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Financial Times: Steady as she goes: 12. LINDA COOK Executive director, Shell Gas and Power

By Andrew Hill

Published: October 6 2006 10:45 | Last updated: October 6 2006 10:45

In-depth: Top 25 business women

How do women get to the top of the male-dominated corporate ladder? Differently from men, according to Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of Areva, the world’s biggest nuclear energy company. Speaking at last year’s inaugural Women’s Forum – a conference aimed at giving greater voice to women’s views on economic, social and corporate issues – she described how men “return from lunch at 3pm, read L’Equipe [the French sports newspaper], chat in the corridors and then start this contest to be last to leave, to show how important they are. Women do it the other way round: it’s a race to get home by 8 or 8.30pm because the family is waiting.”

Yet when they get to the top, Lauvergeon suggested, the differences between men and women are more difficult to detect. She said it was tough to point out clear distinctions in leadership style: “Two individuals, of whichever gender, never lead in the same way.”

It is a message that also emerges from this year’s Financial Times/Financial Times Deutschland ranking of Europe’s top women in business – which features the Areva chief at number two. Of course, the ranking is a record of successful women in business. But at this level it is also a gauge of the corporate performance of business leaders who just happen to be female and who are affected by the same influences as all top executives: globalisation, competition, technological change and the swings and roundabouts of mergers and acquisitions.

The wave of M&A in the past two years nearly gave this list a prominent new entrant in the form of Patricia Russo, poised to take the helm of Alcatel Lucent, the transatlantic telecommunications behemoth approved by shareholders last month.

Discussion of the list was dominated by the Russo question. Should one of the US’s most powerful and best-known executives be admitted to the ranking on the strength of her position as chief executive-designate of the merged company? If the deal is successful, Russo will almost certainly be vaulted into the top 25 – as eligibility for the ranking is based on location rather than nationality. But was she already worthy of a place? As one panellist, Evelyne Sevin, senior partner of recruitment consultancy Egon Zehnder International in France, pointed out, the imminent arrival of this American in Paris is already creating waves in the French capital. The merger – essentially an acquisition of Lucent of the US by Alcatel of France – will be a political, cultural and commercial test. Russo will be the person held to account if it goes wrong.

But the panellists decided that the ranking should judge performance, not potential; the decision should be based on a candidate’s record over the preceding year. Russo stayed out. As a result, the 2006 list – at least in its upper ranks – reflects a year of consolidation for many of the best-known and most powerful women in European business. The top four this year are unchanged from 2005 and our top European businesswoman is again Ana Patricia Botin, chairman of the Spanish bank Banesto.

Consistency should be seen as a strength, according to the judges. More than half the 25 women picked for the inaugural ranking in 2004 still make the grade two years later. Those who have dropped out have often left executive positions altogether, as was the case with Sari Baldauf, who topped the first ranking but then left her job as head of Nokia Networks for personal reasons.

Elizabeth Barrett, partner and head of dispute resolution at UK law firm Slaughter and May, and Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson (publisher of the FT) are the only panellists to have sat on the jury for all three rankings. Barrett told her fellow judges during the final discussion of the 2006 ranking: “If we have correctly identified the highest-performing European businesswomen, it would be extremely odd for someone to be in the top five one year and the following year to disappear from the list. We expect our very top women to be consistently high achievers.”

Exceptional performance is the main reason why some have risen in the ranking this year, or joined it for the first time. Clara Furse, whose year was dominated by successfully defending the London Stock Exchange from takeover approaches, climbed the list to number six. Annika Falkengren of SEB owed her improved position to her promotion to chief executive of the Swedish financial institution – showing again the panel’s determination that executive power should be the deciding factor.

That also helped explain the arrival of two women appointed to executive positions since last year’s list – Dorothy Thompson, chief executive of Drax, which owns the largest coal-fired power station in Europe, and Ingrid Matthaus-Maier, chief executive of the German state-owned bank KfW. Anke Schaferkordt, head of the RTL television network in Germany, also joined the list, as did Mercedes Erra, the fast-rising star of French advertising agency Euro RSCG. For Germany, the inclusion of Matthaus-Maier and Schaferkordt represents something of a breakthrough. German executives have struggled to merit inclusion in the list since it began in 2004, although many have been considered.

These new faces were enough to knock from the ranking Miuccia Prada, of the eponymous fashion house. Her position has looked precarious since the jury began last year to focus more on women with executive – rather than pure creative – roles.

Christel Bories, president and chief executive of Alcan Packaging, and Gail Rebuck, chairman and chief executive of Random House, the publisher – placed at number 24 and 25 respectively in 2005 – also missed out. Finally, Rose Marie Bravo, who helped turn round the British fashion business Burberry, stepped down this year.

Of those who have slipped down the ranking, Pat O’Driscoll of Northern Foods was the most notable. The chief executive of the British food supplier has been forced to announce radical measures as she tries to turn the company round. She took over in 2004 – winning a place on the inaugural list – but has issued a string of profit warnings since. The panel considered, however, that to eject her would be a sign that she had failed altogether, whereas investors are still waiting to see if she can effect the long-awaited recovery.

After continued concerns in Sweden about whether Cristina Stenbeck, head of the family empire, is wielding real power, she dropped down the list, and the jury declined to include Marina Berlusconi, daughter of the Italian media tycoon and former prime minister, despite her appointment to chair Fininvest, the family holding company.

Inga Beale, the new chief executive of Converium, narrowly missed inclusion. She was appointed to the top job at the Swiss reinsurer in February, but the turnaround at the company is not yet complete. Georgia Garinois-Melenikiotou, one of the top female executives at Johnson & Johnson, was also passed over in favour of women with a more direct reporting line to the chief executive. They – and Patricia Russo – will be among those to watch in the coming year.

Data research by Anne-Britt Dullforce.

The criteria

Candidates can be drawn from European Union member states and official applicant countries, plus Russia, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and the Balkan states. They must be based in Europe, but their nationality is irrelevant. Employees of Pearson and companies in which it has a substantial interest are ineligible. Only those with key operational or senior advisory roles are considered. The most important factors include: the candidate’s seniority in the company, and the size and complexity of the company or division she oversees. Other elements include: the candidate’s influence, contribution to society and significance as a role model for women.

Judging panel

Elizabeth Barrett, partner and head of dispute resolution, Slaughter and May

John Grumbar, chairman and chief executive, Egon Zehnder International

Marjorie Scardino, chief executive, Pearson (publisher of the FT)

Burkhard Schwenker, chief executive, Roland Berger

Evelyne Sevin, senior partner, Egon Zehnder International

12. LINDA COOK 48
Executive director, Shell Gas and Power

Cook won a scholarship to study chemical engineering at the University of Kansas, but then she came across petroleum engineering, which had “exactly the right combination of math, chemistry, geology, engineering and economics”. She was hooked. She has worked for Shell since university. After 18 years in exploration and production in the US, she moved to the Netherlands to be director of strategy and business development. Since 2004 she has been executive director for gas and power.

Her husband gave up his career as a gas trader because Cook’s promotions have taken the family – they have three children – all over the world. Cook acknowledges: “I’ve just been fortunate to have a great husband.”

This year

Gas and power is the smallest of the four main businesses in Shell, but Cook oversees operations in 25 countries, and net earnings in 2005 were $1.6bn. Global gas demand is projected to increase by 2.4 per cent per year in the next five years, and Shell is well placed to benefit as it has invested in producing liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is easily distributed.

This year she spearheaded the opening of Qatargas 4, producing approximately 1.4bn cu ft of natural gas per day, most of which is destined for North America.

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