Gentle stirring is Sodexo boss’s recipe for success

The Limerick woman believes in taking things gently even as she pushes for equality

Margot Slattery, managing director of Sodexo Ireland

Margot Slattery, managing director of Sodexo Ireland

 

Margot Slattery remembers a time when she was expert at carrying on a whole conversation at work about the weekend just past without mentioning the sex of the person with whom she had spent it.

She says she only realised how difficult the pronoun game was when she recently started to ask colleagues, as an exercise, to do the same thing and saw them struggling to avoid “he” or “she”.

As a gay woman a couple of decades ago, however, not filling out the detail of her personal life was something she did habitually – even though she never concealed her sexuality, it was not something she chose to highlight either. Happily, times have since changed.

Slattery, who is the managing director of outsourced services company Sodexo Ireland and boss of 1,800 people, is now known as a champion of workplace diversity, who works to ensure equality for women and for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) employees.

Last month she was one of two Irish people named on UK networking body OUTstanding’s Top 100 list of inspirational LGBT executives, alongside Stephen Clarke, the chief executive of WH Smith. She represents Ireland on her French employer’s diversity and inclusion council, sits on Sodexo’s global lesbian gay and bisexual network and has founded a network for the promotion of women in the company.

It’s all a long way from her childhood in Co Limerick, where her father was a farmer and her mother, who had spent some time in hotel management, stayed at home after the three children arrived.

“A good, solid background” is how Slattery characterises it now, full of praise for the foundation her family gave her for adult life. Her mother ran the farm’s finances while her father was in the fields. Her maternal grandmother was a widow who farmed on her own.

“Food was a really big thing,” she says, describing the tastes that came fresh from the farm and the cakes baked by aunts for competitions. It was a natural step then for her to train to become a chef when she finished school in 1985.

Years of physically demanding work in London kitchens followed, before Slattery felt the call of home in 1990, the year Mary Robinson became the first female president of the Republic. Slattery was 21 at the time and worked for the catering management company at Bank of Ireland.

Looking back, she sees the election as a key marker in time for the position of Irish women. This was when society, particularly in rural Ireland, remained “paternalistic”, meaning that, as a girl or young woman, “your aspirations were quite diminished”.

Slattery felt lucky to be influenced by “amazing women” and “a very open-minded” father but was also aware that “women were probably in a second place”. She recalls Limerick mothers who “got a cheque to go to Dublin – one cheque – and didn’t drive the car”. She knew that a life of similar constraints was not for her.

“I came back to an Ireland that had changed so little,” she says of the period just before Robinson’s election.

She speaks of “the galvanising of women” that had slowly been occurring through the influence of figures such as journalist Nell McCafferty and her own realisation that she wanted “to go a level up”from the role of chef.

Important departure

With “I can do this” and “why wouldn’t I?” in her mind at all times, Slattery took about two decades to scale the Sodexo Ireland ladder, becoming more confident along the way about promoting inclusion and equality. “I’ve probably always been involved in activism in a small way,” she says.

She relates a recent conversation with an employee returning from maternity leave where it was concluded that much of the work could be done from home, acknowledging that she is probably more open than many employers to such accommodations. “My antennae are up on these things,” she says. “Work life is no longer Monday to Friday, nine to five.”

Slattery says this approach reflects the philosophy of Sodexo itself, with the company no longer offering just facilities or food management services, but what it likes to call “quality of life services”.

This could see it managing the usual areas such as air conditioning, catering, cleaning and landscaping, but also taking account of the growing length of the working week by considering how employees’ lives can be enhanced at the same time. The company, along with employers, runs detox programmes or other courses designed to focus on wellbeing, with the whole thing designed to add value to the basic services offering in a difficult economy.

Slattery says Sodexo can report a customer retention rate of about 97 per cent over the past three years or so, with turnover rising from about €70 million last year to an expected €90 million for this year.

Margins, she says, have been hovering steadily around 5-6 per cent.

The company’s clients include organisations such as SAP, eBay and PayPal, plus a number of the large pharma companies, with contracts averaging about three years in term. It also provides services for one-off events, such as last year’s G8 summit in Co Fermanagh.

Reading contracts

It also means she must always keep an eye on the 200 client locations Sodexo operates across the State, with some sense of scale coming from the company’s estimate that it spends €19 million each year on local Irish foods. This latter detail makes Slattery, as a farmer’s daughter and sister, particularly happy.

Her typical day starts at 5.30am with a trip to the gym and ends whenever that evening’s work-related social event is over. And that’s before she gets around to studying for her master’s in management practice at the Irish Management Institute, or attending meetings for one of the many networks and groups with which she is involved outside the board of Sodexo Ireland.

Over the years, this out-of-hours activity has included involvement with Business in the Community, various chambers of commerce and the Institute of Directors. She also sits on the Injuries Board (previously the Personal Injuries Assessment Board) as a nominee of Ibec and is very engaged with the role, while being conscious that it adds a welcome shade of public service experience to her already busy CV.

Slattery is more than aware of her appeal as a non-executive director on Irish boards, having received “lots of invitations”. She also knows that any future executive role within Sodexo will probably involve an international commute but indicates that such a prospect does not phase her: “I’m a worker”.

It is hard to argue with the label. Again in her seemingly-elastic spare time, she has been involved with Outhouse, the Dublin LGBT resource centre, is non-executive board member with Glen (Gay and Lesbian Equality Network) and often speaks at conferences on inclusion and other issues.

She spoke this week at a corporate responsibilty event run by Business in the Community in Dublin Castle on the issue of building trust and respect with employees. It is a subject that chimes nicely with her own life.

Subtle discrimination

The bias she outlines will be familiar to many women: the presentation of the restaurant bill to the man at the end of the meal, the immediate deference to the male at the meeting, the presumption that some roles will be held by men and not women.

“My tactic is always to come gently at things,” she says, advocating subtle rebuffing of such behaviour rather than “a big attack”. Translating this approach to Government policy, she suggests that full marriage equality may not come as early as she and others might want because opponents “may need a little more time” to get used to the idea. “Every one of us has unconscious bias,” she says.

This delicate approach has, Slattery admits, occasionally led her to be excessively cautious in her own life. When, for example, she and her partner Sarah Barry, a Trinity College academic, celebrated their civil partnership earlier this year, she found herself reluctant to talk about it in some company because she had become so used to keeping her two lives (Limerick and Dublin) separate. In the end though, “people I would have thought were very conservative” surprised her with the warmth of their reaction.

Of her inclusion on the LGBT business influencer list, Slattery says she was nominated by a colleague within her company but had already come into contact with OUTstanding through various networking events she had attended. She acknowledges that, 15 or 20 years ago, she would have been less than comfortable with the publicity – “ would have been so careful” – but she is clearly delighted with it now, mostly because of the opportunity it offers for advocacy.

“It’s not until I’ve changed myself that I can change the world around me,” she says. “When I was growing up, there really were so few role models from a feminist perspective or from an LGBT perspective and there still aren’t enough. I want to get to a stage where this isn’t part of the conversation.”