Janis Kong Interview

Helen Liddell, Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke, was British High Commissioner to Australia and also served as Cabinet Minister as Secretary of State for Scotland. Helen has been a fan of Winser London since the brand was launched and will contribute to our Style Agenda throughout the year – when her busy schedule permits!

Helen recently interviewed leading Scotswoman Janis Kong OBE, who received her OBE in 2002 for services to transport and to regional development in south-east England. Her career began at BAA Limited and has seen her serving roles including Executive Chairman of Heathrow Airport, Chairman of Heathrow Express, Managing Director at Gatwick Airport and her current post as Chairman of Bristol Airport. Janis has held many non-executive director posts including Network Rail, Kingfisher, Portmeirion Group, TUI Travel, Visit Britain and Copenhagen Airports. She has a daughter, Susie, and lives in Walton on Thames.

Janis, you run some of the world's busiest and most important airports, in charge of tens of thousands of staff and the safety of millions every year. What took you into the industry and did it feel like an uphill struggle at the time?

Well, at the grand old age of 22, I had already married, graduated from Edinburgh University and had a baby. Susie was one year old so it was time to work! I had a passion for aviation (I had read Airport by Arthur Hailey, of course) and I also had a passion for computers. Edinburgh Airport offered me a job half an hour before a big computer company, so that's where I started. I often wonder what if the computer company had called first!

It was exciting, but not easy. I was a young girl, in Scotland, in the British Airports Authority run by (male) engineers and flyers, some a bit old-fashioned. There was plenty of exciting work to do so I went at it with a passion. I gave myself licence to do whatever I felt needed to be done.  I was always prepared to say "it is just a trial" if anybody questioned my actions - but nobody ever did.

I have always said that every job I have ever done was the best job. Then the next one was even better! Heathrow and Gatwick Airports are very exciting places. But I now find that Copenhagen and Bristol are splendid airports and great fun.

What was the hardest challenge? And how did you fit in having a husband and family with a serious business career?

The hardest challenge has always been time. It requires super-organisation and of course a very understanding family. You just have to be really focussed, very hard working and have a lot of domestic help. You can always make time to do the things you want to do, though.

I bunch activities into buckets:

WORKING: for taking my brain out for a walk, for feeling that I am making a difference and for meeting people I enjoy and respect.

PERSONAL REGENERATION: by family, dogs, cooking, making cakes with my grandchildren, killer Sudoku, doing my nails, reading, knitting and friends.

FITNESS: 2/3 times a week - no shirking.  This is really important.
It was Jane Fonda, then aerobics, step classes, Bodypump and now Pilates and walking on the beach.

SHEER PLEASURE: in travelling with my husband and friends, dinners, nice wine, music, sunshine, Giorgio Armani and fast cars.

The trick is to do it all!

You have a daughter who also went into the same business, how did you feel about that?

Yes, it was funny when Susie joined Air France and then British Airways - my major customers! There are significant moments you remember as your child grows up. First day born, first day in a dress with a little bottom without a nappy, first day at school with new uniform, first day at ‘big’ school, leaving home for Uni - and coming home one day with an ID card for Heathrow Airport. A grown-up badge of office in my business world!

The travel industry, especially anything to do with aviation, seems incredibly glamorous, and you are always beautifully dressed and impeccably groomed, how important is that image to succeed as you did in what can be quite a macho environment?

Thank you. Yes bits of aviation can be glamorous, but I was just a lady in a man's world.  I couldn't be the same, so I decided to be different - very different. I have always felt that elegant high heels give you authority. It may just be in the feelings of the wearer but that is important anyway. Feeling well-dressed and well-groomed simply gives you confidence.

Now you advise and help run lots of different businesses, do women really have it any easier now at the top levels of industry? Do you think quotas would help women crash the glass ceiling into Executive positions in the Board Room?

Do women have it easier now? Well, we have a bit of a tail wind for a change. All things being equal, the woman will get the job at the moment whereas it has always been the opposite in my experience. I am not a fan of quotas. We need to scrutinise the executive succession pipelines for good people and help them.

What advice do you give to career women about how they should look and the importance of looking the part when you want to command respect?

My advice on clothes to career women is to get the look that makes you feel most confident. Confidence shines out. I enjoy nice things so I wear my best clothes to work. We spend a lot of time there. It is important to enjoy it.

You love clothes and you are a huge fan of Winser London. What makes the designs work for you? What is your personal style?

I just love Winser London’s soft cashmeres, light silks and the stretchy Miracle dresses.

My latest joy is the double-breasted Milano jacket and pencil skirt in Nude. Cosy and soft, but eye-catching.  The Miracle dresses are wonderful. Great for the Board with a scarf and then dinner with jewellery. Good length with proper sleeves and timeless styles. Great colours too.

I have always enjoyed the Winser colours. I have the typical ‘peely wally’ Scottish complexion, so love the blues and pinks. The red is good too though. The pale grey is of course the prize.  I still wear all my Year One Winser London pastel pinks and blue cashmeres and silks.

Winser London silk blouses wash beautifully. I am very lazy and I used to put all my lovely white blouses into the local laundry but they were so harsh with them that I now use the hand wash cool cycle on the machine for all my silks and give them to the laundry people for ironing. How lazy is that?! It does mean, however, that all my beautiful things are hanging nicely in the wardrobe rather than sleeping in the laundry basket!

Winser London pieces are so useful for travelling I roll them up in a soft bag. Layers are great for travelling and changing temperatures.

And of course, I have to have duplicates for the flat in Chelsea.

What is your favourite Winser London creation?

If I had to pick one favourite creation, it would have to be the Audrey cashmere jumper. But it could be the Miracle dress. No, probably the V neck silk top. Oh, I can't choose!