SUSAN Nicol likes a challenge. She faces it every day in her job, as boss of one of Glasgow’s busiest shopping malls. She has experience in her personal life too, left to bring up two young children after the death of her husband. But she believes she is no different to any other woman in the city, juggling work, family and everything life throws at her. “You just get on with it, don’t you?” she says. “We’re all the same.”
Susan is manager of St Enoch Centre, once again the lead sponsor of Evening Times Scotswoman of the Year, which celebrates the achievements of women everywhere. This year’s dinner will mark the 50th anniversary of the prestigious event, and the search has begun for a worthy successor to last year’s winner, consultant obstetrician Dr Mary Hepburn.
Susan has been on the judging panel for several years and is delighted to be back. “SWOTY, as everyone calls it, is truly lovely,” she smiles. “And after 50 years, it is probably the UK’s longest-running competition dedicated to celebrating women. That is an impressive achievement.”
Susan became the first female shopping centre manager in Scotland when she took up the position at St Enoch seven years ago. Brought in to see the multi-million pound redevelopment of what had become, in her words, “a sad old lady”, she has since become one of the city’s most respected business leaders. She is also manager of two shopping centres in Spain, following a promotion by St Enoch Centre owners Ivanhoe Cambridge.
“I go out to Spain once a month and the rest of the time I manage by email and video conferencing,” she explains, over a chat and coffee in her bright office in Glasgow. “It’s fine – I like being busy.”
Susan grew up in Shotts and got married at 19. “I know, that’s the sort of thing I’d have gone mad about if either of my children had done it,” she grimaces. “Nineteen seems very young now. I left school and worked to save up money to get married. And after I got married, I worked hard to educate myself.” Early jobs included making mince pies in the Bells factory in Shotts, selling combine harvesters outside Edinburgh and a short spell as a trainee accountant. “I didn’t love it,” she says, with a smile. “And then I fell into shopping centres. I started in admin and worked my way up.”
Before coming to St Enoch, Susan oversaw major revamps and openings of centres in Newcastle and Edinburgh. “I spent months in wellies and hard hats – the glamour…” she jokes. “I suppose what that early experience of work and saving up to get married taught me was that I could turn my hand to anything.” After the death of her first husband, when she was just 36, Susan was determined to bring up her two sons on her own.
“I wanted to solidify the family I had,” she says, slowly. “That’s how I saw it. I needed to do it.” Now her sons are 23 and 19, both studying in America and five years ago, Susan remarried. “I don’t see myself as being a particularly strong woman, although we have lots of strong women in our family,” she says. “My auntie Sadie, for example, is incredible. She is in her 70s now, but at the age of 17, she went to work as a nanny in America for three years. That just wasn’t done in the 1950s, especially growing up in a mining community where men made the decisions and women stayed at home. But when her own mother told her to come back, she did, and stayed in Shotts to bring up her family.
“She has always been here for me all through my life, and still is. She travels a lot, and is very glamorous and her motto is ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Susan pauses, then adds with a grin: “I try to live up to that but I don’t always manage it…”
Susan’s auntie Sadie is one of many women she finds inspiring. “I think Eilish Angiolini is a wonderful role model – someone who comes from humble beginnings, who goes on to achieve great things, and yet when you meet her, is completely down to earth and ordinary,” says Susan, of Scotland’s first female Solicitor General and Lord Advocate.
“JK Rowling is inspiring too – when she was writing the Harry Potter books she was a single parent, again coming from humble beginnings, and now she uses her incredible wealth for humanitarian causes, giving so much away to charity. She is also proof that if you have a dream, it’s worth going for it.”
Susan says she is also inspired by women from the worlds of fashion and sport. “I loved Estee Lauder – she always said ‘there is no such thing as an ugly woman, only those who don’t believe they are attractive,” she adds. “I think swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who inspired so many people with her extraordinary achievements at the London Paralympics in the summer, is a fantastic role model for young women. She has an enormous personality, and has worked hard to get to where she is.”
Susan is looking forward to reading the stories of the 2012 Scotswoman of the Year nominees. “I think this year will be very special, as it is the 50th anniversary,” she says. “The beauty of it is that it includes so many different women, from all walks of life, all doing wonderful, deserving things. She smiles: “Of course, that is what makes it very difficult to judge. It is so hard to choose a winner.”