Work Like A Woman: A Manifesto For Change by Mary Portas is published by Bantam, £12.99
By her own admission, straight-talking businesswoman Mary Portas, TV’s queen of shops, who has helped shopkeepers turn their struggling businesses around and advised the government on the future of high streets, has mellowed.
In recent years, the plain-speaking redhead who worked her way up in the world of alpha males by being tough and aggressive has found herself reading books about philosophy, taking to meditation and finding her feminine self.
“I found myself not getting the joy that I thought I was getting,” she explains. “I was starting to look at my life. It really started when Horatio (her youngest son) was born and Mylo (her eldest) was going off to university, so I had one child coming into the world and another going out, and I just started wondering how I really wanted to spend my life.”
She began to read books on philosophy and how to live.
“I’d read about these incredible people who had got balance right and I initially thought, ‘Yeah but they can’t do it if they work like I do’, and then I thought, ‘Why don’t I just change the way I work?’ Once I’d started it, it just became this wonderful roller coaster which wouldn’t slow down.”
Was it a mid-life crisis? “Yeah, there was a bit of that,” Portas (58) reflects. “Might have been menopausal, but it was something I needed to do. I certainly wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it when I was younger.”
She stepped down as CEO of her communications company, the Portas Agency, whose clients include Mercedes-Benz and Westfield, becoming its chief creative officer and leaving the practical, daily steering of the business in other hands. She found light, open-plan offices in Bloomsbury, a ‘village’ in London full of history, cafes and shops, where staff could connect with the community. She doesn’t cocoon herself in a glass office, she works alongside the rest of the team. “I put a woman in to run the business. I’d thought I needed these great, fabulous, ball-breaking men and I didn’t. I even had to deal with some of my own thoughts — ‘She’s had a baby, will she’ll be wanting another one, will she be able to be an MD?’ I had to cut myself short and stop that.”
Many of her thoughts and actions, changing her working practices by tapping into female energy and power, are detailed in her latest book, Work Like A Woman: A Manifesto For Change. “We realised that the historic way of working was just based on keeping profit, profit, profit and you narrow who you are as a person to achieve that and you don’t develop the people around you in a much more caring, deeper way.”
Her values now lie in collaboration, empathy, instinct and trust as she tries to nurture female energy and sensitivity. Emotion does matter in business, she argues.
It’s been a long road to build a meaningful, authentic life for the woman she once was, working her way up in an alpha culture.
Portas divorced her husband Graham, with whom she has two children Verity and Mylo, in 2003 but has remained on good terms with him. Soon after the divorce she met fashion editor Melanie Rickey, with whom she fell in love almost instantly. When she told her children about the relationship she says they hardly batted an eyelid. “Melanie pretty much seamlessly became a part of our family because children are way less bothered about the boxes we put ourselves into than we adults are,” she writes.
They married in 2014, becoming one of the first couples to convert their civil partnership into a same-sex marriage after the law was changed. Rickey had IVF treatment (Portas’s brother Lawrence was the sperm donor) and gave birth to Horatio in 2012.
But Portas did encounter prejudice about her sexuality in the workplace. At a charity dinner, just before she stepped up to give a speech, a man she was sitting next to turned to her and crudely demanded to know what two women got up together in bed.
“Even then, I didn’t have the confidence to say, ‘I’m not going to go up there — what did you say?’” she admits. Then she adds: “I wouldn’t keep quiet now.”
So, is she truly mellowing? “I probably am,” she says, chuckling. “I do meditate, which I never used to. I could have done with that 20 years ago. I know it’s a cliche that you learn things when you get older, but I want to help other people change, even if it’s just one thing they do — to be kinder and more vulnerable and more empathetic and collaborative.”
She doesn’t believe in long working hours and, while her diary is crammed, she values her down time. “I don’t work weekends, I don’t work evenings. I’m full when I want to be full but I can also turn it off for ‘me time’, otherwise I’d be in a home.”
Her proudest achievement to date is the creating of 26 Mary’s Living and Giving charity shops for Save the Children, but she is still banging the drum for women in the workplace. The book features lots of statistics and information on everything from the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling to bullying, sexual harassment and attitudes to childcare.
Portas is one of five children — she has three brothers, Michael, Joe and Lawrence, and a sister, Tish — and has written previously about how her teenage years were thrown into turmoil with the death of her mother. In her memoir, Shop Girl, Portas disclosed details of how her parents came from Northern Ireland. Her Protestant father and Catholic mother, Sam and Theresa Newton, left the province for London shortly after they married — a union that had caused deep upset to her mum’s relatives.
“Religion was so ingrained in my mother that she once went to the cinema and absent-mindedly genuflected as she walked down the aisle to her seat,” wrote Portas). “Growing up a Catholic, she was taught to pray each night, attend church every Sunday and regard the local priest as the God’s earth-bound embodiment. Her family was appalled when she married a Protestant from the wrong side of Belfast and never quite forgave my dad for whisking Mum to a new life in England.”
Tragedy engulfs the Newton family in 1977, when her mother dies from meningitis. Her heartbroken dad remarries six months later, making Mary, then 16, and her younger brother Lawrence (14) homeless. All their childhood possessions are sold. Then, nine months later, her father dies of a heart attack, leaving everything to his new wife.
Portas is the first to admit that she adopted the alpha culture in her early career. “If you look at my early days, a lot of it was survival instinct,” she reflects. “Later, I fought to survive and make myself secure and create a family that no one could take away.”
Her creative career began as a window dresser in Harrods, later helping to transform Harvey Nichols. Her profile was raised further helping struggling shopkeepers turn their businesses around in TV shows including Queen of Shops and Secret Shopper, and later advising David Cameron on the much-needed rejuvenation of the high street.
But Portas is pleased the world of work is now rapidly changing and says the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements can only be a good thing.
“Until the Hollywood story broke, it seemed as if we had all been sleepwalking through it. We heard stories from our friends, many of us had experienced harassment ourselves, and yet it was so common, so much part of everyday life, that we were silently accepting. Then Harvey Weinstein was brought down and sexual harassment became part of the national conversation,” she writes.
And the next generation will be working differently, she predicts for “the old power-playing dinosaurs” will not be our future.
Change of direction: Mary Portas, and (below) with MelanieRickey