PROFILE: Nicole Lander, Woolworths - Year-round challenge for Lander at Woolies - Woolworths is a tough PR task for its ambitious corporate affairs boss

Woolworths corporate affairs head Nicole Lander says she is a true believer in practising what you preach. While most brand evangelists claim to eat, think and breathe the brand they represent, Lander seems more committed than most. Asked when was the last time she shopped at Woolworths, she doesn't miss a beat: 'Yesterday I bought a CD - I shop there all the time.'

Woolworths is now a national institution, having been a regular on the high street for 93 years. But not all consumers share Lander's enthusiasm for the brand. While we all know our local Woolies is just around the corner, supermarkets have been increasingly encroaching on its space and it is no longer the automatic cheap'n'cheerful choice for shoppers.

This is where Lander's challenge lies. Not only has Woolworths had a tumultuous start to life as a publicly-listed company after its demerger from the Kingfisher Group last year, but it is also suffering from a consumer misunderstanding about what it has to offer.

'People remember Woolworths at Christmas and 50 to 60 per cent of our footfall is during that period,' says Lander. 'One of the major challenges we face from a PR perspective is making people understand what's in there the rest of the year.'

Remarks last month from Bhs owner and retail entrepreneur Philip Green, who described Woolworths merchandise in Ratner-esque terms when his plans to merge Bhs and Woolies collapsed, have not helped.

Lander admits she has faced a few late nights and '14-hour days' since the group floated last August - it demerged with £200m of debt, £100m of excess stock and persistent reports of a row over the role of non-executive chairman and former Railtrack CEO Gerald Corbett.

The pace isn't set to abate in light of Green's outburst and speculation of merger talks with fellow retailer Peacock.

Lander is, however, a self-confessed workaholic, and judging by her frequent use of words such as 'dynamic', 'high-energy' and 'driven', is naturally attracted to such high-maintenance PR positions.

Selfridges finance director Peter Williams, who, like Lander, is a committee member of retail networking association The 20 Club, says Lander is 'very positive and feisty - if that's the right word'.

Having gone through a similar demerger from former Selfridges parent Sears and a fraught IPO, Williams can relate to Lander's challenge: 'She's got her work cut out, but she's resilient and I'm sure she'll steer them through it.'

Lander joined Woolworths from Tesco's PR department at the beginning of 2001 with a start-from-scratch mentality. She says she gave the department a 'clean sweep' - three months after she joined, just one original PR team member remained in place.

She also reviewed the group's then retained consumer agency, Weber Shandwick, bringing in Joe Public Relations instead. Such moves are wholly in character for Lander. One fellow PRO says: 'She's tough and takes difficult decisions.

She's great fun, but there's a serious, harder edge to her and that's what people want - top management listen and take notice of her.'

Lander loves calling the shots and admits her desire for leadership was partly responsible for luring her away from the post of international corporate affairs manager at Tesco - that, plus a love of cars and the offer of a company sports car, she jokes. 'I wanted to be in charge - that wasn't going to happen at Tesco,' she says.

Lander spent six years at Tesco, firstly as corporate affairs manager, which initially involved setting up the property PR division and lobbying for planning consent for stores across the UK. The role evolved into an international one, with Lander jetting off across central and eastern Europe to take the brand into new territories.

Her Tesco career was marred only by a minor blip, when Lander accepted an offer to join Asda as head of PR. Her stay at the rival chain was short - a matter of weeks - and involved what she found an unenjoyable relocation to Leeds. Her departure was sudden and is still protected by a confidentiality deal, but Tesco took her back.

Prior to Tesco, Lander ran her own firm, lobbying on behalf of the Shopping Hours Reform Council and National Association of Shop Workers to allow Sunday trading, a remit she describes as 'bizarre' because the success of the campaign would necessarily end her role in it.

It could be said Lander was destined for PR, combining the communication skills of inherited from her father, who was a salesman, and her mother, a West End actress.

She is also highly ambitious. Lander has plenty on her plate for the foreseeable future, shaping up Woolworths for both consumer and City audiences. But one senses that once back on track, Woolworths may have a task in remaining enough of a challenge for her.

HIGHLIGHTS
1989: Founder, Nicole Lander PR
1994: Corporate affairs manager, Tesco
2000: International corporate affairs manager, Tesco
2001: Corporate affairs head, Woolworths

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