Shaper: Celia Atkin

Show aired on 8th April 2017


Celia Atkin

Celia read French and German at Kings College London and despite thinking she would work in the arts, found herself working for a San Francisco finance company setting up in Europe. She started off as PA to the Managing Director in London, but soon became their first female international negotiator. That was the beginning of a long career in what she calls ‘persuasion’.

With colleagues, an opportunity arose to set up a finance company for the Standard Chartered Bank. Despite resistance from the more conservative Board of the bank, Celia became the first lady to lunch in their private dining room – and their first senior female Marketing Manager, with 10 men reporting to her in six countries.

After seven years, Celia’s love of the arts prevailed and she left finance for the film business. She became Producers Assistant to Sandy Lieberson, who had set up Goodtimes Enterprises with David Puttnam to work on a new Monty Python film, Jabberwocky, and the pre-production of Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express.

Despite loving the work, she found it hard being at the bottom of the corporate tree after being near the top. Her former colleagues were setting up their own finance company and gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse and between them they set up their own asset finance company, United Leasing. Celia became the International Marketing Director and it was eventually floated on the London Stock Exchange in l983.

By this time, Celia was married and had two babies. Her first son Ross was born in l982 and to her immense surprise she had enormous problems breastfeeding him. After ten days, the health visitor said: ‘If you don’t give that baby a bottle, he will be brain damaged’, which led to Celia’s husband Edward – who was an engineer/designer – to invent the AVENT bottle which was short and stubby with a wider teat, more like the breast.

Before AVENT, once you gave a baby a bottle, it would not easily go back to the breast but with the AVENT system you could combine breast and bottle feeding and therefore also combine motherhood with a career. That was the key to the couple’s success. In l989 Celia took over the international marketing of AVENT and by the time they sold the company in 2006, it had sales of over £200m, 80% of which were abroad – 40% to the US and 40% in Europe, Asia and South America.

All her life, Celia has mentored women and encouraged them take every opportunity they can. She believes that it is possible to combine motherhood with a career – you just have to put together the right toolbox of skills and knowledge so that you can take time out, but also come back into the workplace at the time you choose.

Since they sold the company, Celia and Edward have continued to mentor and encourage young designers and marketers and have an innovation hub just outside Cambridge called ARCC.

Celia’s other big passion – producing – is about to culminate in her biggest venture yet as a co-producer on the show An American In Paris which opened at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road on March 21st.

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I thought it was very humiliating that women always had to start as PAs and my mother had brought me up to always think that I was as good as the next man.

…when we had this first lunch in the private dining room of the Standard Chartered Bank with the board, I hadn’t realised that I was the first lady to lunch there.

I did intend to go into the arts and then after seven years in the asset finance and computer leasing business I just thought, I can’t do this any longer.

The most amazing thing is to walk onto a set and then see the light designers bring the set alive. I have the greatest admiration for lighting designers.

I always say I’m in the art of persuasion because that’s what doing deals is all about really…

My husband very much enjoys having this innovation hub, ARCC, outside Cambridge. He is working on power assisted bicycles which have the same technology as we used in our breast pumps.

I said to my husband, you know, due diligence is like when a woman takes off her clothes and the guy looks at her and says ‘no thanks’ and I said ‘we don’t need to go through that’.

I think that entrepreneurs know how to evaluate risk and how to weigh up risks and also I think entrepreneurs do not want anybody pulling their strings.