Newsmaker: Taking on the family name - Julie Bentley, Chief executive, Suzy Lamplugh Trust

John Plummer

Everyone who remembers 1986 remembers Suzy Lamplugh, the estate agent who vanished after meeting a client known only as Mr Kipper. Her broad-daylight disappearance in a busy London street sparked a huge search, but no trace of her was ever found. In 1993 she was declared dead, presumed murdered.

Most people know that much, but are possibly less familiar with the remarkable success of the charity founded in her name.

Diana and Paul Lamplugh launched the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to promote safety at work months after their 25-year-old daughter's disappearance. Charities are often born out of personal grief, but rarely do they exist some two decades later. Under Diana's energetic leadership the trust grew, broadened into all areas of personal safety and, by last year, employed 18 staff and had a turnover of £1m.

Then in March last year, Diana suffered a massive stroke. She survived two emergency operations only for it to be discovered that she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. With her memory gone, husband Paul has now relinquished his role as executive secretary to care full-time for his wife.

One of Paul's last duties in post was helping to select Julie Bentley, a 35-year-old who has spent all of her working life in the voluntary sector, to become chief executive and the organisation's first salaried leader.

As a family 'outsider', and following such a well-known woman as Diana, she is under considerable pressure. Bentley prefers to think of it as a privilege and insists the legacy she inherits won't lead to laissez-faire leadership.

"Diana was without doubt a very charismatic and dynamic leader," she says. "She will be a formidable person to follow, but I don't intend to be Diana - I intend to be myself. I've been brought in for the skills that I can offer and I need to lead in a way that I think is best for the organisation."

She talks frequently of a culture change. "The dynamics are different when you are led by a founder," she says. "My experience so far is that the board are aware of that and are up for the change."

Bentley, who took up her post at the start of April, recalls how the disappearance of Suzy, who was only eight years older than her, affected her. "I was 17 when Suzy went missing," she says. "Back then it wasn't as common to hear about young women being attacked and it alerted me to the danger."

Alerting more people to the trust's work is her priority now. Although awareness of the name is high, understanding of the charity's purpose isn't.

The trust works with business, police and government to encourage personal safety. It produces educational books, leaflets and videos and runs a nationwide network of tutors and trainers for talks, training courses and conferences. It also campaigns for safer travel, including minicab registration, and has funded research at Glamorgan University.

"We haven't focused enough on clarifying what we do," says Bentley, who is also studying for an MBA in business. "We need to look at our message and the ways and the arenas in which we communicate it. Charities that have been around for some time can become a bit woolly about their purpose.

We have reached a natural point where it's time to take stock and think about our areas of strength.

"I don't think we will stop doing anything, though it's a little premature for me to say for definite. But certainly issues around the brand and the disparity between awareness of the name and understanding of what we do will be on the agenda."

Diana virtually created an area of expertise around personal safety, which, before Suzy's disappearance, wasn't something that attracted much attention.

She became an authority on the subject and was frequently asked to lecture or speak.

Bentley has to play catch-up. "I need to learn the science of personal safety and build relationships," she says. But the message the public needs to learn, she adds, is not complicated. "Personal safety is about learning a set of life skills and, if you live by them, everybody will be safer," she says.

The signs are, however, that we are not learning. Lone female estate agents continue to show clients around properties, and the number of abductions is rising. You have to wonder how much impact the trust can have. "If we reduce opportunities for crime we will reduce the level of crime," says Bentley, who draws on her background in youth work and combating alcohol abuse as examples of areas where the trust's message can help to save lives.

She also talks about "a broad range of government agendas that personal safety fits into", citing the recent government interest in anti-social behaviour and citizenship as examples. You suspect the Government, which gave the charity £55,000 last year, might be hearing quite a lot from her.

Suzy and Diana will forever cast long shadows over the charity, but as its 18th birthday approaches, Bentley thinks it's time to focus more on the issues. "The Suzy Lamplugh Trust 2004 needs to move away from the perception that it's just about individual people, because it isn't any more," she says. "It is now a nationally recognised charity providing a wide range of services."

A few days before she vanished, Suzy told her mother that "life is for living". Bentley may have ended one family tradition by taking over the charity, but by giving as many people as possible the chance to follow Suzy's philosophy, she is keeping another one intact.

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