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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 April, 2005, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
People power is the key to success
Helen Alexander - Economist Group chief executive
Nothing keep Ms Alexander awake at night
Helen Alexander was named chief executive of The Economist Group in 1997, after a three-year stint as head of the company's Economist Intelligence Unit.

She joined the company in 1985 as marketing manager, and has worked her way up the jobs ladder in the company during her 20 years there.

Before joining the group she worked in sales at publisher Faber & Faber, then went onto study for her MBA in France.

What was your first car?

A Renault 4. It looked like a box but it was quite different as it didn't look like a Renault 5. Everyone had a Renault 5.

What was your first job?

In the heat wave of '76, in a florists, a cool shop - that's why I remember it, that was important. It was a posh florist Moises & Stevens on Berkeley Square and I was nearly fired for making coffee too often.

Coffee, definitely not. But I have cut down a lot. I knew I was having trouble when I got a headache and I realised it was because of caffeine withdrawal. That was in 1982, but obviously I was already addicted by then

Pretty soon after that I worked at a French delicatessen.

I also worked driving a van for a book publisher. It was a summer job while I was at university.

I knew the guy who ran the firm. It was very small and he didn't believe in sales. I just delivered books to shops and he hoped they'd sell.

What was your first house?

In London. The mortgage was huge; 25,000. Small now, but at the time that was pretty big. It was in Camden Town a long time ago.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

I don't look back at all. Sometimes I regret not having shouted about things when I knew I was right, in hindsight, but there's not much point in wasting time on that
A combination of my mother and father. One person made from the ingredients of both of them, who is imaginative, clever, businesslike, rigorous, intelligent. Sort of an amalgam of them both.

My mother was intellectual, certainly, and clever and much better at business than anyone knew.

But she wasn't businesslike like my father who worked in big organisations.

Both of them are dead now.

What's the best bit of business advice you've had?

People. People in companies, who are unattractively called "human capital". Two companies can look similar from the outside, but the ability of the teams inside to execute their jobs, that's what makes the difference.

It's not necessarily business advice, but I always remember it.: "Live near where you work." That was from my father.

Also "trust yourself", but I can't think of who put it into those words.

And the worst is probably something like "don't worry, it doesn't matter", or "let's go and have a drink and forget about it".

What's the biggest challenge facing business now?

It's got to be around a combination of making business an attractive career for people, and on the other hand about connected people understanding the way business makes the world go around.

If they don't understand that, they won't work in it.

What issue in business is grabbing your interest right now?

Russian dolls in shop
Birthday cards. Cards are important as they're from people who matter, so there's a birthday card from the team.
Otherwise, not much. There's some Russian stuff, the kind of things you pick up at the airport, as my mother was Russia.

I prefer a tidier office, because I don't believe in bringing the home into the office.
I believe you should be able to work anywhere. If you need your teddy by you to work, what are you going to do when you've not got it?

I think, actually, it would be how energy companies are going to start looking at renewable energy.

Other stories come and go, some a bit like gossip, but this story is going to stick around.

There's a number of reasons why I find the whole area of resources interesting. I studied geography at university.

And it's always going to be an environmental issue. I don't mean that I'm a "freaky green", but I'm interested in how the world works.

And I'm on the board of Centrica, therefore it's also an industry-related issue.

What can the government do to boost business?

My own view would be a strategy that is consistently funded and in which you invest more in reviewing so you didn't find so many conflicting regulations.

Nothing. I go straight to sleep. Generally I can switch off.
For example, nowadays teachers and hospitals are told one thing one day and another the next - conflicting demands in different ways.

So for every new rule , one should be taken away at least - or maybe two.

We aspire to that at The Economist - so if we ask for a new piece of information we take away two.

If it all ended tomorrow, what would you do?

Model of Nokia factory site in Beijing
I wanted to be a town planner from when I was about 12 onwards for a bit. It's a bit about my interest in town and country and architecture. I was bright in a lot of different things but didn't have a specialism. I was never strong at one thing, so trying a lot of skills was very attractive to me
I have good alternative careers. An Olympic sprinter, but I wouldn't be the best now, not that I was ever great.

Now another would be a historian of cartography, I worked that one out the other day.

And the sensible one would be to have a different business life.

It might be either at a different kind of company or a "portfolio life" - doing a number of business things rather than working with just one business.

What was the proudest moment of your career?

There are actually two.

I don't look back at all. Sometimes I regret not having shouted about things when I knew I was right, in hindsight, but there's not much point in wasting time on that
The first was getting the confirmation of drastically increasing the profits of the Economist Unit in one year.

We gave everyone champagne bottles at their desks when the accounts came through.

It was a big thing, it was absolutely what we'd worked for and we'd achieved it.

The second is The Economist reaching a million circulation and we've been celebrating that. We're still moving up now.

ABC figures for July to December confirmed the million.

The Economist Group provides analysis on international business and political affairs through a range of formats including magazines, the internet and conferences.

During 2004, profits at the group, which employs more than 950 people, rose 16% to 24m.

It's weekly publication The Economist was founded in 1843 and is now sold to more than a million people worldwide.

The Financial Times Group, a subsidiary of British media giant Pearson, owns 50% of The Economist Group.


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