From stage to small screen

Fru Hazlitt, MD, Yahoo! UK & Ireland - From aspiring actress to boss of one of the UK’s biggest online outfits during the boom and bust, you cannot accuse Fru Hazlitt of avoiding the limelight. Deborah Bonello meets her

Fru Hazlitt laughs in the face of adversity.

Here she is, the managing director of Yahoo! UK & Ireland, at 10am on a Thursday morning looking – if you’ll forgive the cliché – like she’s just stepped out of a salon, despite having been up since five for a CNN interview.

Oh, and she’s six months pregnant… with twins.

Yahoo! rode the dotcom bloodbath like the bucking bronco that it was and has not only lived to tell the tale, but is now going from strength to strength.

But such calamity and hardship are no strangers to Hazlitt in her working life and, in a funny way, have got her to where she is today.

Had it not been for what some might perceive as a stroke of bad luck, Hazlitt might have ended up on the silver screen rather than as the managing director of an internet company.

An aspiring actress, Hazlitt set up a theatre company with some associates after leaving university – which she’d agreed to attend for her father’s sake, putting her dream to be the next Grace Kelly on hold. The theatre company put on a great performance one night, but then fate took its course.

“We all went out and had done a big show in London and got completely drunk and I got the entire takings of the night’s show stolen with my handbag, so we kind of went bankrupt really,” she laughs.

It was while she was “resting” in between parts that someone suggested she monetise her theatrical nature in other ways – by going into sales.

She found herself working at Centaur on the launch of the then unknown trade magazine Design Week .

Her rise – straight from the beginning – was fairly meteoric.

“They promote you very quickly which is quite exciting and you think oh wow, look at me, I’m so important!,” she laughs.

From Centaur, she then moved into national newspapers and got a job on The Guardian .

Working on such a huge brand after the unknown trade magazine at Centaur was a huge change for her, but, crucially for Hazlitt, the job didn’t provide her with the challenge that she obviously craves.

“I went to The Guardian and I thought it was amazing because – I know I shouldn’t say this – but it was so easy!” she recalls.

“I remember they said ‘you’re going to work on Zenith’ and I said ‘alright, OK, I’m going to have to ring them all up’. And they said ‘well, no, we’ve made appointments for you to meet all the group directors’. And I was like, ‘oh, and they all want to see me?’ I just wasn’t used to it.

“After about 18 months, I thought this isn’t stretching me as much as it could and that’s when I went into radio.”

When Hazlitt joined Capital, radio really had to fight for its rights and, in many ways, was in the position that the internet finds itself now as an advertising medium.

“With radio, at that time, you had to sell the medium, you couldn’t just sell Capital. So it was amuch harder sell and therefore more me.

“And it was also more of a theatrical sell because you had to try and get people to realise the power of sound. I enjoyed that as we used to do all these presentations where we used to play bits ofmusic and ask people what it reminded them of,” she enthuses.

It was six years before the excitement even began to fade. Hazlitt had been promoted to sales director at Capital before headhunters for Yahoo! came calling to see if she was interested in the job of European sales director at the dotcom.

She’s candid about her lack of vision. “I was absolutely in the dark ages. I was like, ‘don’t be ridiculous, this is all nonsense.’ We had websites at Capital, but it was totally a sideline thing and I was absolutely not technological,” she says.

So she initially said no. But when the headhunters came calling again five months later, she changed her mind.

“I thought, in reality, in about 18 months’ time I’ll probably be bored. And I looked at what I’d done and felt I’d kind of done it,” she says.

But she admits to also being romanced by the promises Yahoo! presented, because at that time the dotcom land grab was well underway and investors were literally throwing money around.

Everyone and his dog was a multi-millionaire.

The stock price when she joined the company was $197 – two weeks before is had been $260. At its height, the stock price was a monumental $500. Within a year, it had crashed to $9.

“You couldn’t see the storm coming, money was pouring in through the windows,” she reminisces.

There is one specific event Hazlitt said signaled to her the beginning of the end of that era.

During her first year at Yahoo! she spent most of her time travelling around Europe and speaking at conferences. The day prior to speaking at one event, Yahoo! issued a profit warning and, within a day, the headlines about the company changed from good to bad.

“My personal favorite was the Daily Mirror ’s ‘Yaboo Sucks’,” she remembers.

Of course, she had to change her speech.

Then, she said, it began. And it was like dominoes as company after company succumbed to the punishing beginnings of what was eventually to become a media-wide recession.

Perversely, it was then that Hazlitt really began to enjoy herself as her love of a challenge kicked in.

“What I felt at that point was ‘oh, I can now do the job because this is what I understand. Now I can really add something’,” she says.

The internet had not died, people were using it as much as ever, but companies like Yahoo! had to take a good, long, hard, realistic look at themselves.

“So, I think all it was about was how we were going to make money from it, what’s the story, how does it work, and that was really exciting. I really enjoyed that,” says Hazlitt. At that time – from 2000 onwards – Hazlitt said the message from the US was don’t call home, we’re fighting to cope, do what you can to survive and if you’re still around in 18 months, that’s fantastic.

She didn’t like everything about those times and remembers the point at which she addressed the company saying those that wanted to stay and fight should do so, but those who wanted out should get out and stop moaning. Many did. Another harsh reality comes back to her.

“When everything crashed, what went away – and it was a hard thing to swallow I have to admit – was the point at which you decide whether you’re in or out, because I realised that I wasn’t going to make any money. That moment has gone, I’ve missed it.

And that realisation is quite a hard one,” she says.

Bear in mind that when Hazlitt joined Yahoo!, there were hundreds if not thousands of multi-millionaires walking the company corridors at that time.

Although it was set to change, that situation was astonishing and will probably never take place again in our lifetime.

Fast-forward to the present day and Hazlitt is winding down to take some time off for the birth of her twins.

Classified and subscription revenues are going to be some of the main focuses for Yahoo! in the coming year, but the dotcom’s main push will be making its content available via handheld and mobile devices.

“I do believe that the convergence there is critical. Now, none of us know exactly how it’s going to be, but I think that Yahoo!’s position is that we have to make sure that our content is available for that technology. So, at the moment, all we’re doing is ring tones and logos and all of that on phones. But we want all of our products technically available for whatever phone devices people use,” she says.

And what about her longer-term-future? As long as she’s challenged, you can expect her to remain at the helm.

“I’ve certainly not got to a stage where I feel I’ve done it – there’s a load to do and I think I would be bored in a traditional company now.

This isn’t all done. Nobody has a clue what Yahoo! is going to be like in two years time – I find that really interesting. Working for a more traditional company might be easier but it wouldn’t be the same.”

Career path

Fru Hazlitt

2003 Managing director Yahoo!

2001 Director for sales and marketing Yahoo!

2000 European sales director Yahoo!

1997 Sales director Capital Radio

1996 Head of client development Capital Radio

1994 Sales manager Capital Radio

1992 Sales executive Guardian Media Group

1990 Ad director Centaur Communications

1987 Sales executive Centaur Communications

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