Profile: Sally O’Neill, FD of the Historic Royal Palaces

Sally O'Neill, FD of the Historic Royal Palaces

Sally O’Neill, FD of the Historic Royal Palaces

Not many FDs can claim that their predecessor was Henry VIII.

But Sally O’Neill, the FD of the
Historic Royal Palaces,
can. Sitting in her office by the Thames in the lavish surroundings of Hampton
Court, she can say that, admittedly some centuries before her arrival and not
entirely in the same role, the Tudor king cast a watchful eye over the same

It’s not a bad place to work: gardens to left and right; paintings from the
Royal Collection on the wall; in a building partly designed by Sir Christopher

O’Neill says her job certainly has its compensations: the audit committee
meeting, for instance, is held at Buckingham Palace (Sir Alan Reid, the Queen’s
FD, is the chair). ‘We never have any trouble getting the auditors along,’
O’Neill says.

It’s the latest instalment of a career in arts administration that has taken
in the National Theatre, Channel 4 and Granada. There has been no lack of colour
in the jobs she has taken on.

‘I have never had a gameplan. It has all been serendipity,’ she says.

O’Neill left Cambridge with a Natural Sciences degree in the early 1980s,
having set her heart on a career in arts administration.

While at university she acted in student productions, playing Lucy in The
Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was staged at the Edinburgh Festival. She
plays piano to grade eight, as well as the saxophone.

To achieve her dream of working in the arts she was advised to take a
professional qualifi-cation as she would enter the business at a higher level ­
and so it has proved.

The Historic Royal Palaces is, as an organisation at least, not hugely
well-known. An independent charity, HRP runs Hampton Court, the Tower of London,
Kew Palace, Kensington Palace and Banqueting House.

The strategy for the charity going forward involves nothing too flash: it
hopes to grow its income steadily and develop the way it delivers its core
objectives. ‘We can’t grow by acquisition,’ O’Neill jokes.


The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is pleased with its progress
apparently, and with the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the
throne next year and the associated festivities, there is a lot to look forward

There is one niggle though. O’Neill’s office, in a wing at the front of the
palace just by the main gate, is too hot in the summer and too cold in the
winter. As she says: ‘You can’t just double glaze everywhere’.

The greatest risk that the charity is exposed to is the vagaries of tourism.
After the 7 July bombings, tourism dropped off, which coming in the middle of
the summer, was extremely damaging, O’Neill says, as some 80% of those who visit
the Tower of London are tourists.

‘A lot of that business came back ­ but the Americans never really came back
in the same numbers after 9/11,’ she says.

They are now deterred by a weak dollar, and the currency fluctuations are
seeing further changes in HRP’s custom.

But, as O’Neill points out: ‘We get different people: French, Spanish,

That raises different questions: ‘Do they expect different levels of hygiene?
Do we need different guidebooks?’

Another question, of course, is whether the new tourists can ever really
replace the Americans’ fascination with the English royals?

‘Clearly the Americans are besotted with it. What we are seeing are Russians
really interested in the iconic religious and royal symbolism, and the Japanese

‘The Chinese, too, haven’t had that in their recent history, and we hope they
will be coming in bigger numbers,’ she explains.


One person who clearly is still enamoured of the surroundings is O’Neill.

After four years in any one job, she always gets ‘itchy feet,’ but having
been at HRP since 2004, she says that she hasn’t dusted her CV off for a while.

There is a cyclical nature to many finance jobs, doing the same annual report
year after year. So, ‘unless the organisation is incredibly dynamic and
changing’ it can get dull, she thinks, so it’s a tribute to her current role
that she is still around.

It hasn’t all been smooth running though. ‘[The challenge] in the first six
months was the balance between managing up, down and sideways; getting to grips
with charity legislation, gaining the confidence of directors and trustees and
so on: the balance of where I spent my time.’

Finance ladder

O’Neill started her career at Spicer & Pegler in Cambridge, auditing SMEs
in the local area. However, ‘auditing was never going to be for me,’ she

She took an Arts Council bursary offering experience for qualified
accountants in arts organisations, before taking a job as a finance officer for
the British Film Institute.

While working as an auditor meant working with a group of like-minded people
of the same age, her first jobs within finance departments, meant managing
people from various backgrounds.

She worked for the British Film Institute for two years, then the National
Theatre for six years as financial controller. After a short spell at Granada
Media Group in the mid-1990s, bizarrely O’Neill chose to be chief accountant at
shopping channel QVC.

‘I am always disabusing my middle-class friends of their preconceptions of
QVC. It was a wonderful experience. It’s incredibly well-run and incredibly
profitable ­ it treats its staff very well, knows its customers and sells
fantastic products.’

Still, QVC, such a symbol of American capitalism, is a far cry from working
to preserve the former homes of Henry VIII and Diana , Princess of Wales
(Kensington Palace)?

While admitting it was different from her ‘artsy-fartsy roles’, she found the
experience refreshing.
After working on a big deal that didn’t go through at QVC, going back to the day
job wasn’t an option, so it was time for a change.

At Channel 4 she worked for head of education Heather Rabbatts, the
Jamaican-born lawyer and businesswoman who turned round Lambeth Council and now
runs Millwall football club.

‘I’ve been very lucky in having some great bosses. Heather was a great
leader, not a detail person, but very strategic, a fantastic presenter. She was
also larger than life.’

However, having taken a direction ­ sales and marketing ­ she wasn’t
comfortable with, after just two and a half years she decided to move on. This
time to HRP.

Charitable crossroads

The job leaves her well-placed: ‘The interesting thing is it places me at a
crossroads. I have a lot to do with government, and [experience] too of a big
charity. It’s also a big visitor attraction.’

Any similar roles could appeal, as she adds that she is ‘still quite new at
being an FD’.

To that end, she does not necessarily see herself taking a more central chief
executive role. ‘That happens a lot in commercial companies, but the charitable
world is very different.’

Leaders tend to emerge from smaller organisations rather than from the
finance function.

For the time being, there’s the Henry VIII festivities to look forward to.
The challenge of one exhibition at Hampton Court is to present Henry the young
man, the talented sportsman ­ rather than the popular image as overweight ­ to
displace the story of Henry and his six wives and the upheavals of the

The organisation is ‘excited’ about the prospects for next year, she says.
Not many FDs, looking at the calendar for the year ahead, can look forward to a
similar challenge.

Palace finances

The Historic Royal Palaces receives no funding from the government. Let loose
from government grants in 1998, the company earns its £50m of income from tic
ket prices – three million people visit the palaces every year – its retail
products, catering, sponsorship and events.

‘We have a contract with the
Department for Culture,
Media and Sport
. We don’t own the five palaces, we just have a licence to
run them. We have two key charitable objectives: to preserve and conserve the
fabric of the buildings, and to educate the public about them and their
history,’ O’Neill says.

The HRP has 600 staff on the payroll, who make up most of its costs,
including a troop of 40 gardeners to look after the extensive gardens at Hampton

The National Trust, by contrast, owns the properties it runs, and is also a
much larger concern than HRP.

One thing HRP wants to do is to increase people’s awareness of what it is.
‘We want people to know who we are, so they think if they have had a good
experience at one of our locations, they might come to another,’ says O’Neill.

That goes for donors as much as for visitors. Man Group plc charitable trust
has just donated a substantial sum for a project at the Tower of London – and
the corporate dollar is clearly important to the palaces’ upkeep.

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