Debbie has worked in the print and packaging industry for over 25 years, during which time she has seen major changes including the move away from single use plastics to more sustainable solutions.
In 2014, she co-founded Women in Packaging UK, an initiative established to connect, support, train and recognise female employees across this vibrant and diverse sector.
Debbie founded her own business Avant-Tout Management Services Ltd in 2001. The company supports businesses through a number of services such as improving communication and networking channels and organising major events.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I have worked in printing and packaging since graduating with a BA Honours Degree in French Language and Literature. I started my career in labels at Harlands of Hull, before moving into reprographics at Gilchrist Brothers. I then went on to run the DS Smith Pre-Print operation at Clay Cross until 2000 when I also completed my MBA.
In 2001, following the birth of my daughter, I founded Avant-Tout Management Services Ltd, which focuses on delivering technical capability, account management and project delivery in multi-language environments.
I am currently Consultant CEO of one of my major clients The European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA UK Ltd), which represents suppliers, printers, designers, retailers and brand owners. For over 40 years, it has run awards recognising print excellence in the UK and abroad; supported efforts to improve operational excellence and greater technical knowledge, and promoted debate on the future direction of the dynamic flexo environment.
In addition to co-founding Women in Packaging I am also Vice Chair of the Graphics, Print & Media Alliance UK (GPMA), a Director of the Flexographic Technical Association Europe (FTA Europe) and a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I can’t say that I sat down and planned my career. However, I was determined from the outset to use my language skills and aim for a board position, both of which I am pleased to say I have achieved.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
I would say that my most difficult role was at DS Smith Pre-Print. In those days, the early 90s, I can honestly say that the print was seen as an irksome process that had to go onto boxes so there were daily challenges. It was also very, very male dominated and a female ‘boss’ in production was rare indeed, which, in itself, proved a challenge too. However I relished the challenge and eventually we did work well together as a team.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement to date has been my daughter Elise. Motherhood was never in my plans but I can honestly say it is the best thing I have ever done and it brings me lots of worries but also lots of joys.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?
I don’t think I can narrow it down to one thing but a series of people and events. My mother always told me to believe in myself, that I could do whatever I wanted to do. My husband firmly believes that you can only control 20% so the key is to concentrate fully on that 20%, and my daughter inspires me with confidence and buckets of enthusiasm every day. I have also been very fortunate to have met some great, inspiring people at various stages of my career and that continues to this day.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
I believe mentoring is very important in our industry and generally in all aspects of life. I had a great mentor at Gilchrist Brothers. I was their first graduate trainee and Graham Cunningham was my boss, mentor and friend. He encouraged me to work in different areas of the business and to gain as much experience as possible. He was always there to support and advise.
We are hoping to launch a mentor programme through Women in Packaging too.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
The Women in Packaging initiative, which I co-founded with Jo Stephenson, aims to attract and retain, network and connect, recognise and celebrate female employees across this diverse sector.
One of the issues of gender equality is not the problem of there being enough women for senior roles but that they are not visible. This lack of visibility in senior positions perpetuates the perception and dissuades other women from seeking out promotion.
Compounding the problem, women systematically underestimate their own abilities, and the combination of this, together with the lack of representation, puts a significant confidence barrier in the way for women wishing to progress to senior roles.
If we can address these issues we can help to accelerate the pace of change. But we need buy-in from females in our industry and the senior management boards.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Acknowledge and understand both your strengths and your weaknesses. Exploit your strengths and work hard to improve your weaknesses. Then network for Britain, or even Europe!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
My personal challenge is to ensure that what I offer remains relevant in today’s dynamic environment.
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