Profile: Nicola Davidson, vice-president of corporate comms, ArcelorMittal

The vice-president of corporate comms at the world's largest steel producer is not one to buckle under pressure, finds Alec Mattinson.

Nicola Davidson
Nicola Davidson

Upon fist meeting Nicola Davidson you would be forgiven for assuming she is the archetypical corporate PR. Extremely intelligent, articulate and professional, it is easy to understand how she has achieved such seniority in a relatively short time.

Not content with handing the personal profile of Europe's richest man - Lakshmi Mittal was last month ranked top of The Sunday Times' rich list for the sixth year in a row - at just 35 years of age, Davidson oversees all comms for the behemoth that is ArcelorMittal. It is not only the world's largest steel firm, operating in 60 countries with 285,000 emoloyees, but also one of the top 30 firms worldwide, according to the Fortune 500.

But there is an unconventional streak to ArcelorMittal's vice-president of corporate communications, not least in her shunning of a trusty industry staple - the PR lunch. 'I never go out to lunch,' she reveals. 'They are not a complete waste of time, but I avoid them wherever possible.'

A classically trained pianist and daughter of a professional singer, Davidson studied music at Durham University. But her first job with an artists management firm left her underwhelmed and triggered a jump to financial PR and atalent for and fascination with business.

This ability to embrace change when change is needed - she once spent just six weeks at City firm FD because it was not a good 'culture fit' - has served her well at ArcelorMittal. She joined a comms team of just two, but the scope, size and range of both the business and her role has changed dramatically during her seven-year career with the firm. She now oversees external and internal comms and branding across the entire firm, leading a 20-strong team in London and Luxembourg.

'She is at ease with herself in a very demanding job,' says Angus Maitland, who has worked with Davidson and ArcelorMittal as chairman of Maitland. 'She's a clever lady with a big personality who has, over the past few years, developed a huge amount of experience in big corporate issues.'

Davidson is well-spoken, glamorous and a smooth communicator, but it is her entrepreneurial thirst to be at the centre of the big decisions that is most striking.

'I've grown with the business,' she says. 'It's never boring and it certainly doesn't feel like seven years. We are run by very entrepreneurial people who do not sit still, so the company does not sit still.'

Her admiration for the Mittals, father, chairman and CEO Lakshmi, and son and CFO Aditya, is clear. 'Their work ethic is quite extraordinary,' she says. 'You can't help but learn from being around very successful people.'

Davidson handles personal PR for the pair and has seen UK media interest in them jump as ArcelorMittal expanded and after Lakshmi invested in Queen's Park Rangers football club in late 2007. She has a close working relationship with the Mittals and, reporting to Aditya, is deeply involved in the business at a strategic level. She writes speeches for executives and sits on its corporate responsibility and environmental committees. 'Communications is increasingly accepted as a critical part of running a business and its vital for in-house communicators to have a deep interest in that business,' Davidson says.

Rarely has comms been more at the forefront for the business than during the aftermath of the financial crisis. Demand for products plunged 50 per cent and the firm was forced to make 10 per cent pay-cuts across the board, and headcount cuts.

'We found we needed to put a huge emphasis on internal comms,' she explains. 'Morale and motivation are absolutely key to the bottom line.' Under her watch, the company instigated more interaction between employees and management.

Peter Marsh, manufacturing editor at the FT, describes her as 'very professional, very straight and very good at organising'. Davidson herself echoes this view, seeing her key skill as the ability to 'analyse and see clearly through a great deal of information and distil it into a message.'

Nowhere was this skill more needed than when she headed comms for the bitter and protracted process that saw then Mittal Steel buy Arcelor in 2006. Described by Maitland as 'probably the biggest and most hostile takeover fought in Europe', Davidson says: 'It became the purpose of my life for six months - we worked seven days a week, but it was the most challenging and rewarding time of my career.'

It would be no surprise to see her becoming increasingly involved in the board-level machinations of international industry. She has already taken on a board role at fashion brand Escada, the firm recently bought by Megha Mittal, Aditya's wife, and you sense it will not be her last.

 

NICOLA DAVIDSON'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

Joining ArcelorMittal, then known as LNM Holdings, when I was 28 to head comms. Also working for Peter Hambro Mining while at Merlin and meeting Jay Hambro, now chief investment officer of Petropavlovsk, who introduced Merlin and myself to Lakshmi and Aditya Mittal.

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

It's a cliche, but work hard and be professional. I believe it's important if you don't like somewhere, don't stay. I left my first job very quickly because I knew it was not right for me. You need to be happy where you work or you will not perform to your best.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

My mother has always been a great inspiration and it never occurred to me as a woman not to build a career. Reg Valin of Valin Pollen has been a great mentor, as well as Angus Maitland, chairman of Maitland.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

People who are interested in and want to understand business, not coming in with the attitude that they work in PR. We are a small team, so hard work and enthusiasm is vital.

 

CV

2003: Vice-president of corporate comms, ArcelorMittal

2000: Associate director, Merlin PR

2000: Consultant, FD

1997: Account executive, Binns & Co

1996: PA to joint MD, Harrison Parrott

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