Linda Jackson lights up when the discussion is about cars. She talks automation, design and aerodynamics with the ease of a pro. Lift up the bonnet of a car and she can give a master class on what makes its engine work.
The 60-year-old Briton is not a mechanic. She is the global chief executive officer of French carmaker Citroen, which is an anomaly because no Briton or woman has ever led the company.
But under her leadership, Jackson is reviving Citroen’s fortunes that dipped from 2009 because of a slump in the European economy. Since taking charge in 2014, she has been able to reverse the tide and guide it on an upward trend.
In the first half of 2019, parent company Groupe PSA reported the carmaker achieved an eight-year sales record with the strongest growth – on the back of its SUV range of the C5 Aircross and C3 Aircross – among the top 12 brands in Europe.
Jackson is now criss-crossing the globe to buttress the marque’s existing markets and re-enter India after more than two decades. The brand’s first attempt to enter that huge market with joint ventures in the 1990s ended in failure after only three years.
Busting gender roles
So, just who is this superwoman? She could certainly pass off as just another ordinary Englishwoman on the street, despite her lofty position in one of France’s most storied automotive companies.
“Ten years ago if anyone found out I was in this industry, they’d think I was a mechanic,” quips Jackson. “And if I arrived for a meeting, the assumption was that I was the personal assistant of the boss, who was on the way.”
Her rise in the industry has been phenomenal. She first showed up as a teenager at British carmaker Rover more than 40 years ago, stapling invoices during vacation. Captivated by how cars were made, she decided to build a career with them, working in the finance department in 1977 and passing up the opportunity to study teaching in university.
Jackson rose steadily in the ranks, and her commitment spurred Rover to sponsor her for an executive MBA at Warwick Business School in Coventry, where night classes were conducted for the programme. She was eventually made managing director of Rover operations in France from 2000 to 2003 before her appointment as the company’s European sales finance controller.
As her star rose, Citroen decided to hire Jackson as its finance director in the United Kingdom before moving her to France four years later in the same capacity. She then returned to her homeland in 2009 to head the French carmaker’s operations in the UK and Ireland.
So when Groupe PSA wanted someone to head Citroen’s global operations in 2014, the French company saw her as the perfect candidate. Jackson, a mother of two stepchildren who are now adults and married, says her corporate journey has been about working diligently to deliver results.
Making the cut, her way
“Many people talk about whether I can cut it because I am a woman,” she tells The Peak during her stop in Singapore earlier this year. “But it is really about whether I am credible or not to do the job, manage a team and give them direction. So I don’t think it matters if a person is a man or woman.”
But Jackson says she brings an important perspective to building cars – the woman’s – because half of Citroen’s customer base is female. There are also statistics in the UK, she adds, indicating that behind 95 per cent of decisions to buy a car, women are the ones who make the call on what colour to pick.
“When I get into a car, it must of course have a good engine and gearbox, but I don’t get taken away discussing whether it’s got the right torque or not,” explains Jackson on what women usually look out for. “I don’t think most customers think about these intricate details. What I do look out for is whether the storage space is going to be easy to use. At Citroen, we are trying to move away from having hundreds of buttons and gadgets in the car and to instead have a simpler, but logical approach to these things.”
As a woman pioneer put in charge of a major carmaker, Jackson hopes others of her gender will be encouraged to go as far as she has in the industry.
“But I think it is going to take a long time for more women to step up because to get to the very top is about finding the right life balance,” she points out. “It is about whether you are willing to make sacrifices, because the higher you climb the ladder, trying to find that balance gets more difficult. If you are not willing to do so, then be happy where you are at.”