True grit and perseverance are characteristics a woman needs to reach the top in what is otherwise an almost wholly male-dominated industry. Karen Hester, operations director at Adnams Brewery, has plenty of both.
Her career started at the age of 16 when she joined the Royal Corps of Transport, a year later becoming the youngest girl in the country to hold an HGV licence.
Unfortunately, at that time, if a woman in the army wanted to start a family and retain her job, she was jeered at, then abruptly shown the door.
As a result, she spent some time in Germany, where she ran her own business selling seasonal goods. But outraged at the treatment she received from the army, she later trained for two years to become a Justice of the Peace, and is now a magistrate on the North East Suffolk bench.
Hester first joined Adnams as a cleaner 20 years ago. But her background as a lorry and ambulance driver in the army quickly brought her to the attention of Andy Wood, who was head of logistics at the time and is now managing director.
She was soon offered a job as transport clerk and quickly promoted to transport manager, where she was put in charge of 28 male colleagues. “To find a common ground with them I got into reading about local football clubs. Now I’m a supporter of Ipswich town football club.”
She worked her way up the ranks to become the company’s operations director, in charge of 103 employees and a budget of more than £8 million.
Hester says the highlight of her career is the (now famous) £14 million eco-friendly distribution centre opened last year in Southwold, which she project managed. This involved relocating the full infrastructure and all the stock and employees without any disruption to customer service or to the business as a whole.
The building is a spectacular sight with its rainwater-harvesting, sedum grass roof, designed to fit in with the surrounding countryside, and containing solar panels which provide 80 per cent of the company’s hot water requirements. The walls are built out of hemp and chalk blocks which absorb carbon dioxide. This in turn, helps regulate temperature naturally and efficiently while reducing energy costs.
Hester says: “A building of the same size, built with normal construction materials, would emit 450 tonnes of carbon dioxide. When they built this one they locked in 80, so it has a net positive of 530 tonnes. It is also six times bigger than our old warehouse, and our energy bills are the same.”
Hester says since moving to the green building, staff absenteeism has been cut by 30 per cent over the last 15 months, because employees are proud to work there.
Adnams has a core set of values, and a big one of those is its people. “Everybody strives for that point of difference. Ours is the people. It’s about the personal touch. You don’t call our contact centre and get put through to Taiwan. We employ local people” – a fact testified to by Keith, the taxi driver who drove me back to the station. “If it wasn’t for Adnams recruiting locally, Southwold would have lost its heart long ago.”
Hester reckons Adnams is even immune to the tumultuous brewery market, which has been dominated by international takeovers. Being a regional brewery actually gives it a competitive edge, she says. “It all depends on whether a company is asset driven or brand driven. Some of the bigger companies become more about assets than their actual brand.
“Being able to assist, mentor, train and influence my staff to prepare them for moving up the ranks, is a key part of my role. This approach has meant that all my managers have climbed up the Adnams ladder with me.”
Hester points out that it was Andy Wood, who spotted her potential when she first began at the company, that inspired her to use the same approach with her own staff.
No doubt this is one of the qualities that won her the award. Hester will now go through to the national Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year finals.
- At the age of 16, she joined the armed forces where she was in the Royal Corps of Transport.
- At 17 she became the youngest girl in the UK to pass her HGV test.
- Left army and started a family. Ran business in Germany, selling seasonal goods, employing eight women.
- 1988: started at Adnams as a cleaner.
- 1990: worked in purchasing store – worked part-time in procurement .
- 1995: became transport clerk .
- 1996: promoted to transport manager .
· 2000: promoted to head of logistics, taking on supply chain and warehousing operations for both wine and beer.
- 2003: became head of customer services.
- 2007: became operations director – responsible for quality of product in charge of 103 staff, incorporating ten managers per department.
- 2008: became East of England Business Woman of the Year.