Inspirational Woman: Nina Sparks | Factory General Manager, McVitie’s Bakery

Nina Sparks

Nina is passionate about inspiring a new generation of women to think differently about the engineering sector, as well as demonstrate the importance of confidence when it comes to success.

She runs the Harlesden Women’s Network at the factory, which works to improve confidence, assertiveness, personal impact and handling challenging situations.

During her career, she has had the chance to work across several areas, including managing production lines, multi-million-pound capital projects and looking after the maintenance of millions of pounds’ worth of bakery equipment. As Factory General Manager, she now manages a team of 600 people who work in the Harlesden Bakery, the largest in Europe.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I started with the company in 1995 on the graduate scheme, starting life in the frozen food part of the business (Ross Youngs) that used to be part of United Biscuits.

I moved to the McVitie’s site in Harlesden in 1998 and have progressed through various roles. These include: managing the production of digestive biscuits; project engineer (installing new production lines); project manager (responsible for multi-million-pound capex investments); 3 years in procurement (buying capex equipment for the whole business); site engineering manager and for the last 4 years – Factory General Manager at Harlesden.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the age of 18 but I did like Maths and Physics! I chose engineering as it is a well-respected qualification, which I felt would give me plenty of scope once I’d graduated to do almost anything.

Having worked very hard throughout my degree I then felt I had a duty to use what I had learnt and applied for opportunities which would allow me to combine my energy, love of working with people and engineering creativity to the best use.

Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to be woman in an engineering environment – one traditionally male-dominated?

Honestly, I have never found it a problem. I am confident and quick-witted enough to ensure that any nonsense was knocked on the head!

However, I think that there is a bigger requirement for women to prove themselves to be taken seriously. Diversity in a team is so important to the performance of that team and I know that I have got things done that perhaps my male colleagues would have struggled with.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Harlesden is the biggest biscuit factory by volume in Europe. It is a state of the art factory which produces 130K tonnes of the countries favourite biscuits every year – Digestives, Chocolate Digestives, Rich Tea, Chocolate Hob Nobs and Mini Cheddars.

Highlights of my career include the creation of a £10 million Mini Cheddars production facility. This involved turning an existing warehouse into a food production area, the installation and design of both new and old equipment, the management of a large team and a number of very complicated installations under extremely tight timescales.

More recently I have managed a £34m project to upgrade all biscuit packing lines from roll wrap to flow-wrap format – including biscuit wrapping equipment, product transfer and auto case packing, new flooring, lighting and upgrade of existing process equipment to support new packing areas.

It is very rewarding to see projects that I have worked on from conception and design stages are installed in the factory, making products at high speed. Seeing large scale projects through to completion is a great and rewarding experience.

What is so special about Harlesden? Can you talk about what kind of progress the factory has gone through ever since you were on board?

We have a great team of 600 people from all over the globe at Harlesden, which gives it its edge! The site is constantly evolving and I have been involved with some fantastic projects including the £35m replacement of our biscuit packing hall equipment. Since I have been here the site increased its output by nearly 50% and has reduced its waste to under 1%

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Resilience and a sense of humour

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I strive to mentor people as much as possible, albeit unofficially a lot of the time! In my role, I oversee around 600 people so it can be a challenge to help everyone, but I strive to do my best.

In 2019, I helped to set up and run The Women’s Network, which builds confidence in our female workers here at Harlesden. Working with an external trainer, we run an assessment centre to help practice interview skills, testing, and group exercises. It’s been a positive experience watching my fellow females improve and grow.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Transparent pay and 50:50 split of men and women in government and on company boards.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Push the imposter syndrome away and the voice that says ‘I’m not good enough’ and have confidence in yourself. Also, understand and be proud of what you bring to the job.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The Women’s Network roll out, which this year will focus on building assertiveness, personal impact and our ability to handle difficult situations. I really enjoy doing my bit to create confident and ambitious women in our business and I hope to continue this in the immediate future.

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