A lot of people express surprise when I describe what I do. Obviously it doesn’t seem unusual to me because its what I do. Usually they are surprised because Im a woman working in engineering and specialising in the Middle East.
And therein lies the whole problem. Why should it be surprising?
Having pondered this, and discussing it with various people , Ive come to the conclusion that my attitude has in fact been that there are no barriers. None that I cant overcome anyway. And that’s the key. I’m sure that having the right attitude and absolute determination to get my own way has helped me to get this far.
When you hit that 20ft wall it’s your attitude to how you get past it and the conviction that you can that gets you over it, through it, round it, under it, but past it somehow.
If you’ve thought out and costed the action you want to take and are convinced it can work, you shouldn’t let anything stand in your way. But – you need to be flexible in your thinking. It’s a good idea to run the ideas and plans by others and get a completely different perspective on them other than just your own.
Be prepared to compromise. Ive made the mistake in the past of making over ambitious plans and wasting enormous amounts of energy insisting on sticking to them. In the end practicality usually forces comprise. But you can waste valuable earning time and potential by not compromising earlier when it becomes clear that you may have to.
There is a thin line between determination and stubbornness.
I suppose it’s my tendency to be oblivious to anything that might stand in my way that’s lead me to be into an industry that is in the main male dominated. I didn’t choose this route because I wanted to be awkward (tho’ the fact that I was always told it was not possible for a woman to travel in the Middle East may have played a part in the calculations)
I am a mechanical engineer by training and started my working life in the steel industry. I worked for various large steel producers and distributors, but my goal had always been to have my own company. By the time I started Corrotherm Id been in the industry for around 15 years. That was invaluable learning time, if you can get someone else to finance you while you learn and make mistakes – do it.
Within the industry I had specialised in two ways – by dealing with very high tech. specialised materials that have specific industry applications, and selling to the Middle East market. Why the specialisation – because that’s where the gap in the market was and that’s where the higher margins are.
The Middle East oil industry is the richest in the world, and generally badly covered or not covered at all by most metal producers. In the main industry in the region can afford to buy the expensive high tech alloys that were available. But no one was telling the industry about them.
The two things didn’t start in tandem. I’d love to say that I was farsighted and talented enough to have set out this way. But the fact is this was the way the business has developed. When Corrotherm was founded the intention was to provide a service to Middle Eastern customers that were missing in the metals supply industry. As we progressed by supplying general engineering metals to the region, it became clear that there was a specific gap in the supply of the high alloy ranges. We have built the business on filling that gap.
We have developed other incomes streams in the meantime, I think this is vital to the long term health of the company.
When we spot a new opportunity I make it a rule to write a business plan with budgets and thoroughly test the theory that it will work. It pays to be pretty ruthless when you do this and I don’t like to make allowances for unknowns or continue with plans until I have all the information. It can be very easy to make the business plan a work of fiction that fits in with your pre conceived ideas.
If the new income stream looks like it’s a goer I always make sure that it will not be detracting from existing business and that the expansion or diversification can be added without jeopardising other income.
Even if the budget is properly resourced, I never discount how much of my own time I will have to be put in, that’s a mistake Ive made more than once, and found myself disappearing in ever decreasing circles.
I am always looking for an opportunity, every meeting, everything I read, any discussion can contain an opportunity of some sort. You just need to be receptive to that principal.
I realise now that when I set up the business the one thing I didn’t put into the plan was where I wanted the business to lead. I was mainly driven by the desire to be responsible for my own decisions, and I wanted to test myself to see if I was up to making a success of my own company. The past 20 years have flown by and I its only been in the past year or so that Ive been thinking about succession within the company and planning what will happen when any of the board or , even I want to retire. I should have been doing that earlier. I couldn’t say that where we find ourselves now is a surprise, so it would have been possible to take a serious look at these issues at the start. So one of the things that I would recommend is to think seriously about what you want from the business, long term. Do you want it to continue to give you an income after retirement, will you always want to be in the same industry, do you want to sell the company when you retire? Even basic stuff like how big do you want to get? Whilst I would not necessarily have set up differently I would have had these issues in my mind as we have grown. I suppose I don’t like the idea that as it turns out the way the deck has fallen has turned out OK by chance and not by planning. It could so easily have been different.
Being an employer is one of the most difficult aspects of running your own company. And certainly in my company easily the most important factor for success or failure.
I have always worked on the principal of employing as high calibre people as I can. Especially at the start. In my past experience if you employ cheaply at the start with a view to taking on better staff later on , the chances are you wont make much money and the business will always be limited by the ability of your staff.
When I started Corrotherm I wanted to have my future management structure in place at the beginning. This has several advantages. Its possible to divide responsibilities fairly early and as long as your core staff remain with you they develop along with the company and are the team that have built the systems. They know the company very well and take ownership in it. There were 3 people I wanted who I knew would be right. This was going to be expensive, but I offered them some shares and profit related bonus schemes. When they took me up on my offer this proved that they were not adverse to some risk by going to work for a newly established company and that they were confident enough in their own abilities to accept profit sharing.
BUT people of high calibre can be difficult to keep if you don’t take care of them. And not just materially. Good people will push you to make a career path for them, and if you don’t they will invariable move on. By giving my core team responsibility for the development of the area of the company within their brief , it puts their career development and their rewards in their hands.
This has paid off in many ways for me, I have an extremely capable workforce, because good people tend to attract other good people, and the core team are now my Board in the UK . I can afford to spend time in the regional offices and time on developing opportunities when they come along because I have a stable management base. But just as important I can hand over the things I don’t do well myself to someone who can do them much better than me. The employment regulations have become more complicated, but I personally do not find anything in them that I object to. Most of the regulations are aimed at bad employers, and I can’t see that any of them are particularly onerous to any good employer. It seems to be generally felt that taking on an employee is a very high risk. But that goes both ways, it’s a risk for the employee too. And at the end of the day employing people is fundamental to commerce, if it’s a risk your not prepared to take then your probably not cut out to run your own business.
WHAT CAN GOVT DO
I would say, less, mostly – there is too much regulation and interference with business practise generally. I don’t actually believe that government can make entrepreneurs. In my personal opinion you cannot make a person who is cautious by nature into a risk taker. Its generally only a small percentage of any population who are the risk takers of one type or another, I do not believe you can increase that percentage by ad campaigns, mentoring, advise or support groups.
Government can create good economic conditions for business to thrive, have good open trading relationships with oversees markets, but they should not be involved in business development directly.
WHAT CAN ADVISORS DO TO HELP
What would I change about the support mechanisms available to business and again, I would say, lets have less, there is too much and the choice is confusing both from government and the private sector. There are more than 3000 different schemes supplied through government alone.
A google search entitled “business support in the UK “using UK pages only turned up 1.76million sites.
When you write a plan never guess or assume anything, always be thinking of what you will do if the plan doesn’t come out the way you predict. Don’t try to make a business out of your hobby unless you’ve really taken a hard nosed practical look at the market.
Always have hold of the purse strings, understand how to put a P + L and Balance Sheet together yourself , and never go a month without closing a set of management accounts – however small the number of transactions . Get into the habit from the start. Don’t let the auditors and accountants dictate how you run your business, if you understand how the accounts work, you won’t have to.
Don’t tell the bank you will do something unless you are sure you will be able to so it, and make sure you tell the bank early on if you hit a problem.
Never act small. Start up from the beginning and run as if you were a big enterprise. Appoint auditors, have board meetings and keep minutes, spend as much as you can on high quality websites, literature and stationery, behave professionally, you will look big from the outside.
Always make a decision and be prepared to accept the consequences. Even if you do put it off for a while, never put things on the back burner and hope they will work out.
Try to network with others who are successful in what they do. Its easier sometimes to be around people who are not doing so well in either their business or their personal life. Sub consciously it makes you feel better about yourself. I find if I spend time with very successful people it pushes me to do better.
Don’t give up on your first hurdle or failure – they teach you a lot
And finally if you want to run your own business because it will give your more time, be less stressful than your job , improve your relationships with your family and make you rich quick , don’t do it.
Jan Ward – Mech Eng / BMet MBA MTSM/ MIEx( GRAD)/ FRSA/ FIOD
CEO and founder of Corrotherm International Ltd which supplies equipment the oil gas industry. Born in Southampton Jan has been an active member of the business community in the City and has been a Director of the Southampton Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years and is a Past President. Jan is a Non Executive Director of a number of companies in sectors covering marine equipment manufacturing and waste to energy process development and is a mentor to small businesses.
Her other posts include:
- Fellow Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce
- Fellow Institute of Directors
- Director of Women in Business International
- Fellow Institute of Export UK