Shaper: Celia Atkin

Show aired on 8th April 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Nancy Wilson with Call Me and a jolly nice way that is to start the programme here on Jazz FM. Hello it’s Elliot Moss here, thank you very much for joining me and its Jazz Shapers. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and we do something very special in that we insert into that mix someone who is shaping the world of business and we call them Business Shapers. I am extremely pleased to say my Business Shaper today is Celia Atkin. You may not have heard of her but you will do by the end of the programme because Celia is one of the people behind the Avent business and if you have children you will know because the Avent bottle reinvented the way that mums were able to give their children milk including some of my children as well I hasten to add. You will be hearing lots about Celia and from Celia and it isn’t just the story about baby bottles either. In addition to hearing from her you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon de reya and some words of advice for your business and then we’ve got the music and its brilliant today and it includes Otis Redding, new music from Sarah McKenzie and this from William Bell and Judy Clay.

That was Private Number and brilliant it was too from William Bell and Judy Clay. Celia Atkin is my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers and as I said earlier she is one of the people behind the Avent children’s range they make bottles which help your children drink milk so that they feel okay and they don’t get all the horrible side effects from other bottles in the past but there’s a lot more to say as well about Celia and she is going to be doing a lot of the saying. Hello and thank you for joining me.

Celia Atkin
I am pleased to be here.

Elliot Moss
Now it’s great. Celia you don’t normally like to talk about what you do I believe. You are a humble and shy person so I’m going to be very, very gentle with you.

Celia Atkin
That’s kind.

Elliot Moss
Tell me a bit about you. You are one of those women who has been a bit of a trail blazer in the world of business and it didn’t just start in the late 80s with the Avent business it started way back just give me a little sense of how you’ve got to the point where you set up your own business with your husband.

Celia Atkin
Well I did French and German at Kings College and I loved the arts and I always thought I would work in the arts because when you study French and German you read a lot of literature, Gerte, Schiller, Corni, Rascin, Pruist and I thought I would work in the arts but then completely by chance I met some Americans who were setting up a computer leasing business in Europe and they were very interested in the fact that I could speak French and German and so they asked me if I would work with them and that was how I started in what was then was the computer leasing business which was a new way of financing computers in the times when computers took up whole floors of whole buildings and needed air conditioning and now your mobile phone has more power than those computers that took up whole floors and whole buildings.

Elliot Moss
Now I imagine that there weren’t many women in that world at that time. This is the late 60s right?

Celia Atkin
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
And I understand that you started off as a PA and you soon and I think you were as you call it there, their first international negotiator.

Celia Atkin
I was really lucky because the guy who I was working for was American from New York and he had worked with women on Wall Street and had seen how women could be successful stock and bond traders and women had only been admitted to the New York stock exchange in 1965 so it was all pretty new but I was lucky and he said ‘why don’t you try sales’ and I said ‘are you crazy I don’t know anything about computers and I don’t know anything about finance’ and he said ‘well we know you’ve learnt a lot from the questions you asked and we will teach you the rest’.

Elliot Moss
And I also understand I think there was, I love this notion in America that there are these private dining rooms for companies and I believe you were the first woman to be admitted into the private dining room. It’s like golf clubs even now in 2017 there are still certain golf clubs that do not admit women which is extraordinary but back then unfortunately as you said in 65 they weren’t even allowed to trade. What was it like at that point breaking that initial glass ceiling and did you even think about it like that?

Celia Atkin
Well I did realise that I was the only woman in the locker room and it was quite interesting. I thought it was very humiliating that women always had to start as PAs and my mother had kind of brought me up to always think that I was as good as the next man and I guess that was what I thought.

Elliot Moss
And it’s true as well and probably a lot better.

Celia Atkin
But the private dining room story was a bit different we left the American company after a while to set up a leasing company for the Standard Chartered Bank and they were very conservative and the people who I had been working with, we all moved together our team, and it was assumed that I would become the European sales and marketing director because that is what I had been before and that was when we had this first lunch in the private dining room of the Standard Chartered Bank with the board and I hadn’t realised that I was the first lady to lunch there.

Elliot Moss
Well stay with me for much more from my first lady of business and many more things, Celia Atkin, my Business Shaper today. Time for some more music this is Otis Redding with Hard To Handle.

Otis Redding with Hard To Handle and it was good wasn’t it, always good, always good to hear the classics and that’s what Jazz Shapers is all about. Celia Atkin my Business Shaper today one of the women behind the Avent business which actually sold for about, we think a hundred million sales in 2006 to private equity which was really you know the end of the story in a way of that part of your life but I want to go back to the American section and where you’re obviously going to be a successful business woman but you stopped. You jumped out you went into the arts world. You alluded to it when we first started chatting. Tell me about that and tell me about why the arts is just so important and such a magnet for you.

Celia Atkin
Well I think I was very lucky because my parents took me when I was very young to see My Fair Lady at the Darien Theatre and I was just completely bowled over both by the theatre I can still remember looking up at the dome of the Darien Theatre and looking at all the gold leaf on the balconies and just thinking this is heaven and then once the curtain opened up on Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews I was just completely transfixed and then I think the same year almost I was about five or six we went to see the Nutcracker ballet and again I was just completely immersed and loved it and I guess ballet and theatre and film have always been great passions of mine and having studied literature as I said, 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 and I got a job and it was a very lowly job with David Putman and Sandy Lieberson and they had come together to set up a company called Good Times Enterprises and I used to answer the phone every morning and go ‘Good Times, Good Times’ and they had come together to make a film called Jabberwocky which was a Monty Python film which was great fun and I also worked on the pre-production of Midnight Express and I worked on Bugsy Malone and it was all great but it was very hard I mean again I had to be producer’s assistant that was how women started in the 70s and after about, and I enjoyed it hugely and I learnt a huge amount about the film business. I learnt, one of the things I learnt that has helped me a lot in interior decorating is that lighting is the most important thing. The most amazing thing is to walk onto a set and then see the light designers bring the set alive and I have the greatest admiration for lighting designers. Anyway I worked in the film business for eighteen months and then the guys who I had worked with before were setting up their own asset finance company and they asked me to come back and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse so I went back.

Elliot Moss
And you did and in your life I mean it sounds like the pull of the arts and the passion of the arts has always sat there, it hasn’t disappeared but it’s also you’re obviously very good at making money and not just for yourself and for the family but also for other people. Where’s that come from do you think? Why have you been so commercially successful?

Celia Atkin
I don’t really know. I don’t know. I love business. I love, I mean I always say I’m in the art of persuasion because that’s what doing deals is all about really and maybe I could have been a lawyer but I guess it’s, I don’t know it’s in my blood.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out more about Celia Atkin and what makes her tick and how she’s been such a successful person in the world of business and also in the arts. We’re going to come on to a little bit more about what she’s been doing recently. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for you and your business from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya.

You’re listening to Jazz Shapers it’s on every Saturday here on Jazz FM from 9.00 until 10.00. You can also hear it if you happen to have missed some on iTunes there’s a lot in there and British Airways High Life, CityAM.com are also destinations for you if you’ve missed any of the fantastic guests I’ve had on the programme. My fantastic guest today is Celia Atkin and she’s one of the key people behind the Avent business, the bottle, the short and stubby bottle I can relate to that, with a wider teat I’m now confirming that is true it had a wider teat and that is why it’s been so successful for little children. Now Celia you had your first child, Ross, I believe back in 1982 and you had problems breastfeeding and like any good idea or rather any good entrepreneur you said well there’s a problem we’re going to fix it. Just tell me a little bit about what happened once you realised that your husband an engineer and inventor could actually do something about this.

Celia Atkin
Well I have to say it was his idea basically my son was born early and he was quite small and I didn’t imagine that I would have any problems breast feeding him because after all I had been a director of a public company, United Leasing had floated and you just think well women breastfeed in fields I should be able to do it and then after ten days the health visitor came around and said ‘if you don’t give that baby a bottle he’s going to be brain damaged’ which is the last thing a woman, a new mother wants to hear so my husband made up a feeding bottle and he realised or we soon realised all the disadvantages of the classical feeding bottle and he decided to make a bottle that was more like breastfeeding and he was already in the plastics business and he is a fantastic inventor/engineer/designer and so he started to think about making a teat that was wider, more like the breast and which would enable women to combine breast and bottle feeding more easily. Because that was the thing in those days once you gave a baby a bottle it was difficult for them to go back to the breast.

Elliot Moss
What’s fantastic is and of course then over the next I think around twenty years or so you built that business into a hundred million sales, you then sold it and so on, but that ability to take the problem and to have someone who can fix it and then for you to be involved in the business in such a significant way – I think you were involved in the marketing and your husband was more on the ground in the manufacturing part of it. What was it like working with him all of those years? Did it change the nature of the relationship forever?

Celia Atkin
Well that’s a deep question. Well I think it did bring us very close together. I think we were close together anyway. I think the good thing was that he is a wonderful as I said inventor/engineer/designer and I am a persuader so we were in completely separate, well not completely separate siloes but we were doing different things in the business and we trusted each other to do our own thing and I think if we had been very close together it would have been more difficult.

Elliot Moss
And conflict, resolution how did that … I mean were there conflicts?

Celia Atkin
Well I think there are always conflicts in business but you have to work through them. I think having respect for the other person’s ability I think he had respect for me because I was already in international sales and marketing when he met me. I was already a director you know in finance so he respected me and I respected him for what he was doing so.

Elliot Moss
And of course you said but I’m always right and he said yes you are.

Celia Atkin
I wish.

Elliot Moss
You wish, you wish. Stay with me for more from Celia Atkin my Business Shaper. Time for some more music this is Sarah McKenzie with One Jealous Moon.

That was Sarah McKenzie with One Jealous Moon. Celia Atkin is my Business Shaper we have been talking about all sorts of things from problems and solving them to different roles in a marriage and making a business work and respect which I think is a very important point. Now these last ten years or so and here we are because it is just over ten years since you sold the business. I believe that your husband set up an Innovation Hub that you’re also involved with just outside Cambridge. You have moved back into the passion world the world of the thing that you love which is producing. Are you just having the time of your life? I mean is this the best bit so far?

Celia Atkin
Well we’re certainly having a very good time. It’s good to have more freedom but it would be awful not to do anything. My husband very much enjoys having this Innovation Hub Arc outside Cambridge. He is working on power assisted bicycles which have the same technology as we used in our breast pumps so that – it sounds amazing but the bike senses when you need more power so it doesn’t just kind of you know, it’s not an electric bike that just takes you along you pedal and it senses when you need more power to go up a hill. Just like the breast pump sensed when the mother needed to express how much milk to express.

Elliot Moss
Are you still looking at the business world and ideas? Do they just occur to you all the time or are you a bit more…

Celia Atkin
Well my husband is a definite inventor and he’s always looking for how to make things better. I’m just interested in the marketing side and one of the products that came our way were some wonderful designers from the Royal College of Art, Kelly Sant and Arash and they had designed this flat pack mannequin for window displays which is also recyclable and sustainable and it hangs and it lights and my husband helped them put it into production and I’ve been helping them with the marketing, it’s called Mannequino and its great. I see it in Topshop, I see it in Gayocks, I see it in River Island and that’s the great thing about helping young people bring their products to the market and then seeing them being used it’s great. It’s a buzz.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for a bit more of the buzz and a bit more about the arts as well because that’s where Celia is at at the moment; that’s my Business Shaper Celia Atkin. You are also going to hear a track from Herbie Hancock and that’s all coming up after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

Herbie Hancock with the iconic Cantaloupe Island. Celia Atkin is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes. She is the woman with her husband, a husband and wife team behind Avent and they sold their business in 2006 and actually before we talk about the arts we forgot to talk about this great story about the due diligence process. I believe that Phillips were interested in buying that business before Charter House the private equity house did it. Just tell me a little bit about why you didn’t wait around for the Phillips bid.

Celia Atkin
Well Phillips approached us and they wanted to buy Avent but they wanted to spend a year doing due diligence which is when they send a team of thirty people into the company and go through everything with a fine tooth comb and as 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’. We already knew Charter House the private equity company and so we called them and said ‘we’ve decided to sell the business are you interested?’ and they said ‘yes’ and we said ‘oh and by the way Phillips are interested so maybe in the fullness of time you can sell it to them and they did’.

Elliot Moss
Okay. Tell me about this production you’re involved with right now, what’s going on at the moment?

Celia Atkin
Okay so I’m very excited because I’ve known the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon for eight years and he was originally at the Royal Ballet and then he had a very long career as a dancer and then as a choreographer in America and then he was asked if he would direct An American in Paris and An American in Paris was a classic 1951 film based on Gershwin’s symphonic poem, jazz poem about when Gershwin first went to Paris and Christopher is such an incredible choreographer. He’s got such brilliant taste that I just knew I had to be involved in the project from the beginning.

Elliot Moss
So are you the producer?

Celia Atkin
I’m one of the producers.

Elliot Moss
One of them.

Celia Atkin
There are a number of producers.

Elliot Moss
And is it a similar skill set to the skill set of running a business?

Celia Atkin
Well producing is also about bringing the right team together and leading the team and having a vision but I have to say I am a very small part of the whole co-producing team but I just had great faith in Christopher and I knew that he would do something absolutely magical and we started at the Châtele Theatre in Paris and it had a six week run there and it got incredible reviews and then it was on Broadway and it was nominated for twelve Tonys and we won four and now it’s on tour in America and its opening at The Dominion, Tottenham Court Road just around the corner from here.

Elliot Moss
So really I mean you’re not very successful are you Celia I mean you touched the business thing it works quite well, you’re in the world of theatre I mean it’s fabulous and I just love the fact that you are so understated about it actually because you sort of almost your eyes are sparkling when you talk about this thing because obviously your passionate about it but you’re amazingly unshowyoffy which is really nice.

Celia Atkin
Well that’s kind of you.

Elliot Moss
Listen thank you so much for joining me today I appreciate it. It’s good to hear the story we haven’t heard and people probably wouldn’t have heard the Avent story and one of the key people behind it well they have now. I hope the theatre run goes really well I’m sure it will and thank you for joining me. Just before I let you go, before you scuttle away what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Celia Atkin
Okay so I’ve chosen They Can’t Take That Away From Me it’s a Gershwin song, it’s a classic. It’s of course in An American In Paris and I’ve been a friend of Jamie Cullen for about twelve years we met him when he was first signed to Universal and he did make a recording for us for our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary of my husband’s favourite songs from the great American songbook and this song was one of them.

Elliot Moss
Brilliant well here it is just for you.

That was Jamie Cullen with Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me the song choice of my Business Shaper today Celia Atkin. Someone with really diverse skills and passions from the arts to business and someone within the world of business who absolutely loved what she did and for her fundamentally the most important thing was the power and the art of persuasion. Really really good stuff. Do join me again same time, same place that’s next Saturday here on Jazz FM at 9.00am sharp for another addition of Jazz Shapers. In the meantime stay with us because coming up next its Nigel Williams.

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.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

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.