8 Gail Rebuck remembers the day she became CEO of Random House UK
There were murmurs and uncertainties going on, and at Frankfurt that year, the American CEO took me aside and said ‘Look, Gail, there’s going to be a change in the UK and we’d like you to take over.’ I found that profoundly shocking, partly because the person who was clearly going to leave was someone I’d worked with for, since 1981 a long time and someone I admired. So I said that I needed to think about it and he said, ‘Well, you haven’t got long. You’ve got five days’, or whatever it was. So I went back, and I spoke to my husband about it and he said, ‘Well, of course you’ve got to say yes’. So I said yes. And …
What might have made you say no?
I had two young children. It was a big job. I knew that there was a huge amount to do and I didn’t know how to do it. I mean I hadn’t done it before, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was very flattered that people had the confidence in me and that my – I think as someone said to me ‘Gail, your record was unsullied’. There were loads of other people who might have been more qualified, but I got on with my own job, kept my head down and hadn’t upset anybody therefore I was considered the best person for it. Not a great recommendation, but nonetheless… So in any case, I did it. And it all took place the day after Ben Okri won the Booker Prize, and he was published by the Group, and I remember the American boss calling a board meeting and everybody going up to the board meeting, my peer group, and him saying, ‘I have an announcement to make, there is a change of management and Gail is taking over, and Gail would now like to say a few words.’
Of course, I hadn’t prepared any words at all, so I stumbled through a few words. Everyone looked completely shocked, totally horrified and then we all went back to our offices. Mine was on the ground floor. And then the American CEO walked into my office and out of his suit pocket he took this crumpled piece of paper and he handed it to me and he said ‘Here’s the beginnings of a press release. Good luck!’ and then he said, ‘I’ve got to catch the next flight back to New York’, and so I said ‘Oh, OK, bye bye’ and I was looking at the paper, it was literally a paragraph, and I thought Oh dear, I’ve got job number one – write a press release.
If it wasn’t so terrifying it would have been funny at the time.