I got my hammer and smashed the glass ceiling: One female CEO on her rise to the top

Jennifer Atkinson became CEO of ITC at just 34 and has turned it from a loss-making company to a multi-million pound business.

It seems appropriate to be meeting Jennifer Atkinson, CEO of luxury travel group Inspiring Travel Company (ITC), on one of the wettest days of the year. She quickly points out, though, that days like this are what keeps her business thriving. “No matter what, when it’s a cold, grey, wet morning people will always say, ‘you know what I need? A bloody holiday’.”

However, to run a successful company in a crowded market it takes more than bad weather. It actually takes “a lot of courage and hard work”, she says.

As one of a depressingly small number of female CEOs (there are more men called David running FTSE 100 firms than women), a mother of two young children, and the architect responsible for turning a loss-making company into a multi-million pound business, she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with.

In the same breath as discussing GDPR she wipes oatmeal off her blouse – remnants of her two children’s fight over breakfast — and seems kind, empathetic but ultimately professional. Her approachable no-nonsense truth-telling acknowledges the problems that businesswomen face, while paying it absolutely no mind.

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Atkinson is a marketer through and through and is adamant they make the best CEOs. Starting out in agencies, working predominately with travel companies, she moved to ITC in 2004 as head of marketing. Five years later she was made chief executive by ITC’s founder and chairman Drew Foster. However, this was far from the perfect accession and is an experience she remembers “vividly”.

“I call it the perfect storm,” she says. “It was a really horrible set of unique circumstances; the company was in crisis and the chairman was really poorly with cancer.”

I’ve never found being a woman a huge issue but if I have found any subconscious subtext going on I just break right through and be very direct.

Jennifer Atkinson, ITC

But what was a crisis Atkinson turned into an opportunity. Writing her business plan for the company on a sheet of A4 paper, she presented her battle plan to Foster. That afternoon she took over as COO and at 34 was in charge of turning around a company that had lost £1m in one year.

“I would say I took it on with a huge dollop of naivety. Now at 42, having been through some of those knocks, I can’t help but think I would be more cautious. I was a kid, like one of those puppy dogs who didn’t think or care about what people thought.”

That’s not to say it was easy. Atkinson’s plan included making a third of staff redundant — unsurprisingly a move that didn’t avail her to her new employees. “As a woman and a female leader you like people to like you, so the first year was especially hard,” she says.

It got better though. Colleagues began to respect her and after returning the Chester-based company to growth she bought out The ITC Travel Group in 2013 — straight after giving birth to her first child. “Once people could see that I was authentically trying to lead them to a better place and not doing it just so I could swing a Ferrari into the car pack or be lavish we started to do some fab stuff.”

Why marketing is a good grounding for general management

Atkinson is adamant her background in marketing was crucial to her becoming CEO. “Marketers tend to be great communicators and communication is the most important thing in leadership,” she says.

“Being a marketer means you have a creative mind and you look at problem solving in a different way – 90% of what I do on a day-to-day basis is sorting out problems or looking at opportunities and that’s essentially marketing. It’s the best grounding.“

Confidence also appears to be key to Atkinson’s success. What she is quick to call naivety others would describe as bravery. “I suppose I see my naivety and stupidity as a gift. Because when there are all these boys’ clubs or cliques or networks, I kind of ignore it and just put myself right in the heart of it,” she says.

“Sometimes [women] stand around on the sidelines waiting to be invited in but you can’t wait forever. I think balls to it, I am going to be right in the middle of it anyway. I’ve never found being a woman a huge issue but if I have found any subconscious subtext going on I just break right through and be very direct. I just go, ‘is there an issue here? No? OK great, let’s crack on’. I got my hammer and smashed that glass ceiling.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t think it’s harder for women and often refers to a confidence gap between genders. “Women just analyse everything. They have done their whole life, from how they look to what they need to do. Men just get on with it.”

Atkinson, on the other hand, says she has always been someone that gets stuck in. “I use the analogy of skydiving and skiing. I chuck myself over the cliff and the minute I am over the cliff I think, ‘shit, is my parachute engaged?’ So I throw myself in and worry about it later. Whereas women often worry so much about jumping off the cliff they never do it.”

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The importance of work/life balance

Atkinson is no more honest than when discussing balancing motherhood with being a CEO. “I find it extraordinary when I read about women who say, ‘look at me, it’s easy, you just need to lean in, push through’ or whatever their catchphrase is. I think it’s hard, really really difficult,” she says.

She explains: “Women have to be courageous enough to find some balance. Of course, people are going to say, ‘oh my god, what does that mean? You’re going part time? You don’t care?’ Rubbish. But while trying to create that balance you have to accept there’s going to be some sacrifices and sometimes you’re going to get it wrong everywhere. The best thing for that is humour. Saying, you know what, I am a slummy mummy and I haven’t been able to bake organic cakes for school but I’ll get some from Marks & Spencer and it’ll be alright.”

More women at the top will inevitably give motherhood permission and make it easier for other women in that business to do it.

Jennifer Atkinson, ITC

She discusses how sad it is that both in marketing and travel there tend to be more women than men at junior levels but that this flips the higher up the ladder you go. She says: “What saddens me is that if I look back at my own career, women tend to progress at the same rate as men until they hit their 30s and have children and then they disappear and they never quite get back to where they were because they don’t know how to get a way back in.”

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Her solution? More role models. ITC’s sales director has just returned from maternity leave, something which Atkinson is guiding her through. “I feel like Gina bloody Ford, whose written all those childcare books, guiding her on how to do it. If you’ve got a man as a boss that’s a bit harder. More women at the top will inevitably give motherhood permission and make it easier for other women in that business to do it.”

Customer experience is key

While the travel sector is dominated by digital, ITC only accepts bookings over the phone, something which Atkinson credits for its success. “We don’t want to compete with Booking.com and all those kinds of wholesalers. Our value lies in our expertise, our knowledge and our relationships, which all speak to our ability to sort things out if it goes wrong,” she says.

She is clear that ITC will never position itself on price: “I don’t want to throw it into the sphere where people only book with us because its £3 cheaper. If you’re only positioning yourself on price then you can only ever go lower.”

She explains: “The internet has changed the travel industry radically but people still want retail experiences. Why do people still go to the butchers, bakers and candle stick makers? Why do people still go to Savile Row? How we shop has changed but actually people still want a human connection.”

Atkinson might appear wary of the internet but she says it’s more about knowing her asset-rich time-poor clients who just want a personal touch. It’s clearly working given 70% of ITC’s business is repeat and the company is on track to hit £100m turnover in 2017/18.

However, she does think there are opportunities online for the company, specifically around social media. “Every single person I’ve ever met just shares shots of themselves on holiday. We need to understand how that’s going to influence consumer behaviour.”

Looking ahead, Atkinson says she has no idea how Brexit will affect the luxury travel industry but remains relatively unfazed. She concludes: “At the end of the day if you look out of your window on a wet Tuesday afternoon you’re going to go ‘sod it, I need a holiday’ and that’s how I sleep at night.”