Profile: VC veteran goes medical - Liz Hewitt, director of corporate affairs, Smith & Nephew

Liz Hewitt's first experience of the media came at the tender age of 12. 3i's former director of corporate affairs was one of several children interviewed in 1969 by a Milwaukee camera crew reporting on her school in Wisconsin.

The Turner school was part of a 1960s experiment in mass education where children were taught in groups of up to a hundred. Hewitt says she was 'highly embarrassed' to be on local TV news.

But it was to be a long time before Hewitt, who is to become group corporate affairs director at FTSE 100 medical devices firm Smith & Nephew in two weeks, actually took on a full-blown comms role. She says the influence of her parents drove her interest in the mechanics of business that led to her training as an accountant with Arthur Andersen. She then worked as a venture capitalist for nine years at Gartmore Investment Management and Citicorp Venture Capital before an 18-year stint at 3i.

Hewitt's parents brought her up in Devon and West London before the family moved to the US where she spent her adolescence. Hewitt's father was a Royal Navy engineer, while her mother worked as a project manager for firms such as US dairy company Kroger and ice cream maker Haagen-Dazs, an unusually prominent role for a woman in the 1960s.

These seem to have been the building blocks on which Hewitt built her career. Her long years working in venture capital, and in particular her time at 3i, have been defined by what she describes as 'a desire to get under the skin' of organisations.

'I think this is something that comes from my father being an engineer as I remember being interested in wiring at a very early age,' she says.

'The problem is that I seem to have passed this on to my son. I once caught him trying to remove a child safety cap from a plug when he was very young.'

At 3i, Hewitt was quickly promoted to team director, running one of the company's two management buyout teams in London. She is keen to stress the communications value of her venture capital work, pointing out that the negotiations necessary between 3i and the companies it invested in demanded a certain adeptness with message delivery. In particular, she highlights her work on 3i's euro project when it was necessary to communicate to the 2,500 companies then in 3i's portfolio the fact that the new currency was a reality to which they would have to adapt their businesses. Hewitt developed little packets of euro notes and passed them around to management at the firms she visited in Europe. 'I didn't always get the 500-euro note back,' she quips.

This little aside is typical of Hewitt, who some former colleagues say cannot resist a little joke. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs MD Peter Bingle, who worked with her while at GPC International, and more recently as 3i's public affairs adviser, points to her 'mischievous sense of achievement', and describes her as a 'toughy with a very soft centre'.

The tougher edge was certainly in demand when Hewitt, a passionate clay-pigeon shooter, took over as 3i director of corporate affairs in 1999.

Patrick Dunne - who worked with Hewitt in several roles and has been 3i group director of communications since her secondment to the DTI early last year - says that in the difficult market conditions of the time, Hewitt proved 'hugely committed and had to exercise a high degree of planning and control'.

Hewitt describes her year-long secondment to the DTI and HM Treasury as director of business services as a calculated move to 'see how government works from the inside'.

Although she says she learnt a lot about how government departments can help small businesses, Hewitt is clear that she would not want to work for government again, which she considers to be slow in getting things done.

She talks passionately about working for Smith & Nephew, renowned foremost for its replacement hips, since it provides the chance to 'make a difference to people's lives'.

The expansion of Smith & Nephew's business is likely to be Hewitt's main preoccupation at the company in the coming year. It is unlikely that the former Wisconsin schoolgirl will be able to hide from the cameras.

RESUME

1983: Venture capitalist, Citicorp Venture Capital

1986: Venture capitalist, 3i

1991: Business projects team director, 3i

1999: Director of corporate affairs, 3i

2003: Director of business services, DTI/HM Treasury

2004: Director of corporate affairs, Smith & Nephew

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