Martha Stewart: oasis of calm as she rebuilds household goods empire

Reluctant to fully accept her past, America’s first self-made female billionaire is in little doubt about her brand’s future

Martha Stewart at a recent EY World Entrepreneur of the Year awards event in Monaco. Photograph: studio.phenix

Martha Stewart at a recent EY World Entrepreneur of the Year awards event in Monaco. Photograph: studio.phenix

Fri, Jun 20, 2014, 13:19

Amid the furore, Martha Stewart is calm. Her hosts most definitely are not.

I’ve just asked the woman who, to a worldwide TV audience, is a domestic goddess to address the charge of insider trading for which she went to prison. “It wasn’t insider trading for a start,” she says.

Her conviction has been the elephant in the room for much of the interview. Earlier, she had referred to the high-profile case obliquely, saying her company is in a rebuilding phase: “We are working on remedying the challenges. The company’s problems stemmed from my personal legal problem. We didn’t lose customers but we lost ground in terms of partnerships.”

When Pamela met Martha (from 16:28)

While she is willing to discuss the issue, the Ernst and Young executive accompanying her at the event ahead of the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year awards is not.

Tapping away on his smartphone, it takes him several moments to realise the conversation has drifted to events of 2004 and Stewart’s five-month jail sentence. When he does become aware of the conversation, all hell breaks loose and, amid angry shouts, the interview is brought to a halt. Not wanting to end on a sour note, as I am told it will, considering my line of questioning, I ask Martha about her time in Ireland, and what she thinks of American companies locating here for tax reasons.

Despite the over-sensitive minder, who is urging her to leave and repeating that the interview is over, the ever-polite Stewart talks of her love for the Burren and answers that setting up in Ireland for tax purposes is “very smart”.

Throughout our interview, Stewart seemingly has no difficulty addressing the trials and tribulations of her business life to date, from organising kids parties from the age of 10 to her current role as matriarch of a media empire at the age of 72.

She has a reputation for being a “domestic diva”, but in the beautiful surroundings of a top floor suite in Monte Carlo’s Hotel du Paris, she is down-to-earth, funny and extremely likeable.

We are in Monaco for the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year competition, at which Stewart is speaking, and she is excited. Having looked out the hotel room window, she has discovered the flowers on the Place du Casino roundabout below have been cultivated in the shape of the letters “EY”. She grabs her camera and begins snapping away. Baking cakes and preparing hors d’oeuvres for a living may not seem like the stuff on which empires are built but that’s exactly how Stewart became one of the world’s most powerful women, and the first self-made female billionaire in America.

But she considers herself a person in business, not a woman in business. When she floated her company on the New York Stock Exchange in 1999, her advisers said it was unusual working on an IPO for a woman. She disliked being pigeonholed in such a way. “Even my lawyer said ‘I’ve never done this [an IPO] for a woman’.”

Born Martha Kostrya, she developed a love and interest in all things domestic early on in life, helping her parents with the gardening and cooking. A natural-born hostess, she was organising birthday parties for children in her neighbourhood by the age of 10, in an effort to supplement her baby-sitting income.

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