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EXCLUSIVE: ‘How do I unlock the capability of Sodexo?’

Author : David Strydom

16 November 2015

In anticipation of Debbie White's last interview as CEO of Sodexo UK&I, to be published in PFM's November edition, we publish a profile of this formidable and successful businesswoman

OK, I’ll confess: I cyberstalked Debbie White. Well, not stalked exactly; I just threw her name into that giant virtual mixer (aka Google) and let the results settle like confetti at a wedding. I wanted to know something about the CEO of Sodexo before I actually met her face-to-face.

The only titbit I’d heard prior to our meeting was a comment from Gail Collins, Sodexo’s senior press & PR manager: “Everybody knows when Debbie’s in the office because her laughter rings through the corridors,” said Collins. “We hear her before we see her.” So far, so good.

By the end of our interview, I’ve found out she grew up in Papua New Guinea, and has two Rhodesian ridgebacks and a cavadoodle (the small dog runs the show) in Langley, Chesire, where she lives. Forrest Gump is her favourite movie, the Florida Keys is her holiday destination of choice, and she loves Manchester United, the Scottish rugby team and sushi.

She’s also just finished reading Americanah, a novel by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; it’s the story of a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the US for a university education and stays for work.

What could Google add to that pen picture? Sorry to disappoint the gossip-hungry among us: White is – on paper – as straight as they come. During a solid career in finance, business improvement and management, she’s crafted an impressive reputation as a consistent performer. She’s undisputedly a steady hand on the tiller.

But don’t mistake safe and steady for colourless.

I ask White about her management style. She smiles, and glances sideways at Phil Hooper, her corporate affairs director, who is also in on the interview. Hooper – Mr Personable in an industry full of personable people – grins. “Phil’s probably better at describing my management style.”

Hooper, right hand on chin, stares thoughtfully into the distance. “Debbie is collaborative, certainly with the management team. She encourages people to have their say, then we collectively make a decision. It’s an open style but nobody’s in any doubt about where we’re trying to go. I think it’s important that that clear direction comes from Debbie.”

Hooper is being sincere, but perhaps too polite. White cuts in to balance the books: “But I have an edge.”

“You’d have to, to get to where you are,” I say.

“I’m fair. I like to push boundaries, which isn't necessarily part of my management style, but I do think it’s part of how I should lead the business. Part of my role is to push boundaries for the organisation. Take our Public Service Pledge – an ethical manifesto for our contracts, for our wider conduct. It was regarded as edgy, that we were putting out some fairly measurable commitments as it relates to service delivery to government. I have this continuous improvement philosophy, which is part of my style. I’m relentless in that respect.”

If you standstill, you go backwards, White says. “And having had the UK business stagnate for more than ten years, I don’t want us to get back into that modus operandi. We thought it was okay for us to just continue doing what we were doing. But it isn’t. The world’s not like that.”

When White was headhunted for the post of CFO at Sodexo in 2004, she’d just had her third child.

“I remember getting the phone call from the head-hunter,” White says. “I was filled in as to what Sodexo does and went for the interview with group CEO Michel Landel. He completely won me over. He so convinced me about the values of the organisation, that I accepted the job, and started straight after maternity leave.”

Soon after assuming control of Sodexo UK & Ireland, she engineered more change than the company was perhaps used to. I wonder how far she had to go to steer this cruise liner of an outsourcer into profitable waters. “I have a reputation for shaking things up,” she says, stealing another glance at Hooper, who is still looking straight ahead, smiling. Reminiscing?

“You look like you're in a reverie,” I say to Hooper.

“Oh, I’m very much here,” he retorts. Laughter rings around the room.

“In three-and-a-half years, I changed 25% of the board, and that’s not a lot,” White says.

More laughter, but now I’m seeing blood on the boardroom walls. Alas, the reality wasn’t quite that exciting. One board member retired, another resigned and a third took up another job in Sodexo, making up the 25%. White replaced them with two external appointments and an internal one.

“The whole thing about talent is that you’ve got to refresh it. That doesn’t mean just changing personnel – it means working out what it is that that person is able to do differently. Part of my ethos is, if I need to change someone, I’ll change them. I’m a massive believer in the fact that everybody can bring something to the table – you’ve just got to unlock their potential. That’s my job in a nutshell: ‘How do I unlock the capability of Sodexo?’”

Born in Stockport, White lives in Langley in Chesire, the ideal antidote to London’s fast-paced buzz. Although I doubt her mind is far off work at any point, she says she does remove herself from work pressures by spending time with her three children, reading, walking, cycling and ‘chilling’. And, she adds, ‘I don’t watch telly’.

Now there’s something Google wasn’t able to reveal.

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