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EDITIONS
Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 08:01 GMT 09:01 UK
The making of Martha
Martha Lane Fox, group managing director of Lastminute.com

As part of a weekly series on women in business, BBC News Online talks to Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com, about working too hard, Brent Hoberman and that notorious share float.
Everyone's happy in Lastminute land.

The shares may be worth only a quarter of their original value, but they have shot up 200% this year.

Lastminute.com also looks like it will fulfil its promise of profitability by the end of 2003.

Brent Hoberman (left) and Martha Lane Fox, co-founders of Lastminute.com
Lastminute's brand has been tied to its founders
No wonder the financial community is re-kindling its passion for the company's co-founder, the wholesome Martha Lane Fox.

Irreverent photo shoots with the company's other co-founder Brent Hoberman have linked Ms Lane Fox's face inextricably with the company's brand.

Lastminute.com might tout bargain air tickets, city breaks and takeaway food for the romantically inclined, but it has also sold us the image of a very uncorporate young woman.

Indeed meeting "Martha" is more like shaking hands with a celeb than a group managing director, responsible for some 700 people.

Just a blonde?

Naturally, Ms Lane Fox is quite the dot.bombshell.

She is charming, and in common with most successful women who want to be liked, she is self-deprecating.

Workplace woes
I think the climate for women is hideous - in all the meetings I go to, I never meet women

Of her venture with Brent Hoberman, she quips:

"If I hadn't come along, he probably would have found another blonde to do it."

It is these girlish qualities that make her talk of "scaling the business" sound faintly incongruous.

She even admits to an absence of any entrepreneurial leanings before she helped found Lastminute.com in 1998.

"I tried to set up a dating service when I was 11, but really it was just to get my friends to fill in forms and find out who they fancied," she jokes.

There is hardly time in her life for boys now - she works a 12-hour day and is on call every weekend.

Corporate aspirations

But if she wasn't a go-getting 11-year old, she is making up for it at 29 with an overweening ambition to grow her company.

Lastminute deal table
June 2002: Buys online travel provider The Destination
April 2002: Buys flight distributor Travelselect.com
Oct 2000: Completes purchase of Degriftour, France's largest e-travel group
"We have to get to a billion pounds' worth of turnover as soon as possible," she says of a company that turned over 18.4m ($28.8m) in its last financial year.

"We have to be a scale business - that's when these internet businesses are exciting, when you have reached a level cost base, but you can put huge revenues through that cost base."

With three acquisitions under its belt, the company is clearly looking to expand, in European market as well as the UK.

Tough love

Her warmth and unconventionality have been Ms Lane Fox's calling card, but they also distract from her more steely characteristics.

Martha's CV
29 years old
Group MD for Lastminute
Earned 138,000 in 2001
Formerly head of network development at Carlton Digital Channels
Met Brent while working for Spectrum Strategy Consultants
Educated at Oxford University

In mid-2000, when the company turned almost overnight from a dot.com darling into a corporate pariah, she maintains she found the experience motivating.

She is also unrepentant about the infamous float of Lastminute shares, which issued at 3.80 in March 2000, climbed to 5 and then finally sank to below 20p in October 2001.

"We weren't trying to screw anyone, we were listening to advice from big, proper institutions," she says with feeling.

"We raised a huge amount of money and put our company in a defensible position."

The company is still sitting on 45m in cash and the share price has recovered to just under 1.

But will the stock ever get back up to 3.80? Don't hold your breath, says Morgan Stanley analyst Michael Steib.

Growing pains?

The real judging of Lastminute will be its progress over the next two to three years, particularly as its youthful management take on new challenges.

"Managing a business in more than one location becomes complicated," says Goldman Sachs analyst Phil Clark of the company's expansion plan.

They haven't made the classic mistake by entrepreneurs of controlling everything

Michael Steib
Morgan Stanley

Morgan Stanley's Mr Steib has more general concerns.

"If there is an economic slowdown in the UK, it will have a material impact on discretionary spending, like short holiday breaks," he says.

But, Mr Steib is not unduly anxious about Lastminute's inexperienced executives.

"[Martha and Brent] have given up responsibility in areas where they are not experienced," he says.

"They haven't made the classic mistake by entrepreneurs of controlling everything."

Contradictions

But what of Ms Lane Fox's own plans?

She denies she is a workaholic, but admits she is afraid of waking up at 35 and wondering where her life has disappeared to.

Asked what she would like to be doing in a decade, she says:

"I hope to be still connected with Lastminute and hope they won't have chucked me out kicking and screaming."

After a moment's thought, she adds, with a smile: "But the fantasy Martha will be a successful stage actress."

Anything's possible in the topsy world of dot.com ventures, but her starring role in the drama of Lastminute.com will play for a few seasons yet.

Share graph of Lastminute.com

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Martha on women
"I don't believe in this superwoman, wearing her pants over her trousers"
Martha on Lastminute.com
"Things I'm most proud of are the team we've built here and also the brand"

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