Profile: Catherine May, group director, corporate affairs, Centrica

The group director of corporate affairs at Centrica represents a new generation of comms professionals, argues Alec Mattinson.

Catherine May
Catherine May

After a morning in London beset by public transport problems, Catherine May's casual observation about delays is revealing: 'It's the lack of control I find difficult,' she says.

Being in control is a quality that May, 45, simply exudes. She admits talking about herself rather than the business is disconcerting, but she remains relaxed, confident and in total command of the situation.

Even at this week's PRWeek Awards she was happy to take the lead while chairing the judging process. 'It was a huge compliment to be asked,' she says.

Control is a theme to which she returns when describing a charity expedition she took part in during September, up a 4,000m mountain in North Africa. 'You have to completely give up control and responsibility to other people, which is not something I am used to doing in a job such as mine,' she says.

Lauded by her colleagues, contemporaries and business journalists as one of the industry's very top operators, May represents a new generation of comms professionals that does not just have a voice at the top table, but actually sits at it.

She became group director of corporate affairs at Centrica more than four years ago, but also sits on the British Gas operator's executive board, with an integral role in the direction and development of the FTSE 100 firm.

'Catherine is great fun, open and extremely generous with her time,' says Alex Cole, ex-global corporate affairs director at Cadbury and now corporate head at Freuds. 'She is undoubtedly a leader in her field and exceptionally networked, but is always looking for ways to learn.'

May is open, chatty and engaging but at all times the consummate professional. She speaks fluently about the issues facing Centrica and the energy market without pausing or searching for the right phrase or statistic. That is not to say she is reeling off a well-rehearsed script, more that she displays a serene command of her subject.

'She is top banana,' says Diageo's corporate relations director Ian Wright. 'You can always rely on her for a sharp and radical injection of common sense.'

It seems strange to hear, therefore, that she fell into the profession rather than it being part of a grand plan. 'I had not even heard of PR at university,' she admits.

'I wanted to be a journalist or work in advertising.'

After a notable spell involving in-house and agency roles, including co-founding Luther Pendragon and heading international comms for TCI media group, the lure of a FTSE 100 comms head role at Reed Elsevier was too good to turn down.

Reed, not traditionally the highest profile corporate brand, suddenly found itself under the international media microscope in 2005 when some of its data on US citizens - including Hollywood stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Demi Moore - was hacked. 'An interesting time,' says May with a wry smile.

Even that could not fully prepare her for the scrutiny that Centrica comes under as one of the country's best-known brands operating in one of the most discussed sectors. 'Because of British Gas' history, there is a huge legacy around what people think of the brand,' explains May. 'When I came in, the management team put a huge emphasis on turning the brand around and making it feel younger. '

The industry has three challenges; security of supply, decarbonising and affordability. On each May passionately explains Centrica's role and plans, with a notable emphasis on the force for change she believes the firm can be. 'We serve half the homes in the UK. If we don't help people to reduce carbon emissions, then who else is going to?' she asks.

But energy firms need to deliver profit for their shareholders. In fact, so profitable has the industry proven to be in recent years, even through the recession, that coverage of its results can be quite hostile. 'The task for us is to explain all the challenges the energy sector will face over the next 15 to 20 years and help people understand that profit does not go into someone's pockets. On the whole, it is reinvested,' she says.

May has two young sons and a husband, and acknowledges that juggling home and work life is one of her toughest challenges: 'The amount of time I spend on work is enormous and it takes real self-discipline to be able to switch off and leave it behind.'

She intimates at the end of the interview that it was a pity it had to end - 'I was enjoying it.' A white lie perhaps, but it is completely believable because she excels at communication; not just on a corporate level, but on a personal level. Her career is testament to those abilities.

 

Catherine May's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Moving to my current role has been a fantastic career break. Looking back on my early life in PR, getting to lead the comms programme for the successful bid by an industrial consortium, including BAE, for something called a PCN licence, gave me my first opportunity to work closely with big businesses and see how government works close up.

I was a young account manager at the time and that consortium became the business that is now Orange.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

No one person, but I believe it is vital to observe colleagues and contacts in the profession - there are some excellent people to learn from.

- What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Do your homework. Always make sure you understand the business and its stakeholders and listen to operational and commercial bosses.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

I am impressed by people who show focus, enthusiasm and the ability to think before making a recommendation.

 

CV

2006: Group director, corporate affairs, Centrica

2001: Group director, corporate relations, Reed Elsevier Group

1998: Partner, Luther Pendragon

1997: Director of comms, TCI International

1993: Director of comms, US West International

1991: Group account director, Edelman

1989: Account director, Penn Communications

1988: Press officer, Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association

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