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Silkarmour Boardroom in Conversation With Gay Collins

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With a track record in setting up successful PR companies, Gay Collins is one of the most respected Financial Services PR experts in the UK. From her start in the bond markets at the beginning of her career, Gay made the transition to financial PR after being made redundant in the crash of 87, from there forging a prosperous career in the PR industry. From being involved in the MBO of Ludgate Communications, to co-founding Penrose Financial, becoming the Executive Chairman of MHP, and starting her most recent venture as a Founding Partner of Montfort Communications; Gay throughout her career has demonstrated a knack for sensing potential and pouncing upon it. By keeping a mind open to opportunity, maintaining a flexible outlook, and building a vast and varied network, she has become a lady boss to be reckoned with, and along the way has also worked to ease the way for others like her. Now, with 27 years of experience tucked firmly under her belt and a mint tea cradled in her hands,  Gay talks to us about her ventures with the 30% Club, her involvement with Cancer Research UK’s "Women of Influence" board and her first steps on the road to triumph.

Growing up in Scotland, Gay had a less than conventional start in her career in finance. Despite going to university to study Art History, due to her stock broker father, she had always had an interest in the financial markets. Proving that the right attitude can open doors in the most unlikely of places, during a part time job waitressing at Wimbledon in the university holidays, a young Gay found herself working in hospitality for the bank Merrill Lynch, and in doing so demonstrated her enviable ability to land on her feet workwise. “By the end of it they offered me a job!” she recalls. “So really I fell into it”.

Starting out selling Eurobonds, Gay was soon sent out to New York selling to American investors. However this career was about to come to a sudden end, when the crash of 87 resulted in Gay and her whole London team being made redundant. “It was a very scary time” she concedes, “I told them I had already rented out my flat in London so they agreed to take me on until my work visa ran out. Then they very kindly made me redundant.” 

Facing unemployment, Gay made the bold decision that would shape the rest of her career. “I decided to take my redundancy cheque to think a bit longer term about what I wanted to do and I realised I didn’t want to be selling bonds when I was 40,” she says decisively, “Instead I thought PR or financial advertising looked interesting – I knew I liked the client contact and the financial bit so I went to meet a couple of people in the industry”. 

Gay collins

"I could see it in my clients – we were always dealing with males, so it was clear that at more senior levels females were getting more and more rare"

And lucky that she did. A job with Hill Murray led to Gay to being involved in a MBO of the business, resulting in her being asked to invest in the new company Ludgate Communications last minute when her boss dropped out of the proceedings. “I wanted to [invest] anyway, but they would only let people on the board invest” she tells, “So I ended up going on the board, investing and Ludgate became a very successful company”. Opening in New York and Asia the company went on to become a global PR success, but after selling to Interpublic after 7 years, Gay left  in 1998 to set up Penrose Financial, another PR company specialising in financial services, with three other colleagues. Once again Gay proved her talent for founding and growing potential; the company grew quickly and was sold 12 years later to Engine Group in a merger, with Gay becoming an Executive Chairman of the resultant company MHP. 

Alongside this brilliant streak of success, however, Gay had not been idle. In 2010 she had been approached by the CEO of Newton Investment Helena Morrissey with her idea for the 30% Club – an initiative to encourage higher representation of women on boards and in senior positions. Stepping in to handle the PR on a pro bono basis she became one of the organisation’s founding steering members, dedicating much of her time to the cause, and in her words, she ‘absolutely loved it’. 

Gay admits however, that she didn’t join the 30% Club because she felt personally disadvantaged during the early stages of her career. “I mean it was a crazy time in the bond markets” she says. “Men were very trader type, get on with it, aggressive, but I never felt like I was battling against a horrible environment and I never felt like it was negative”. However as Gay took on more senior positions within the PR industry, despite it being a more female orientated industry than banking, she began to see the gender disparity more clearly. “I could see it in my clients – we were always dealing with males, so it was clear that at more senior levels females were getting more and more rare. So I joined not because I felt the whole field needed to be mended, but because the figures and the statistics suggested that there was something that needed to be done”.  

However, one stance that Gay and the 30% Club takes when it comes to women in business is that they are, perhaps controversially, against quotas. This is for several reasons, Gay explains. “We’re a business led initiative first of all, so if you start creating quotas it becomes more like a ‘women’s’ thing. Secondly, I believe many women don’t actually like quotas, because they think people will assume  they only got their job to tick a box. Quotas also encourage people to make quick decisions to fill the requirement and then they don’t always look for the best people for the job.” It is true that many people, both within the 30% Club and without, share the belief that, in reality, quotas also do very little to improve working practises when it comes to women in the corporate workplace. Citing research taken into the current quotas in place in Norway, Gay tells us of such instances where this had been the case. “A small number of women called ‘golden skirts’  took on multiple board roles," she says, “however the executive pipeline hadn’t changed, so the quotas hadn’t really changed the culture.”

“I have seen many, many brilliant operators that are women and they often don’t realise how good they are".

If her involvement in one women’s initiative was not enough, Gay is also a board member for Cancer Research UK’s Women of Influence, which she got involved with, Gay tells us, while she was working at MHP. “I was approached by Cancer Research for a lunch where they had got together a lot of very interesting women, including myself and Tamara Box another Steering Committee member of the 30% Club,” she recalls. “My mother had just recovered from cancer so it was a cause very close to my heart and mind. They then told us about the extremely high rate of attrition in female scientists and their idea that this was because that they don’t have the mentoring or training support that a lot of women in different industries have. They felt that if they could get senior business women to mentor a female scientist each, that they would be able to support them and help them learn some valuable skills.”

For Gay this turned out to be an excellent vocation as she had long nurtured an interest in mentoring. “Over the last 10 years I’ve usually had one or two mentees, so I thought why not mentor someone in a completely different industry and see whether or not I can help?” The results were surprisingly positive. “It’s amazing how it works because the things they need help in are the things we take for granted in business; things like budgeting and motivating staff,” she explains. “They also have to get their research published and a lot of that is based on their own persona, selling yourself as a brand and networking, so there’s a lot more you can do to help that you wouldn’t think of”. 

Surprisingly, despite her avocation of the concept of mentoring, Gay herself has never had one. “I don’t know why I’ve never had a mentor,” she muses, “I’ve had certain people that I’ve admired a lot, but I’ve never been mentored and I’ve never actively sought to have one”. Not, Gay assures us, because she thinks she achieved all she’s done all by herself. “I’ve never been involved in a big corporate since Dean Witter,” she explains, “so in all my organisations I’ve never looked up and seen a glass ceiling where I thought I’ve needed help. If I’d joined a huge company at a more junior level I might have sought out a mentor. I think it’s more a circumstantial thing thinking that I don’t need one. I definitely think it’s really important though.”

“Women do help other women so I am often thinking how I can connect the two. I believe we’ve all got to help each other in life”

Although Gay has clearly demonstrated her skill at adapting and moving between companies and career shifts and landing perfectly on her feet each time, she waves away notions that she has skilfully managed her career changes. “I realised that when I was going for my JP Morgan Non Executive Directorship  that it was my first proper interview that I had ever done in my career”, she reveals. “I’ve spent 27 years in PR, but because I’ve started up businesses I haven’t needed to interview for any roles, so I feel like I haven’t changed my career at all, apart from the bond markets into financial PR, but I guess I’ve just added additions around the edges”.

For women in the workplace, Gay’s biggest takeaway piece of advice would be to be more confident. “I think that women have to believe in themselves more,” she says. “I have seen many, many brilliant operators that are women and they often don’t realise how good they are, whereas I’ve seen a lot of men who think they’re brilliant and actually, they don’t really grasp the fundamentals of communicating or the issues that need to be dealt with”. Gay believes a part of this is to do with women pushing themselves to be less nervous to ask for pay increases and promotions, admitting that she herself was a typical example of this. “I used to sit there and think I would get promoted because I work really hard and I know I’m good,” she tells us, “but I didn’t. When I did it was because I had really overproven myself; if I had gone to my bosses earlier and said ‘I want to be promoted, these are the reasons why’ I probably would have been, but I waited until I was asked. I don’t think a man would have done that”. 

It is the additions to Gay’s PR trajectory, and her boldness in cutting loose and starting again, that gives her career a spice of variety that keeps her on her toes. “My day job is advising clients which I really love,” she says, “but I couldn’t do it all day, every day. I have to have a few other things.” However Gay believes that this variety in her career is beneficially not only to her state of mind, but also allows her to provide a greater service to her clients in general. “If I was just doing PR, I don’t think I would have such a broad network, and that network can help my clients, so it becomes a kind of self feeding cycle”. The importance of networking and helping out others is something that Gay emphasises, both in her work and to her mentees. “I think my network is now more defined and tends to be a lot more female orientated than it used to be,” she says. “Women do help other women so I am often thinking how I can connect the two. I believe we’ve all got to help each other in life”.

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