Let's be honest ­ job interviews can be about as much fun as pulling teeth. After all, there's so much to think about. What to wear, how to sit, to fold or not to fold your arms and how to avoid delivering that ill-judged one-liner which seems like a good idea at the time but which you later realise snapped the next rung on your career ladder quicker than the time it took an unimpressed chief executive to show you the door. Now set the stakes even higher and imagine you are being quizzed for the job of your life by the future King of England. Sound like a right royal recipe for disaster? Well not always, although when you meet Belinda Gooding it's immediately apparent how she passed the scrutiny of one's heir to the throne with flying colours. Softly (but not quietly) spoken, suited and instantly welcoming, Gooding's easy nature appears to mask a gritty determination which has taken her from an 18-year-old university student with no interest in business to the top of her tree in just over 20 years. But despite such success, she's still not too big to admit suffering from the same human frailties as the rest of us. Our meeting takes place in the elegant surroundings of Duchy's offices at St James's Palace, which, by the time these words go to press, the company will have just left for new offices five minutes away at Buckingham Gate. Greeted at the gates by tight security, I am ushered through the courtyard by a cheerful policeman who, when quizzed, is happy to point out the prince's private quarters next door to Duchy's offices in the 17th century palace (I later discover he was incredibly naughty to do so and hope I haven't got him into trouble). Nevertheless, the setting is more than appropriate as it is where Gooding first met HRH, who still uses St James's as his London home. "It was the most daunting experience of my life," admits Gooding. "I was interviewed by Guy (McCracken, chairman of Duchy Originals), then the board and then finally the prince. It was made clear to me that I should only agree to the last meeting if I was serious about taking the job. I was, so I agreed. "When the interview finally came around, I couldn't quite believe that I was really sat there before him and chatting about a job. But he was absolutely charming and is good at putting people at ease." The easy-going relationship between Gooding and the prince has seemingly continued since that inaugural meeting, with the former Dairy Crest director taking over the reins at Duchy in May last year. She has wasted no time in stamping her authority on the company and has added a number of new lines to Duchy's ever-growing portfolio of organic foods which includes biscuits, preserves, milk, pork from the Prince's Highgrove estate and even organic turkeys (sourced from suppliers) in time for Christmas. Gooding's endeavour has reaped almost instant rewards. The company recently reported record profits of £580,000 in the year to March from sales of £12m. The figure, which, as always, has been donated to the Prince of Wales' Charitable Foundation, was up 45% on the previous year's profit of £400,000 from sales totalling £10m and the company has said it can now embark on a marketing campaign for the first time in its 11-year history. The prince is clearly delighted. "He was very pleased and sent us a bottle of champagne to say thank you," says Gooding. But that, it seems, is our quota of talk about Charles and questions about the elegant paintings adorning the giant drawing room where our meeting takes place are subtly deflected. Gooding's agitated press secretary, who sits in on our meeting, is clearly eager to follow Buckingham Palace protocol by steering any talk away from the prince and St James's, and Gooding also sheepishly indicates she has probably said a little bit more than she ought. It's certainly not a subject she gets drawn in to at the Surrey home she shares with her husband ­ mail order company boss Paul Furniss ­ and their two children ­ Matthew, 13, and Sophie, 10 ­ who apparently never tire of asking their mother about her latest dealings with the prince. "I rarely say anything because I don't want them going into the playground and bragging about it to their friends," Gooding says. So leaving the prince behind, we sip our tea (no coffee ­ it's terribly un-English), ease back into opposing large sofas and get down to the business of talking about what really makes this "early forties" businesswoman tick. Born into an armed services family, her father was an RAF fighter pilot and the young Gooding spent her formative years being educated at a series of British Services schools around the globe. Hong Kong, Cyprus, Singapore and Scotland were all visited before the industrious student passed her exams with flying colours and earned her wings with eight O-levels, four A-levels and two S-levels. Moving on to Leeds University, there was little hint of Gooding's future vocation as she enrolled for a degree in English, although she now insists that the skills she learned to analyse a Jane Austen novel aren't necessarily a million miles removed from those applied in modern-day marketing. "When you are reading someone like Austen you have to think about the characters by putting them in the context of the time they were created," she says. "That has a lot of synergies with marketing where you have to be able to understand people and what they want." It's a philosophy which seems to have stood Gooding in good stead so far. Leaving Leeds with a respectable 2-1 grade, she joined Trebor Confectionery as an eager sales rep when the future sweets giant was still a private company based in Woodford Green. Four years there saw her rise through the marketing ranks to assistant brand manager before she jumped ship to join Mars, working mainly on the business's food side. Entering Mars as a product manager, which involved jaunts to sort out the company's operation in Poland, she left 10 years later as a marketing director, taking the position of Dairy Crest's group marketing director. But although the rest, as they say, is history, there's a hint that the journey may not always have been as smooth as the CV suggests. For example, one bugbear for Gooding is how few women occupy top posts, although she is (unsurprisingly) vague about where her disappointed views were specifically formed. "When I first went into business, there were very few women and I suppose that helped me. I was the first woman in Trebor's sales force and I have always been either the only or one of very few females, even at Dairy Crest where I was one of only two women on a 12-strong board. "That is typical of British industry and I find it sad that it still seems to be big news when a woman gets on the board of a big company." Before I manage to assure her that The Grocer has chosen her for an interview on merit and not just because she's a woman, she adds: "It doesn't make me angry, but we do need to think about why women are not coming into business." It is something she has seemingly influenced at Duchy ­ seven out of the 10 key members of her team are women, although Gooding is the only woman on the board. But this isn't the only subject Gooding feels strongly about. For example, she is determined that Duchy should continue to only source British ingredients for all its goods "no matter how big we become". She also sees no reason why the organics market could not account for 10% of all food sold in Britain within 10 years (the sector currently has just a 1% share), although warns that ministers are doing little to encourage organic farmers. "One thing the government seems unaware of is the European legislation governing conversion to organic," says Gooding. "It means farmers who switch over cannot sell their produce as organic for two years while their land detoxes. It would be helpful if the government was more aware of this issue and then decided just how important it wants the organic sector to be in its environmental policy. Grants for those converting would be a start." But while Gooding is reluctant to criticise the government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis (Duchy suppliers have been among those hit by the disease), she warns that patience could run out eventually. "We will have to wait and see how the new department DEFRA fares," she says, "but it would be helpful to understand just exactly what relationship it has with the Food Standards Agency and who has responsibility for what. That is unclear at the moment." On that pensive note, I make my way back to the gatehouse to warn my helpful policeman that I may have dropped him in it, but he is not there. n {{FEATURES }}