Changing gear across sectors to lead tech firm creating out-of-this-world special effects
When she’s not being whisked around in the back of a black cab, Alex Mahon takes to the road in a bright yellow Land Rover Defender that used to serve as a rescue vehicle before she turned it into the family transport for her four children.
I didn’t know anything about producing TV, but when you’re young you’re really not scared of anythingAlex Mahon
Stripped back and battle-hardened from its previous deployment, the vehicle isn’t the simplest to operate, but to Mahon’s mind that’s a bonus.
“I like driving a car where it’s quite tricky to change gear and requires you to concentrate,” she says. “It’s good – we don’t really have that any more because driving has become so easy.”
Changing gears is certainly something Mahon knows a thing or two about. Now nearly a year in as chief executive of special effects company The Foundry, she has shifted between academia, consultancy and television production in the run-up to her current post as the head of a cutting-edge software firm.
In one sense, Mahon has come full circle. Growing up in Edinburgh, she aspired to be an astronaut. But thanks to the company she now runs – which is behind Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Interstellar and Gravity – would-be space explorers can at least get a sense of what it’s like out in the cosmos.
According to Mahon, the experience is set to become even more authentic as virtual reality (VR) is increasingly deployed in film-making. Launched earlier this year, The Foundry’s CARA VR tool kit was used to create Etihad Airways’ short clip Reimagine, the first fully immersive virtual reality film to star a Hollywood actress, in the form of Nicole Kidman.
So far, VR is generating just a tiny proportion of The Foundry’s £40 million annual turnover. However, it is accounting for a substantial amount of investment and development time within the company, with Mahon predicting that VR will come into increasingly wider use.
“In revenue terms it is only a couple of percentage points, but you would always expect that at this early stage of leading, bleeding-edge technology,” she adds.
Born in London, Mahon moved to Edinburgh aged five where she grew up with her mother and step-father in what she describes as a large “non-standard” household.
Her first job was working in her mother’s pharmacy in Tollcross, and she spent the rest of her teens working through jobs ranging from porter and dishwasher to waitressing and barmaid. She then returned south to study physics at Imperial College London, completing her PhD in medical physics in 1998. But although keen on science and space from an early age, she concluded then that she probably wasn’t cut out for the academic life.
She took up a job as a tech consultant with Mitchell Madison Group, and when she received a call in 2000 from TV and radio broadcaster RTL, looking for a strategy executive in new media, she decided to take another plunge.
“I didn’t know anything about producing TV, but when you’re young you’re really not scared of anything,” she says. “Also, I knew the product – I have always watched hours and hours of television.”
She joined FremantleMedia in 2002 as director of commercial development, and after a couple of years was appointed chief operating officer of Talkback Thames. Mahon describes the latter, which began producing X Factor in 2004, as her first “real business” with a profit and loss account.
In 2006 she joined Shine Group as managing director of Shine TV, and was promoted to group chief executive in 2012, overseeing day-to-day management of its 28 operating companies. During that period, Shine produced blockbusters like Broadchurch, The Bridge and MasterChef, the latter of which is now made in more than 55 countries.
She left in the wake of Shine’s merger with Endemol and Core Media in 2014, and soon found her way to The Foundry. Like Shine, the special effects firm has global presence, with offices in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Texas, Dublin, Manchester and Mahon’s base in London.
It keeps her on the move, but Mahon – who has also served as a non-executive of the Edinburgh International Television Festival since 2007 – seemingly wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I like the international focus and the fact that it’s got high growth potential,” she says. “I am definitely better in that running-to-catch-up mode.”
Born: London, 1973
Education: St Margaret’s School; Imperial College London; Imperial College & The Institute of Cancer Research
Ambition at school: To be an astronaut.
Can’t live without: Probably a combination of my children, family, television and crisps.
Kindle or book? An actual book. I hate reading on a computer.
Favourite city: Probably somewhere in Italy.
Preferred mode of transport: In the back of a black cab. The drivers have always got really good chat, so you always learn something.
What makes you angry? Incompetence and bullying in the workplace.
What inspires you? Free time. Inspiration happens when you’re bored – it’s why so many people say they had a brilliant idea in the shower.
Best thing about your job: Working with creative people, for sure.