|Profile: SABMiller's Sue Clark|
|Monday, 28 May 2012 00:37|
La Vida Local
Sue Clark has dealt with every comms problem in the book, from snow on the line to multi-billion pound mergers. Molly Pierce meets the woman who believes in thinking local
"Sue is the real thing. She’s a brilliant senior executive who happens to specialise in communications. She’s thoroughly understood every business she’s worked in – and that’s the way it should be.” Andrew Grant has known Sue Clark, the head of corporate affairs at SABMiller, for over 17 years – and he’s full of praise for her capabilities. Directing communications for the firm that currently sits tenth in the FTSE100 is a role that comes with extraordinary amounts of pressure. However, Sue’s career to date hasn’t exactly been stress-free. When she spoke to Communicate, it quickly became clear that there’s little that fazes her.
On graduating from Manchester University, Sue joined the Central Electricity Generating Board as a non-engineering graduate trainee. “It was a fantastic opportunity,” she recalls, “working in a large national industry. I got a great view of the business, and excellent management training. And because CEGB was a nationalised company [formed in 1957, CEGB supplied electricity to England and Wales for over 40 years] there was less commercial pressure – so I was able to spend some time in PR, as well as learning about finance and strategy.”
The nationalised status of the electricity industry wouldn’t last much longer. In 1989, CEGB began preparing for privatisation, which took place in 1991, splitting the business into two generating companies, National Power and PowerGen, and the National Grid Company. Sue was in the right place to oversee the process: “We set about splitting up CEGB’s assets and setting up the successor companies, and I joined an incoming IR director on the IPO of National Power – he had no knowledge of the electricity industry, so my training was very helpful.”
Sue would soon move to another company striking out from government control. ScottishPower was founded in 1990, in preparation for the industry’s privatisation north of the border in 1991. Sue joined in 1992 as its director of corporate affairs, on the back, she says, of her experience in investor relations.
“It was easier, I think, to go into a wider communications role from IR than it would be the other way round,” she says. “But it was a steep learning curve! In my first year at ScottishPower, there was a truly terrible winter, lots of snowfall – which in the electricity industry, and in Scotland, means a lot of customers who are completely cut off.”
ScottishPower embarked on a full-throttle campaign in response. “We really had to broaden our communications, because the media spotlight was unrelenting,” says Sue. “We had to get information to our customers, and deal with the political ramifications – it was a baptism of fire. But I was lucky enough to have a very good team around me; I think they saved me from making any huge mistakes.”
It was during that first challenge that Sue developed an attitude to communicating that’s become something of a hallmark throughout her career: the importance of local knowledge. “If you’re in any doubt, ever, as to whether you should intervene in a situation, I learnt that winter that there is no substitute for first-hand experience. You have to be on the ground, you have to get your hands dirty, you have to know the details of the situation: whatever topic you need to communicate about, you have to know what the people on the sharp end of that are going through.”
It’s easy, Sue says, to isolate yourself in a corporate office; it’s the job of communicators to break down that isolation and respond to it. The challenges of running comms for ScottishPower extended beyond privatising and energy outages: it was also a highly acquisitive business in the early nineties, taking on Manweb, Southern Water, and the American energy business Pacificorp. Of Sue’s attitude towards acquisitions, Andrew Grant recalls her determination. “I think she gave birth to her daughter at the climax of one of the transactions,” he says, “and basically worked up until the last moment possible – and then issued instructions from the maternity ward!”
But it was soon time for the next step. In 2000, Sue moved back to the UK and took up the position of director of corporate affairs at Railtrack. It was hardly an easy berth after ScottishPower, however: crashes at Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield in quick succession, with over 30 dead and hundreds injured, meant there was intense focus on the company and its culpability.
“The first thing I did when I started at Railtrack was to pick up the phone and organise meetings with the survivors and relatives of those who had died in the Ladbroke Grove crash,” Sue recalls. “It was a humbling experience – and then unfortunately just a few months later there was the crash at Hatfield.”
As a consequence, Railtrack embarked on a lengthy programme of closures designed to completely overhaul the country’s rail network. “We shut down the track in about 7000 places, all told. It was unprecedented in the history of rail services in England, Scotland and Wales,” says Sue, “and for 35 nights in a row we were the first item on the news.”
Quite the comms challenge, then? “Absolutely – the company was under so much scrutiny, and commuters effectively couldn’t use the trains. I was talking to operators, consumers: but although it wasn’t a long time ago, it was before the advent of digital, so we relied on a massive print campaign and broadcast journalism.”
Railtrack got the network up and running again, but ran into financial problems, and shares dropped sharply. The government decided to put Railtrack plc, but not its parent company Railtrack Group plc, into administration. There’s still anger in Sue’s voice when she recounts how events developed: “It was pretty much an overnight decision. We felt very strongly that putting the company into administration wasn’t the right move, and that our shareholders were being disadvantaged.”
Sue, the company secretary, and the finance director found a Regus office down the street and spent the next two years fighting a case for shareholder compensation.
“We launched a big media campaign, as well as legal action – which resulted in the government paying out to shareholders in 2001.” The campaign was an exercise in communicating to multiple audiences at once, and its success in late 2001 meant that after Sue oversaw the winding-up of Railtrack Group plc, she decided to move on once again. She headed to the international brewers SABMiller, and says the reason behind her choice was a desire to work “for a company that was more, well, fun.”
Sue says that the growing SABMiller was the perfect fit for her: “I wanted a move to an expanding business, one with an international focus. And after some time working at Railtrack, I found I never wanted to tell people at dinner parties what I did.” She relished the opportunity to move to a company that made for more scintillating conversation around the supper-table.
“I joined just after the purchase of Miller Group and the rebranding. It gave the executives the size and scale to justify building out their corporate office and including plc functions in the management structure – so hiring a marketing director, a corporate affairs director.” The acquisition of Miller Group hadn’t been entirely plain sailing, however.
SAB’s history was counting against it with cautious investors. Sue says that the perception of the company as an emerging market specialist lead to low shareholder confidence: “It had gone from an emerging market brewer [the SAB of its name stands for South African Breweries, after the territory where the company was founded in 1886] to a player in the world’s most sophisticated, competitive market. Investors, analysts, and the IR media doubted the company’s ability to step up to the plate.”
The company wasn’t well-known at the time, and its perceived complexity meant that “everyone just threw their hands up in horror”. Sue’s first step was to build around herself. “We developed a financial media team and set out on a campaign of education – we had to make the management of SABMiller visible to the press, and we had to build transparency in the country. It was difficult at times – executive experience in other markets didn’t exactly provide preparation for the demands of the UK financial press – but we’re now regularly rated highest in our sector for media relations.”
George McGregor works with Sue in his capacity as MD of Interel Consulting UK, a strategic communications and government relations consultancy. He points out that as well as the improvement in SABMiller’s investor relations, it’s also developed significantly as an economic power. “When Sue joined the company,” he says, “it was top 30 in the FTSE. Now, it’s top 10. I think that reflects the ambitious M&A strategy it’s pursued. Sue inspires absolute confidence in stakeholders: she’s at the top of her game.”
Emphasis on locality and local knowledge re-emerges here in the tracing of Sue’s career. SABMiller’s corporate affairs strategy started to move away from big set-piece events, towards local access. When we spoke, Sue had just returned from a trip to visit producers and customers in Mozambique and Tanzania. “Beer is a particularly local product,” she says, “so it’s crucial that our brand and approach in each market has a local focus. We’re not a Budweiser, where everyone in the West is familiar with the brand – we produce beers like Snow in China, which are brewed and branded according to their origins. It’s very important that we communicate those local stories to investors, but it’s also very complex.”
In recognition, partly, of the importance of local communities to its products, SABMiller’s corporate strategy is also strongly focused on sustainability development – a focus that Sue has championed. The company works in controversial markets, such as South Sudan and Colombia, but where other large businesses might take fright, SABMiller is actively trying to combat the issues it comes across.
“I found, when I arrived at SABMiller, that the company was an early adopter of the Global Reporting Initiative,” says Sue. “It was collecting masses of data on sustainability, but not using it for anything. Now, we have 10 stated development priorities; and every sector in the company is ranked on a stairway of four levels in each priority. We’re not collecting any additional data – we’re just putting it to use. It’s also introduced some competition between departments and countries, as it’s a very transparent, flexible system of measurement and targeting: two very different markets, such as Zimbabwe and North America, can compare themselves against one another and find a spur to reach the next level.”
SABMiller hasn’t been without its share of controversy in recent years, however. In 2010 ActionAid accused the company of avoiding corporation tax in several African countries and in India. Sue is lucid on the topic: “We pay about £8.4 billion in tax each year – firmly in the upper quartile of the FTSE100. We also follow the practises and guidelines recommended by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. So we see those allegations as completely misplaced and unfounded.”
She’s also keen to stress the effects SABMiller has on the communities in which it operates. “When you take into account the economic benefits of growing materials for brewing locally, using local models of distribution – we attempt to bring local communities into each step of the value chain – you see the true impact of SABMiller on an area. In Uganda, for each job directly created by SABMiller, 200 more are created in the local area.”
The other major issue of running communications for a large-scale brewing company is of course alcohol. Sue brings it up of her own volition, used no doubt to tackling it in all communications. “We recognise, of course, that if alcohol is used irresponsibly then it leads to problems. This concerns us, and we see it as our role – along with others, such as local governments – to tackle the issue.”
She returns again to the importance of local knowledge when it comes to strategising for this problem: “My role is to ensure that our behaviour as a company is aligned with local expectations, advertising codes, and standards. But also over the last few years, we’ve been making sure that our own house is in order when it comes to a broader corporate culture.” She believes that the industry instinctively keeps itself in check and regulates by watching competitors, but also that partnerships with public bodies have an important role.
“Really, though, there’s no silver bullet,” she says. For this contentious issue, there might not be. But when it comes to solving a problem, you wouldn’t bet against Sue Clark.