The Mitie boss who says board quotas are not the answer

HOW many FTSE 250 bosses are on Twitter? Before I met Ruby McGregor-Smith, the chief executive of outsourcer Mitie, I would have confidently said the number was zero. But then @RubyMS, as she is known to those who follow her tweets, is not your average chief executive. Asian, female and under 50 years old, she doesn’t even have her own office. “I always wanted to be someone that just fitted in. Obviously I don’t, necessarily, but that doesn’t actually matter.”

Since joining Twitter, she has become something of an evangelist for the micro-blogging social network. “Doesn’t every CEO have [an account]? And if not, why not? How are you supposed to understand your employees if you are not prepared to communicate with them on their level?”

When I meet McGregor-Smith in the firm’s conference rooms facing HMS Belfast on the Thames, she is frantically searching for a hairbrush. Inexcusably, I have forgotten to tell her that her photo is to be taken. “The only thing I still find quite embarrassing is photographs,” she explains. “I was quite painfully shy once.” That might be so, but these days it doesn’t really show.

If anything, she seems too glamorous to be running an outsourcer, but McGregor-Smith insists her job is a “huge amount of fun”. She says that Mitie – pronounced “mighty” – isn’t your typical support services firm. Its name, which stands for Management Incentive Through Investment and Equity, is a nod to its 1987 origins, when it was created to buy a series of start-ups.

“Today we have a business that doesn’t have lot of start-ups, but we still have quite a few because it keeps the young culture of the business alive. There’s nothing more fun than sitting with some of the young start-up teams who come in and are starting businesses from scratch,” she says.

Since she joined Mitie, which manages everything from the Royal Opera House to baggage screening at Heathrow, the firm has grown its top line very quickly. It is on course to pass the £2bn revenue mark for the first time this year. In the year to 31 March, the company grew pre-tax profits by 8.9 per cent to £86.8m on revenues that were 10 per cent higher at £1.89bn.

“When I joined in 2002, we believed we could go from £500m revenues to where we’re likely to end up this year, and I never for one single day did not believe that,” she says.

So how does she feel about being the only Asian woman to run a FTSE 250 company? Frankly, she’s rather non-plussed. “I didn’t know until someone told me,” she says. “I don’t tend to dwell too deeply on these things. What matters is what you can bring to an organisation, not where you’ve come from, nor where you grew up.”

McGregor-Smith says she is passionate about getting “more diversity around every board table”, but she has little time for forcing companies to change. “I don’t agree with quotas, not at all. I want to be recognised for my talent, not because someone said I had to be part of a quota system. It wouldn’t have given me the confidence I need to do my job well at all.”

Instead she thinks social progress will take its course. “It’s a generational thing. I think you’ll see in the next generation that things will be very different. Today, boys and girls are brought up very equally when they are children. That will make a big difference in 20 years or so.”

McGregor-Smith hit the pause button on her own high-flying career in 2000, after struggling with the demands of family life and the boardroom. “My experience was it was very, very tough to move from a big career to having young children and to be able to do both well. I found it very tiring, very tiring indeed and I needed more support. In the end I took quite a lot of time out.”

When she took the finance director job at Mitie in 2002, she laid down some ground-rules. “I said, ‘Look I can do this but I still have small children. I have to have some flexibility around nativity plays, around the fact that one of them is unwell.’”

“That was the basis of my going back to work. When anyone has a family, male or female, then it does change their life – but that is OK. Currently I have a senior HR director who is on a sabbatical because otherwise she would have left. She found it really tough with her young children and she’s coming back at the end of the year.”

When she returned to work, McGregor-Smith’s husband Graham gave up his own career in private equity so that one parent could be with their children full-time. “Graham has taken time out to be around the kids more and he’s trained as an opera singer, of all things. He’s on stage in La Traviata at the moment,” she says.

I ask whether McGregor-Smith, who already sits on the board of Michael Page, has been inundated with offers of directorships since the Davies report recommended that FTSE 250 boards should aim to have 25 per cent female representation by 2015.

She is coy, but it is clear the offers have been rolling in. “I’ve always had lots of requests. Probably. I can’t really tell,” she laughs. It seems the offers have been getting quite short shrift though. “I laugh quite often when I get called, and I just say ‘no’. I don’t want to sit around a table because I am there to tick a box.”

McGregor-Smith has few gripes against the government, although that must be partly because the public sector is such a crucial client. Like others though, she says there “is a real shortage of talent” in the UK for a firm like hers. “It’s about finding fantastically motivated people in the service industry that really want to go the extra mile. I think there is a shortage of that in the UK.”

After ten years of fast growth, I ask whether Mitie is going to take its foot off the pedal and enter a period of consolidation. “Oh no no no, we’re going to grow more,” she says. “Particularly in the energy markets and also I think we’re beginning to win much bigger contracts as we get larger.”

And what about McGregor-Smith? Will she and her husband swap places again, or will she look somewhere else? You really do get the impression that it’s very unlikely, that if you were to cut her down the middle you’d find the word Mitie written there like a stick of rock. “I only think about Mitie”, she says. “I wouldn’t have a clue what to do next.”

Age: 49

Background: Born in Lucknow, India. Emigrated with parents to the UK in 1965, aged 2.

Education: Bentley Wood High School; Lowlands Sixth Form College; Kingston University (BA Economics)

1985-1991 Qualified as an accountant training at BDO Stoy Hayward
1991-2000 Worked at Serco Group in a range of operational & financial roles
2000-2001 Worked at SGI / Babcock International
2002 Joined Mitie as the Group Financial Director
2005 Promoted to chief operating officer of Mitie
2007 Appointed as chief executive of Mitie

Family: Married to Graham McGregor-Smith since 1990
Two children, a daughter aged 15 and son aged 13.

Hobbies: Running, usually 5ks or 8ks. Is training to run a 10k. Gardening.

Other roles: Non-executive director of Michael Page, the recruitment firm.