Whitbread’s Alison Brittain named Veuve Clicquot business-woman of year
Chief executive of Costa Coffee owner says it is important for businesses to set diversity targets
The chief executive of Whitbread, Alison Brittain, has said it is important for businesses to set diversity targets, as she scooped the Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year award.
“I’m not a great fan of quotas but I am a great fan of targets and there’s a subtle difference,” said Brittain, who is one of just seven female FTSE 100 chief executives. “For everything we do running a business we set goals and targets … if you don’t measure it there’s a sense that it’s not important. Setting a target [to improve diversity] is sending a really important signal that the issue is being taken seriously.”
The accolade means Brittain, who has been running the Costa and Premier Inn owner since September 2015, joins a select group of winners that includes the late Dame Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, and Dame Marjorie Scardino, who as boss of the publishing group Pearson became the first female FTSE 100 chief executive.
The judges said Brittain was a role model for women striving to reach the top of big organisations and had succeeded in what were traditionally male-dominated sectors. They also pointed to her championing of the need for more women in executive-level positions and commitment to Whitbread initiatives designed to improve skills and career development at the company.
Brittain had demonstrated “strong leadership” and shown the “same courage, enterprising determination and commitment to social responsibility” as Madame Clicquot herself, said Moët Hennessy UK’s Julie Nollet.
Brought up in Derbyshire, Brittain has a degree in business studies from Stirling University and an MBA from Cambridge University’s Judge institute. She started her career as a graduate trainee at Barclays and over the next two decades worked her way up to become head of retail banking at Lloyds, where she was labelled the most powerful woman in British banking.
Brittain, 52, said she was honoured to win the award but also daunted to be ranked alongside the previous winners. She joked that her celebrations would involve drinking “copious amounts of champagne”.
After climbing to the top of the male-dominated banking industry, Brittain switched sectors to lead Whitbread, which also owns the Beefeater Grill and Brewers Fayre restaurant brands, and employs about 50,000 people. It banked underlying pre-tax profits of £562.2m on sales of £3.1bn in the year to 2 March.
The ranks of FTSE 100 female bosses were bolstered by last year’s appointment of Emma Walmsey as the chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, Britain’s biggest drugs company. Alongside Brittain at Whitbread, the others are Kingfisher’s Véronique Laury, Severn Trent’s Liv Garfield, Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco, EasyJet’s Carolyn McCall – a former businesswoman of the year winner – and Moya Greene of Royal Mail.
But while women’s presence in the boardroom has grown over the past four years, according to research by the Directory of Social Change, their positions tend to be non-executive and it is still rare for companies to have a female chair or chief executive. Its analysis of company corporate social responsibility policies and annual reports put the overall percentage of women on boards at about 22%.
In March the government wrote to the chief executives of all FTSE 350 companies urging them to improve diversity and echoing a call to publish a breakdown of their workforce by race and pay. The business minister, Margot James, said companies should take up key recommendations from a recent government-backed review into race in the workplace by the businesswoman Ruby McGregor-Smith.