Business interview: Margaret Ford, STV

Picture: Robert Perry
Picture: Robert Perry
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Born in Saltcoats less than four months after Scotland’s first commercial broadcaster aired its inaugural programme, Margaret Ford grew up with what is now known as STV, writes Kristy Dorsey.

Along with the seaside, her schooling at nearby St Michael’s Academy and her first job as a Saturday girl in a local bakery, series such as The Flight of the Heron and The One O’Clock Gang shaped the backdrop to Ford’s North Ayrshire upbringing.

She began her working life with Cunninghame District Council when the steelworks of the Garnock Valley were closing down – the start of what has proven to be an extensive track record in industrial regeneration.

This eventually took her to London, where she continued forging a prominent business career that in 2006 led to a peerage in the House of Lords and her formal title, Baroness Ford of Cunninghame.

After so many years down south immersed in sectors such as construction, healthcare and most recently the Olympic Park Legacy project, the decision to chair a Scottish media company doesn’t seem an automatic choice. For Ford, however, it is a natural progression.

“STV has always been in the fabric of my life,” she explains. “I was always interested in STV, and it has always been a fascinating story for me. You can feel it when you walk in, the energy of having so many creative people around, and they are all great people to work with.”

Following the announcement earlier this year that she would take over from media veteran Richard Findlay, Ford joined the board as a non-executive at the beginning of June and officially assumed the chairmanship at the beginning of September.

She and husband David have kept a house in West Kilbride throughout their time in London, and though this puts them less than 40 miles from STV chief executive Rob Woodward’s home in South Ayrshire, the two had “literally never clapped eyes on one another” until they sat down to discuss the possibility of Ford joining the executive team at the group’s Pacific Quay headquarters in Glasgow.

“And then we discovered we had lots of common interests,” Ford says.

She unabashedly proclaims her admiration for Woodward and Findlay, who were brought in in 2007 to overhaul what was then a company crippled by huge debts and a sprawl of loosely associated businesses. After a protracted and at times painful restructuring, STV officially returned to full health when it declared in August that it would pay out dividends for the first time in seven years.

“They have systematically and very intelligently re-built this company,” says Ford. “There has been such a lot of hard work over the last five to six years, and that is now paying off hugely.”

Her job now, she says, is to build upon that recovery by helping Woodward and his team take STV into the next phase of growth.

Though she easily concedes that she has little experience in the media industry, Ford points out that she does understand how to operate in highly-regulated sectors, which include broadcasting. She also has insights into STV’s emerging digital business, having set up web-based learning firm Goodpractice.net, which continues to operate out of Edinburgh.

Her arrival at STV makes her only the second female to currently chair a quoted company in Scotland, the other being Swedish businesswoman Karin Forseke of Alliance Trust. Not long after Ford’s appointment was announced, Forseke got in touch to arrange for the two to meet up.

“We got on like a house on fire, so we thought we might do some things together,” Ford says.

One area of focus will be upon increasing diversity at the most senior levels in business by bringing more women into the boardroom. Ford says she has “two or three” ideas on this front, though not all have reached the point of fully-formed plans.

One that has come to fruition is a deal with Eglinton Management Centre, the Edinburgh-based human resources consultancy. The firm recently agreed to co-sponsor with Ford a summer school for Scottish women who feel ready to make the final step into board positions.

The inaugural event will be held next year, with Ford keen to publicise the programme. Though no fan of boardroom quotas, she believes her experience gives her a responsibility to bring about change that has been slow in coming.

“Any chairman today who says ‘we don’t have any women on the board because we can’t find any with the appropriate experience’, frankly, is not looking very hard,” she says. “That just totally is not the case now.”

Turning her attention back to STV, Ford predicts an exciting summer next year, with the broadcaster due to launch its local Glasgow television service ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Ford stepped down from the Olympic Park Legacy Company in 2012 after three years of chairing the organisation charged with ensuring that London’s games left lasting benefits for those living in the east end of the UK’s capital.

Through that previous role, she knows many of those currently working to deliver similar long-term benefits to Glasgow via the Commonwealth Games. However, she doesn’t seem inclined to take on any official role, noting that the two are “quite different” in that Glasgow has far fewer games-specific structures in need of a useful afterlife.

However, it will undoubtedly be a boon for STV. “We have a great opportunity to make a real impact with the Glasgow station,” she says with the smile of a woman who has seen it all before.

60 SECOND CV

Born: 16 December, 1957 in the Ayrshire coastal town of Saltcoats.

Education: St Michael’s Academy, Kilwinning; University of Glasgow.

First job: Saturday girl in the Kandy Bar bakery in Saltcoats.

Ambition while at school: “I actually wanted to be a journalist, but when I left university at that time there were so few opportunities, so I didn’t pursue it.”

Can’t live without: “Since I am about to board my seventh flight in eight days, I realise that the correct answer is, in fact, British Airways.”

Car?: “A Saab – it saved my life in a head-on collision about 15 years ago, and I have stuck with them ever since.”

Kindle or book? “Both – I have a Kindle and I also still read actual books, though it’s the Kindle on holidays.”

What makes you angry?: “People who waste my time, and people who are discourteous.”

Best thing about your career?: “Variety.”