Wednesday 26 October 2016

'There comes a point where you've got to stand up and be counted...'

Margot Slattery runs outsourcing giant Sodexo Ireland. She's also our most high-profile gay CEO. In advance of the marriage referendum she spoke to Sarah McCabe

Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30

Margot Slattery by Paul Young
Margot Slattery by Paul Young

Margot Slattery doesn't look or sound remotely radical. Over coffee around the corner from her home in Blackrock, south Dublin, she is conservatively dressed and softly-spoken.

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As chief executive of the country's biggest business-to-business outsourcing company, her work is non-controversial. She enjoys walking and wine. She holidays in Spain. None of it screams revolutionary.

But that's exactly what the 47-year-old Slattery is.

She is Ireland's most high-profile gay chief executive. She campaigns for gay and lesbian rights while running one of the biggest companies in a country where 84pc of people identified as Catholic in the last census, where the electorate has still not decided its stance on gay marriage. Whatever your politics or point of view, you cannot deny that it has significance - the headlines all over the world last year following Apple's Tim Cook announcement that he was gay provides further proof.

Slattery's is the largest company you've never heard of. Founded in 1966 in France, today it is the world's 18th largest business. It provides outsourcing services for companies and events, everything from catering to building management and health and safety controls. It has 380,000 employees worldwide and 2,000 in Ireland. Slattery took the top job at the Irish division in 2012.

It is still very rare for the chief executive of a big company to publicly identify as gay. In the US, Tim Cook is the only boss of a Fortune 500 company to do so. Burberry's Christopher Bailey is alone on the FTSE 100.

Of course, nobody should be forced to discuss their sexuality in a professional setting. But "there is a point where you have to stand up and be counted for what you believe in", Slattery says.

"There's only so long you can sit back and let other people do it."

She is in good form. Two hours after we meet in what must be Ireland's frilliest cafe, she will be on a plane to Spain for a week's holiday in the sun.

She is off to hike the last leg of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Galicia in north-western Spain. She's not a fan of lying on a beach for a week, she says.

Slattery started her career not in business but as a chef. She grew up on a farm in Dromin-Athlacca, Limerick with one sister and one brother, where she fell in love with food and cooking.

The family is close-knit and was devastated by two major blows in the past couple of years - her father died, while her mother developed Parkinson's and has now lived in a nursing home for the past two years.

"It's probably one of the saddest things to happen in my life," says Slattery. "Her health has really deteriorated, she's suffering a lot. It's a terrible condition. She's a wonderful, courageous woman, she is fighting hard - but it is so tough."

She studied culinary arts at GMIT in Galway and went to work in restaurants in her early 20s, cheffing in Dublin and then London. After returning to Ireland in 1992, she opted for a career change, joining catering company Gardner Merchants in Dublin in a junior management role. Sodexo bought the company a couple of years later.

She came out a decade ago and has always felt supported and encouraged to talk about it by Sodexo. She's on several global company committees for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees.

"I've never been concerned about putting the business at risk when talking about my sexuality. And I think that this comes down to the fact that I feel Sodexo is right behind me, and I've never felt that anything about me as a person could affect what I do day-to-day.

"I'm out about 10 years. The reason I didn't come out earlier was more to do with my own age and where Ireland was at that time.

"When I was going to school, I remember there was a girl from Longford who had a baby, and the baby died. People couldn't even talk about it. Everyone cared so much about what other people thought in rural Ireland at that time.

"So I was conscious of not wanting to appear too different, of keeping my business private. It wasn't anything to do with my parents or anything like that - it was the social environment at the time.

"When I compare Ireland today to the early Nineties when I came back from London... it's like night and day. It not only physically looks different but it's psychologically different. Sure, not everything's perfect - but it has come a long, long way."

Sodexo Ireland has too. It's thriving under her leadership. Having added 200 staff in the past 12 months, it now expects to employ another 1,000 more in the next 12 - bumping up its staff by 50pc in one single year. Turnover last year was €90m, up from €79m the year before. She is aiming to bring it to €120m this year.

I'd better admit that I am fond of the company. It ran the kitchen at my secondary school, so it fed me every day for six very formative years. I have probably eaten more hot meals cooked by Sodexo than by my parents.

But it does a lot more than catering, running sophisticated corporate facilities around the country. Most of its clients come from the private sector, everyone from PayPal to Johnson and Johnson.

New contracts include deals to run pharmaceutical manufacturing plants and a major win from Diageo to service its vast St James's Gate brewery. Its competitors would include anyone doing anything in facilities management, including Aramark and Compass.

Sodexo also holds public contracts and is one third of a large public-private partnership; it has teamed up with Australia's Macquarie Bank and construction firm Sisk on contracts on state schools; together they have financed, built and now run nine different schools for the government.

"That model could be used for lots of other things, including hospitals and prisons," says Slattery. Sodexo is also bidding for the right to construct and run several court buildings.

The company has received a lot of negative press in the UK for its work in British prisons. Some argue that this type of sensitive work should not be left in private hands, while others have railed against job cuts implemented by the company in some prisons.

Ireland does not outsource its prison services, but Slattery would like to see that changed. "We would like to win prison services contracts in Ireland. To us these services are about quality of life. We bring international best practice. Reducing repeat offending is actually one of our performance measurements."

She lives not far from her office with her partner Sarah, a researcher who works for Trinity College. The pair held a civil partnership ceremony last year in Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim, where Sarah has a house.

They spent the weekend on Dun Laoghaire pier, canvassing, asking people to vote yes on May 22. It doesn't sound like a particularly pleasant experience.

"About 90pc of the people I met had a positive response but there was a significant amount of abuse too. People talking about disease and that kind of thing."

Marriage equality is a business issue as well as a societal issue, she says. A rake of big companies have come out in favour of a yes vote in recent weeks, including Twitter and Blue Insurance. No major corporate has publicly come out in favour of a no vote.

"If we vote no on the 22nd I think it says something very negative about us as a country. We have to be conscious of Europe's perception and creating a place that is good to live and work.

"There's so many people in the 20-to-35 age bracket who are now coming to Ireland for a couple of years to work at multinationals; those people are looking at our politics.

"This is an economic argument here as well as a hearts and minds issue, a human rights issue… the last human rights issue. Because marriage and civil partnership are not the same. I'm not a lawyer, I don't know all of the intricacies, but there are subtle differences. I can tell you that for sure - because I had one last year."

One of her main priorities or platforms at Sodexo, alongside LGBT rights, is gender diversity. Lots of chief executives talk about gender diversity, but their real commitment is evidenced by their maternity leave policies.

"My stance on maternity leave is that we pay for it and encourage women to come back after taking it, holding post-leave meetings and that kind of thing."

Ireland's maternity employment laws - which provide for six months paid and six months unpaid leave for new mothers - are fair, she thinks. "It works for people."

Sodexo pays a lot of its staff minimum wage. Just under half - 48pc - of Sodexo's staff earn €8.65 an hour.

She's not sure what the answer is to the minimum wage/low pay issue.

"We are moving away from the minimum wage - but we can only pay what the market allows," she says.

The solution lies more with government, she feels. She floats the possibility of a weighted pay model, where there would be a higher minimum wages in cities like Dublin and Cork and a lower minimum wage in those parts of the country where it is cheaper to live.

Sodexo's move into more technical facilities like drug manufacturing plants means it is now hiring more highly-skilled staff.

She has worked for Sodexo for over two decades now.

"I never intended to stay that long but it is a really compelling organisation to work for. I really love what I do, there is so much variety. Yesterday I was in the UK talking about our education business, the next day I might be in a prison, the next in a school, the next in Unilever's head office."

Her home and work life have merged, she says. She has a few late nights during the week, sending emails, but is free to take off early on a Friday to see her mother in Limerick, and wants employees to do the same.

"I'm output driven. I have a major dislike of presenteeism. I don't care how long our employees are in the office, I'm interested in what they achieve."

Slattery is not thinking about her next move yet, she says, but could see herself doing something in politics.

"I am definitely interested in politics, particularly local politics. It might be something for later in life. But I am definitely politicised."

But she is getting tired of talking about her sexuality. "I long for the day when I don't have to have this conversation. Think if I was interviewing you and I asked if you were heterosexual. People would never ask that. Whereas when you are gay, you have to come out every day.

"People ask if you're married and you have to get into the whole shebang about that."

She smiles.

"Of course, even if I can get married, I'll still be asked what my husband does".

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