As CEO of Leicester City Football Club, Susan Whelan is celebrating a remarkable win. Back in 2012, Susan was our Business Woman of the Year and she had some very interesting things to say to Jennifer O’Connell about women and work.
In a career that has been largely conducted away from the limelight, the Dublin woman has risen to the top levels of the international duty-free retail industry, to become senior executive vice president of the Thailand-based King Power International Group and chief executive of Leicester City Football Club. One of the first things I want to ask her when we meet on a bright, cold morning in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, is why she wasn’t at the famous Farmleigh summit, which saw people like Joyce, Dermot Desmond and Denis O’Brien descend on Dublin for a kind of government-sponsored brainstorming in 2009. “Nobody invited me to attend,” she laughs, slightly surprised by the question. “But Farmleigh was remarkable, wasn’t it? It was only when you read down through the list of people at that summit that you realised how incredibly well Irish people have done all around the world. “I always use the analogy of a brick wall for the Irish ability to overcome challenges, and how to successfully integrate when working away from home. I think if there’s a wall, Irish people won’t try to knock it down. They’ll go over it, or dig underneath it, or try to go around it. We know where we need to get to, but we don’t devastate the landscape doing it. We can fit in, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and it’s a great trait to have.”
It certainly seems to have stood Whelan in good stead. She attributes her Irish background to helping her integrate into a company where she was, until recently, the only non-Asian among 6,500 employees. “I do participate in a lot of the activities of the company, and not just the 9 to 5 ones. I get involved in the charity activities and participate in the company’s religious ceremonies, which are an integral part of the culture. But there’s a real warmth towards the Irish generally too. I have to say that my sense of being Irish has grown after being away and I’m very proud to be Irish.”
She grew up in the Dublin coastal town of Howth, one of three children. “We were, and still are, very close. I call home at least every day and talk to my family.” Was she a brilliant student? She laughs again. “I wasn’t studious at all – the comments on my reports were ‘lots of intellectual capacity, but got involved in too many things’. And I did.I was head girl in school; captain of the hockey team; I edited the school magazine. I played tennis and taught sailing.” Whelan joined her father in the family jewellery business after school, and worked there for a few years before she spotted an ad recruiting group buyers for the overseas business of Aer Rianta International. “I talked with my dad about it and thought it would be a good opportunity to broaden the horizons.” She landed the job of group buyer for watches, jewellery, perfumes and cosmetics, and spent the best part of the next decade forging out a career that took her to Moscow
She landed the job of group buyer for watches, jewellery, perfumes and cosmetics, and spent the best part of the next decade forging out a career that took her to Moscow for a year, to Bahrain, Pakistan, Beijing and ultimately to Bangkok, setting up new Aer RiantaInternational buying operations. After her year in Moscow was up in 1994, “I said, that’s it, I’ve done the travelling, and I intended to go home and do more sailing in Howth. But this opportunity came along in Bangkok, with a team of people I had worked with before in the Middle East and Russia, and I just couldn’t pass it up.” It was four years later that she caught the eye of the King Power Group, which approached her about coming on board to bring the buying function for the duty-free operation at Bangkok Airport in-house. “I was being given a great opportunity, more seniority–it was an easy decision, really. It did mean I would be living full time in Bangkok, which is one of those love it-or-hate it places. Luckily, I love it.”
I think there are always opportunities [for women]if you want them enough–you’ve got to make your own path in life.
So she took the job in 1999, and set about attracting brands like Chanel, Dior, Ferragamo and Burberry to the airport. “You had to push quite hard to get them on board. Travel duty-free is a unique channel and there was still a certain conservatism with some of the brands. But we had a plan, and we approached them in a really transparent, professional way. And they came on board.”
Back at home, her friends were beginning to settle down and start families, but Whelan never felt she was missing out. “It didn’t affect me–I was doing something different. Of course, there are sacrifices, in the sense that you miss out on family occasions, and that part is hard. But it was never a conscious decision to just focus on my career; it was just there was always something new that had to be done.I honestly don’t have regrets.”
In July 2011, she was appointed chief executive of the King Power owned Leicester City Football Club, which represents quite a departure for someone who confesses to being relatively new to the sport. But she is undaunted by the challenge of her new position, which she will juggle with her other role heading up the buying team and commercial strategy at King Power.
“One of my first jobs was hosting a home game with Real Madrid, which we turned into a real family day. We have a fantastic fanbase, with the fifth-highest attendance in the league. The main priority at the moment is completing the job of strengthening the infrastructure at the club, increasing the commercial revenue, encouraging more fans to come and watch the games each week.”
On a personal level, Whelan says being able to do things for the community in Leicester through football has been very fulfilling. “Because of the passion fans have for the sport, you have the ability to do so much positively, to help and participate with kids – that is a wonderful gift for me. Football gets a lot of negative attention at times, but there are so many positive things football, and sport, can contribute. We as a club are playing a role in Leicester and actively contributing to people in the city.” So has being a woman at the top level of two male-dominated industries – travel and football – presented her with any particular challenges? “Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it hasn’t. When you say dominated by men, it sounds as if there’s no opportunity for women. I think there are always opportunities if you want them enough–you’ve got to make your own path in life.” Whelan relocated to London five years ago, which makes trips home to see her six nieces and nephews a little easier, and divides her time between there, Leicester and Bangkok.
Having fulfilled most of her career ambitions already, is there anything left she’d really like to do? “I’d like a bit more time in life,” she says after a moment. “To cook, to entertain, to be with my family. I’d also love to own a dog. But otherwise, everything is great. I’ve been very lucky.” Luck, you suspect, has only been a small part of it.