Super Mummy – we pick on them for all the wrong reasons

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July 11, 2004

She’s not having it all any more

In her first interview since her husband left and her City career stalled, Nicola Horlick tells Margarette Driscoll where it all went wrong

Not so long ago, all that Nicola Horlick touched turned to gold. She was Superwoman, the City high-flyer who combined six children and a career managing more than £5 billion of pension fund investments with apparent ease. Life seemed to have handed her its greatest gifts; brains, beauty, a loving family and money — tons of it.

Her spirited battle to keep her job after she was suspended by Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in 1997 and accused of conspiring to take her team to a rival company — when she famously stormed the company’s headquarters with a gang of reporters in tow — made her a standard bearer for working women everywhere. Ambitious sixth-formers started dreaming of “being like Nicola Horlick”.

When she became chief executive of SG Asset Management, the smiling face of Horlick appeared on the advertisements as the firm’s main selling point.

Of course, it was never that simple: although she admitted to knitting, staying up late at night to make the children’s birthday cakes and ticking Christmas presents for 70 children off a master checklist in October (to avoid giving the same present twice), Horlick, 43, always slightly balked at the Superwoman tag.

She, of all people, knew you could not “have it all”. Her first-born daughter, Georgina, was diagnosed with leukaemia when she was two and much of Horlick’s working life was underpinned by the battle to save her after she relapsed.

Georgie was 12 when she died in November 1998 and the loss seems to have triggered a series of untoward events in Horlick’s life. Last year she took a job with the Australian conglomerate AMP without telling her bosses at SG who were, not surprisingly, furious. She was put on gardening leave.

The AMP move was trumpeted as a “plum job”, but shortly after the Horlicks had hosted a lavish farewell party for 330 friends at the Victoria & Albert museum in December they decided they were not moving to Sydney after all. Now she and Tim, her husband of 20 years, are getting divorced. Has Superwoman lost her touch? “Everyone has their ups and downs,” she says, with understatement. “All the upheaval must have made me look unreliable — I took all the children out of school and then had to put them back again. But now people will know there was something behind it.”

That “something” was a steadily deteriorating relationship with Tim, whom she met when they were both students at Oxford. They married young: Horlick was 23 and had her first baby two years later. Nearly 20 years on she is facing life as a single mother (to Alice, 15, Serena, 13, Rupert, 10, Antonia, 8, and Benjamin, 4).

“It’s really scary,” says Horlick. “I didn’t get divorced as quickly as I might have done because I was terrified of being alone for the rest of my life.”

To those who have followed her meteoric rise — and stumble — it is surprising to hear her admit to being scared of anything. Indeed, I am reminded of her formidable side when she breaks a sentence to bark “Out!” at Benjamin (who was born the year after Georgie died) as he peeps round the door into the drawing room.

But the divorce and the prospect of launching yet another new business — she is working from the family home in South Kensington, setting up a new investment firm — seem to have rippled her usually indomitable confidence.

She looks fantastic — slender and younger than she used to — but she is dressed in an elaborate, expensively frilled and beaded suit — the sort of thing you would wear to a wedding. It’s as if she has had to take a deep breath and put on her best togs to face the world.

Things started to go really wrong 2½ years ago. Tim had always worked long City-style hours (16-hour days were the norm and he could be away on business for three weeks at a time) and while Georgie was ill Horlick stayed with her in hospital, sometimes for weeks. After she died they must both have been emotionally exhausted. But Horlick is reluctant to blame the strain caused by Georgie’s leukaemia for the split.

“It had a huge impact on our lives but it’s too easy to quote statistics saying 80% of marriages break down after a child dies,” says Horlick. “In fact, I think it might have kept the marriage together because we had a common purpose. Maybe we shouldn’t have been together in the first place, though I don’t want to say that because we’ve had six children and they’re wonderful and there were many years when we were perfectly happy.”

But gradually they stopped talking. Last year they went to marriage guidance and tried a psychologist and a psychoanalyst. “We did everything we could. It’s your duty as the parents of five children to do everything you can to hold it together. But there came a point when I realised I was so unhappy that I wasn’t doing the children any favours by being unhappy.

“It wasn’t as if we were bickering. It was just a case of not loving each other any more. It’s very sad and regrettable but I’ve reached a point where it doesn’t upset me any more. The children know we both love them and we just have to get on with it.”

She is adamant that it was not the fact that she worked that ruined the marriage — fund management is the genteel end of finance — although she admits that the number of charities and committees she served on did impose a strain, as did her notoriety. Tim, who runs his investment company, clearly did not enjoy being “Mr Nicola Horlick”.

“Maybe the answer is you can’t necessarily have a happy marriage if you end up being a very high-powered woman,” she says. “It may well be that men find it difficult living with a woman who’s forging ahead and asserting her position. I don’t know. But would I have wanted to sit around at home just doing the school run? I don’t think I could take that.”

Last summer, as she and Tim grew more distant, she came up with the idea of moving to Australia: “I needed to do something dramatic that would either restart the marriage or make clear that it was dead.”

She flew to Australia, spoke to a headhunter and three hours later was meeting AMP and being offered a job that she accepted. Tim was keen on the idea. But no sooner was she back in Britain than The Sunday Times got wind of the story. Horlick tried to deny it — no contract had been signed — but the paper was sure of its source and the story appeared.

Horlick’s plans were public, forcing her hand. She made three trips to Sydney, found schools for all the children and told everyone how much she was looking forward to moving. The idea was that Tim would “commute”, spending two out of every eight weeks in Sydney while continuing to run his business here. If people thought it odd — well, it was the super high-powered Horlicks, wasn’t it? But as the leaving party approached, Horlick realised that the plan was not going to work: “The marriage was not stable enough for us to move.” She spent the day of the party moving Tim’s stuff from the house into a nearby flat. Then she had to put on an evening frock and face her 330 guests, pretending nothing was wrong.

“I had to go to the party and smile. It was a bit traumatic,” she says, ruefully. “It was too late to do anything — you can’t really cancel something like that — so we went ahead.”

It is odd hearing her relate this drama in her cool, matter-of-fact way. Horlick is able to hide emotion — and she must feel some, surely — like nobody else I have met. At one point she says the split no longer upsets her “although I have been very upset, obviously” — as though she feels that I need persuading.

Friends who were there on the night acknowledge Horlick’s talent for hiding the way she feels: “Most people have said we were brilliant actors. One or two said ‘Oh, I could tell’, but I’m not sure I believe that.

“Most people have been extremely surprised because Tim and I never argued. We’ve always been each other’s best friends, so there was never any nastiness. It’s a shock and I can’t explain to people why it didn’t work.”

Although Tim moved out last December, she could not admit it for ages: “I’m usually outgoing and gregarious but I suddenly got terribly . . . shy, almost, when I went to a party. People would say ‘Where’s Tim tonight?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, he’s doing something else tonight’, or whatever, and then I’d get a bit morose and not be able to say anything. It was all a bit grim.”

Things have been improved by the arrival of a new man in her life, a property developer she met while seeking funds for one of her charities. It’s all very new. “It’s scary,” she says. “But one thing led to another and it’s good to know that people don’t think I’m past it and aren’t scared of the fact that I have five children.”

The details of the divorce are still being worked out. “Financial independence is something I’m pleased to have,” she says. “I wouldn’t like to be in the position some of my friends are in because, when it comes down to it, there isn’t as much money as they thought there had been and they’ve been out of the workplace for a long time.

“I am fortunate. I can earn a lot of money. The idea of having to live on some sort of allowance provided by my husband does not appeal. I feel that women have really benefited from the opportunity to go out and earn their own living. All these surveys that say they’d rather be housewives: frankly, I think that’s nonsense.”

That’s more like it: the voice of the old Horlick. Divorce may have dented her faith in marriage but it certainly won’t dent her belief in working motherdom.

Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.

3 SWORDS for Nicola Horlicks. It’s good to hear some reality about being a successful business woman.


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