me realise that I wanted to do accountancy working in a business, rather than working externally providing a support service.”
So, when Bridget achieved her degree in 1982, she went to Willis Faber (now Willis Towers Watson) in Ipswich, as their first graduate trainee in finance.
Discovering a love for numbers
“I worked in the finance department and qualified in 18 months with grade A’s; I hadn’t ever got a grade A in my life at that point. I thought I had found my place and something I loved. I also loved working with people. I’m not a technical accountant, but more a commercial accountant.”
In 1984, Bridget married Chris, who was a site manager working for a company in Suffolk. She met him in the pub where she worked in the school holidays when she was at university.
“I look back at that time and think it must have been strange for him, as at that time Chris met Bridget when she was a student and now, I am completely different person.
“Once I qualified, I realised that to be a good accountant, I needed to get as much experience at different things as possible; something I have been true to throughout my life. So, I left to work for Marconi Radar in Chelmsford as a Project Accountant.
“However, I only stayed nine months as the person I worked for was an absolute nightmare!”
What’s the point in regrets, you can’t change anything. You need to learn from experience.
It was valuable experience to work for someone like that, as not only did it teach me how not to lead and what to look out for in a manager, but also how to deal with someone who’s tough and stand up for myself.
“My next step had to be right though.” Bridget continued.
“So, I went to work for Collins the publishers in London. This was a real commercial role and I got involved in lots of different aspects of the business and learnt so much in that time.”
After three years at Collins, Bridget was contacted about a job with Volvo in Ipswich. The concession was setting up an importership in Southern Ireland and a Contract Hire business, and they needed an accountant.
“Volvo was a brilliant business to work for. These were two new areas they were going into and I had to help set it all up. It was interesting times and they were good at investing in people’s development and training.
“It was while I was here that I went on a leadership course which had a tremendous effect on me.
“Over the two-week course, we did a lot of work about really understanding who you are and then facing situations. I learnt how I could impact business and how to speak up confidently without being considered an emotional female. I came away believing that you always need to be yourself.
“After a year, I was put in charge of accounts for the UK heading up a team of 20. Then I became Finance Manager which I did for 18 months before I moved to Marlow in Bucks to take a role in strategy planning.”
Developing her experience
“For me, it’s all about gaining experience in different areas of the business and this was the Head Office and I was working with the leadership team. I helped in the design of campaigns and learnt a lot about the business. I did that for a couple of years.
“Then in 1993, I was approached by Norwich Union. They were demutualising and wanted to bring people in who understood how to run finance areas for big companies. So, I joined as Finance Manager and within nine months, at 33 years’ old, I was made Finance Director of the general insurance business. This was when my career really took off.”
But what changes when you move from a senior manager to a board director?
“The key difference is that you move from your specialism, to contributing to the whole business in a much more formal way. There is a breadth to this role and a responsibility that you don’t have at the level below.
It was hard for me and a big step, as I didn’t have the experience, so it was a steep learning curve for me in how I was going to learn how to be a contributor round that board table.”
Over the years’ one thing Bridget has appreciated is the support of people who have coached her. One she linked up with from her leadership course at Volvo, the other was a former CEO at Marks and Spencer.
“When I became FD at Norwich Union, my boss was called Albert Mills and if there was anyone who was the best and most influential boss for me, it was Albert. He was a wise, wise man and he was intrigued by each of his board member’s individually and he wanted you to be you. He was a very humble leader with a very strategic brain.”
Bridget then moved on to lead the acquisition of London & Edinburgh, before becoming its MD and helping to integrate the business into Norwich Union.
I then decided to move into broader business roles, which was a big decision for me.
“Norwich Union offered me the FD of the Life business, the larger part of the Group. They felt that I needed to work in Life, to go onto one of the top jobs.”
Trust your instinct
“My gut was telling me that this was the wrong move, but everyone was telling me to take it and I heeded their advice. But I knew it was a mistake. After nine months, I became ill with a virus and was off work for three months. This was terrible time for me, as Bridget who was always capable, wasn’t capable and I couldn’t fix it. I just needed to give my body time to get better.
“My learning from this time in my career is that It’s important to face things when they aren’t right. I didn’t want the job of FD of Life Insurance, the person I was working under didn’t want me in the job and the guys said they would support me and they didn’t. They left me to deal with him every day and it wasn’t nice at all.
“When I was better, I went and saw them and told them how they had let me down. I needed to do that as it was part of having to deal with what they did to me.”
Bridget didn’t go back to her role when she was better but was asked by the CEO to work in London, leading an aspect of Aviva’s merger with CGU. And when the merger was completed successfully, she then took the role of Marketing and Underwriting Director in the General Insurance business, before running Norwich Union Direct and then Corporate Partnerships; all which gave her great experience.
In 2006, after 13 years at Norwich Union (now Aviva PLC), Bridget moved to Royal & Sun Alliance as CEO of the UK insurance business’, a main board position.
“Insurance can be a real force for good and it can let people live their lives in the reassurance that things will be OK if things go wrong. But, the industry was losing its reputation and I was excited by the opportunity to work with a great team of people, to create something special that was customer focused.”
I was 42 and at this point in time, my personal life was completely taken over with work. I worked really hard all the time.
“I’m actually embarrassed when I look back. I started at 7.30am, finished at 7pm when I didn’t have an evening event to attend. I also worked on Sunday afternoons.
“Everyone accepted it as it was me, but I wasn’t happy. I had a flat in London and stayed there during the week and was home at weekends. I did that for three years, but I realised I needed green fields, country life and walks; that is what feeds me and makes me feel well.
“When the financial crisis hit, my boss and I had different views on how to handle that and I couldn’t lead in the way he wanted me to, so I lost my love of the job. I didn’t feel I wanted to sacrifice my life to something that I wasn’t happy doing anymore.”
A new chapter
It was 18 years since Bridget had written a plan for starting a social enterprise that would support women and tie-in her love of clothes and fashion.
“I had so much support and help in my career. I had encouragement and training and that’s not offered to many people in life. I thought, and was intrigued by the thought, that if we offered the same thing to people in all walks of life, would they be able to achieve a life that works?
“I decided to give up my fulltime corporate career, to start a Suffolk-based community interest company focused on improving the lives of women called Dream On. I often meet people who don’t believe in themselves and they’re not aware of their talent. So many people have been told that they’re not good enough and have grown up really believing that, so we now work with women and try to get rid of those beliefs.”
Originally based at a converted building at Bridget’s home in Thorndon, Dream On moved to premises on Castle Street in Eye last year. The team of highly experienced coaches work in three key areas; style and image, wellbeing, and skills and competence – all which support and increase confidence and self-belief. They also work with corporate business to inspire and empower women in their organisations to be the best they can be.
“We’ve developed a fantastic programme for organisations looking at increasing the diversity at a senior level. Working with those identified as having talent but who, for many reasons, aren’t progressing. The results are impressive with more than fifty percent on the programmes being promoted and a hundred percent building new skills and increasing their self-confidence.
“I also coach people being promoted to board level roles helping them to start well. These one-to-on sessions, which are wholly focused on the individual, had such a big positive impact on my life, so I know from personal experience what a big difference it can make.”
A big thing about what we do is showing kindness.
“All of these things give us the funds to run The Blossom Charity, which supports women in East Anglia, who are facing challenges and who want to make changes which help them achieve the life they want. Women apply, and we select who comes on the programme.”
However, Bridget hasn’t given up the corporate world entirely and is currently non-executive director at Jarrolds, Adnams and Saga.
“Any job you do it has to be a good fit, but as a nonexecutive, it is vitally important as you don’t have to just fit with the business, but also with the other non-execs on the board.”
Life today for Bridget couldn’t be more different. She now has the time to enjoy her pastimes which include painting and walking her Labrador dog, Newky Brown. She loves going to concerts and travelling with Chris, especially to Africa, as well as going to the Forge Community Church in Eye, which she says is “an important part of my life.”
What is Bridget’s view on Suffolk as place to do business?
“My experience is that Suffolk is really special and that comes from the quality and essence of the people who live here. I love the fact they connect and commit to the area and there is a real sense of community.”
THE PINK RECORDER
Always a planner and a list builder, Bridget had over the years kept a diary, noting down her thoughts and experiences. In preparing for Dream On, Bridget wanted to pull everything together and present it properly. She went to see an old colleague from Collins in London, and she suggested Bridget publish it as a semi-autobiographical book. But why did she call it ‘The Pink Recorder’?
“When I became CEO of Royal & Sun Alliance, the headmistress of my old school wrote and congratulated me on being the first old girl to become a FTSE 100 director. I replied saying thank you, but I had left the school feeling unintelligent and I hoped that they now encouraged girls with my personality a bit better now. The headmistress said they thought they still had an issue and she invited me to come along and speak at their annual prize giving.
“When I was at school, they always had a music recital at the prize giving. To take part, I had to go to music practice and play my recorder for the teacher. If she thought you were good enough, you could blow the recorder at the performance, and if you weren’t you had to mime playing the recorder.
“I was never good enough and always mimed. So, when I went back to speak at the prize-giving, I decided I was going to perform the tune I wasn’t allowed to play.
“On the day, expecting to speak to an audience of 500, I was introduced to an audience of 3,000 as ‘Bridget McIntyre, businesswomen’. I then got up and before I spoke, played the tune with a pink recorder I had bought especially for the occasion. I felt an absolute idiot doing it, but it was my way of making a point.”
The Pink Recorder is available to buy by contacting Dream On on 01379678483 or visit dream-on.co.uk