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New Chambers chief has future vision down to a 'C'

NORA Senior has come quite a long way for someone who was nearly fired on her first day in one of her earliest jobs.

LOOKING FORWARD: Nora Senior is encouraged by the relative health of the service sector in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. Picture: Gordon Terris
LOOKING FORWARD: Nora Senior is encouraged by the relative health of the service sector in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK. Picture: Gordon Terris

Ms Senior, who becomes chairwoman of Scottish Chambers of Commerce on January 1, got a rude shock when she started work at an unnamed construction business soon after graduating in the 1980s. Keen to make a good start in her marketing career, Ms Senior found herself falling foul of the kind of views on women's role in society that were widely held at the time.

"The first day I arrived I was told I was going to be fired because they didn't employ women. That was in the days when you could say that. And I said, that's a bit of a quandary, what are you going to do about it? And the general manager said, I'm going to give you six months and at the end of that six months you will probably have found another job."

The Glasgow University graduate, who had been offered the post by someone apparently unaware of the official line, went on to enjoy a productive three years at the unnamed firm. This included working on the tools with roofers and linoleum fitters in locations from Lanarkshire to London.

"I learned a hell of a lot," she recalls with a smile, adding: "At the end of the six months they took on other women."

After moving into public relations work with a subsidiary of Saatchi and Company, St Andrews-born Ms Senior has delivered a smart riposte to the doubters by enjoying a hugely successful career in the industry. This has involved building a successful business of her own, the PR centre, which merged with Weber Shandwick in 1988.

The executive chairwoman, UK Regions and Ireland, of Weber Shandwick, Ms Senior sits on the main board of the global PR giant. She divides her time between London and Scotland, where she oversees four offices.

After spending 2012 as deputy chairwoman of Scottish Chambers, she is looking forward to combining the elevated role of chairwoman at the organisation with the position of vice-president at British Chambers of Commerce.

Ms Senior seems to be delighted to have such an involvement with a movement she became drawn to in her early days in PR. As the Chambers work with a huge range of businesses in many sectors, the organisations provide great learning and networking opportunities.

Speaking with a slightly hoarse voice the day after a client reception, Ms Senior says her priorities at Scottish Chambers boil down to what she calls the three Cs. These are collaboration, connections and communication.

She explains: "Collaboration with both other networks and with stakeholders, with Government and with other representative organisations to ensure that regulations and legislation which come out are going to be relevant for business and will help them flourish in the right environment.

"Connections (are) about joined-up networks overseas and throughout the UK. There are 52 chambers in the UK, and if you add in the local chambers there are more, so it's a substantial network which is on the ground and involved in local business and local communities, so I think they have a very important role to play."

Scottish Chambers will also be highlighting connection with the skills agenda.

The daughter of two teachers, Ms Senior suggests some fresh thinking is needed when it comes to providing careers advice for schoolchildren.

"One of the personal drums that I like to bang is careers advice for children not coming at an early enough age.

"Usually they get careers advice when they've already made their subject choices. The careers advice they are getting does not take into consideration the vast amount of new jobs which have emerged, probably because of the internet, and I think we need to open kids' eyes at an earlier age to get them engaged and inspired about the potential of what they can do in their future careers."

The communications strand is about telling people what the chambers are going to do and also about the need to improve the relevant infrastructure.

"Because, you know, you take a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh and you can't use your phone or you get your networks cut off so you can't use the internet, so the whole broadband and connectivity infrastructure is all about communications and I think that's important."

Taking advantage of the big picture perspective that her work at Weber Shandwick and British Chambers of Commerce allows her to enjoy, Ms Senior says Scotland is not faring badly compared with other parts of the UK.

"I think the service sector is doing well in Scotland. Manufacturing has spikes, or peaks and troughs."

She worries, however, that the UK as a whole needs to up its game in manufacturing.

While Scotland faces particular challenges around broadband communications infrastructure, the needs of business are broadly the same on both sides of the Border, reckons Ms Senior.

"Lots of the issues are the same, like regulation, both in the UK and at Brussels level; access to finance and creating that environment that you can have start-up companies, which does relate to business rates; National Insurance; employment law."

She gives George Osborne a mixed report card for the recent Autumn Statement, in which the Chancellor laid out his plans for the economy.

The positives in the Autumn Statement included the announcement of more generous capital allowances to encourage firms to invest in things like plant and machinery and a promised reduction in corporation tax to 21%.

However, noting the Prime Minister said recently that Britain was in the midst of an economic war, she concludes: "The measures set out in the Government's Autumn Statement fall short of addressing the urgency of that declaration. We need to get over the confidence hurdle and get moving. Urgency and delivery are key to creating the right environment for long-term growth – there is a need to think big and do more."

On the prospect of the constitutional upheaval that the administration led by Alex Salmond would like to follow the independence referendum planned for 2014 in Scotland, she observes: "The focus for the Chambers in the constitutional debate will be on policies not politics. Our role will be to explore the business case for each option and ensure our members have a clear understanding of how businesses, their owners, and their employees would be affected by the outcome.

"There must be sufficient opportunity for business to constructively engage in a formal manner with all parties throughout the process to ensure there is a strong focus on business issues and opportunities. All sides in this debate need to realise that the priority is jobs and growth."

With her Weber Shandwick hat on, Ms Senior gives an upbeat assessment of the state of the business.

She says the current year has been the most successful since the last recession for the Scottish operation, which is on course to achieve double-digit growth in revenue and profits.

While some sceptics weaned on TV's Absolutely Fabulous comedy doubt the value of PR, Ms Senior says good practitioners must display the commercial acumen that allows them to act as advisers who can help clients prosper even in tough times.

Happy to be part of an organisation that has interests in 83 countries, Ms Senior says she might like to work overseas in future. Other career moves might include helping start-ups.

A fan of poets ranging from Germany's Goethe to Scotland's Liz Lochhead, she finds time to be a non-executive director of the Scottish Poetry Library.

Years after her brush with workplace sexism, the seasoned communicator also plans to continue the work she has done mentoring women, who she believes tend to be less effective at using their networks than men. "Women are more reluctant, they want to be more self-sufficient and independent," she concludes.

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