Play it again, Sam 13 December 2019 Sam Harrison returns to the floor at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where his brasserie is set to be a blockbuster
In this week's issue... Play it again, Sam Sam Harrison returns to the floor at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, where his brasserie is set to be a blockbuster
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01 January 2000

Karen Forrester is not afraid of breaking new ground. In fact, she has spent her career doing little else. Currently responsible for Bass's O'Neill's chain, Forrester began her rise to the top when she got her first bar job at the age of 18. Soon after she decided to gain experience by leaving her native Glasgow to work in Jersey. Within just three years, she had become the island's youngest licensee. Then, still in her early 20s and with no formal qualifications, she landed the job of running the 36-bedroom Hotel Kalamunda.

"I worked part-time in the hotel bar and became friends with the owner," she explains. "He appointed me manager as a bit of a flyer, and his mother was initially against it. But they were hugely supportive as soon as they saw I was moving the business forward."

Returning to Scotland at 23, Forrester joined Tennents Taverns, a division of Bass, as manager of a leisure complex. Since then, she has enjoyed promotion after promotion, becoming, in 1994, Bass Leisure Retail's first woman retail director, and then last year its first female director and general manager.

In this role, Forrester has responsibility for the O'Neill's chain of 109 pubs, employing 1,800 staff. It is a brand close to her heart, as she created the first O'Neill's in Aberdeen in 1994 while working as retail business manager. "I had an under-performing town bar on my patch and saw the opportunity for turning it into an Irish pub," she says.

The pub was an overnight success and was quickly spotted as a brand that should be rolled out. But until Forrester's appointment as director last year, the brand had no overall management - 13 different regional managers were responsible for the pubs. This led to some lack of focus, which Forrester is now working hard to put right.

"My task was to set this up as a stand-alone business," she explains. "And I now have to take the brand further. My aims are to open larger outlets and establish our brand position as the best party in town."

Forrester puts her career success down to several factors. First and foremost is her passion for the pub industry. "I love this business and often feel I'm getting paid under false pretences," she says, "because I'm doing something I really enjoy."

Undoubtedly, her ambition has also played a part in her achievements. She admits to being determined to get to the top, and this led to her taking an HNC in management studies in 1992, and an MBA which she completed last year. "I've always wanted to be the leader, from when I was young," she says. "I love getting people to believe they can succeed."

Forrester admits that her route to the top has precluded marriage and children but does not see this as a sacrifice. "I spend lots of time travelling, so it's difficult to sustain relationships - work comes first with me," she says.

In the future, Forrester would like to climb higher. She intends to stay with O'Neill's into the new millennium, but expresses an interest in getting involved thereafter with Bass's hotel companies or its international expansion plans for its drinks brands. "But I can't imagine losing contact with the front line, as I love it," she says, "so I guess the role of operations director is the one to aspire to."

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