The business community of South Yorkshire is running out of superlatives for Julie Kenny. Inspirational, determined, a fantastic ambassador for women... you name it, Julie has been labelled it.
In September, she was crowned Businesswoman of the year at the UK Private Business Awards. Quite impressive, you might think…but that accolade is just the latest of many recognising her achievements in a male-dominated industry.
In 2013 she was Vitalise Business Woman of the Year. In 2012 she won the Engineering and Manufacturing award at the First Women Awards. And in 2010 she won the PSI Premier Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Security Industry.
She has twice served as chairman of the Security Equipment Manufacturers’ Section of the British Security Industry Association; she was the first woman president of Rotherham Chamber of Commerce; former chairman of Yorkshire Forward and has served as High Sheriff of South Yorkshire.
Oh, and she was also awarded a CBE in 2002 and an Honorary Doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University in 2006.
You could forgive Julie for letting all of these plaudits go to her head. Yet I have rarely come across a more modest, down-to-earth interviewee.
“I’m not afraid to ask stupid questions,” admits the Chairman and CEO of Rotherham-based Pyronix, one of the world’s leading providers of security equipment, employing 165 staff.
“I try not to think of myself as a woman in a man’s world, but I do believe women think differently, which can be useful in a boardroom situation. And I’m not saying that we are better or worse… I am just saying the presence of a woman can add a different perspective.
“We don’t mind asking the stupid question for the sake of clarity. Often men are reluctant to do that because they tend to worry about what others think.
“Yet whenever you do ask the seemingly stupid question, you can see others are really glad you did.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t understand something you have a duty to seek clarity because you have an obligation to reach a conclusion that is in everyone’s best interests.”
It’s exactly this type of straight talking that has won Julie so many admirers. Her rise from being a secretary to the boss of a multi-million pound business – remarkable though it is – has not changed her outlook on life, nor her philosophy, which remains “if I can do it, anyone can.”
Of her most recent award, she says: “I am absolutely thrilled to win, especially being up against such strong competition from pioneering and inspiring women at the forefront of their respective industries.
“Being recognised by the private business community is something I greatly appreciate.”
Julie, 57, began her working career as a junior secretary for a firm of solicitors in Cornwall, where her boss identified her flair for law.
She recalls: “I found I had an aptitude for it, and picked it up very quickly. My boss recognised that.
“I’ve had a couple of lucky breaks in my life – both of which have been delivered by men – and this was the first of them.
“My boss got it in his mind that that he was going to create his own legal department and that I was going to be the legal clerk.
“He sent me on day release to get legally qualified. I knew that was a great opportunity, so I just grabbed it. “
Julie qualified as a litigation lawyer and practiced in local authorities and private law firms until 1896 when, just six weeks after getting married, life threw her an unexpected curve ball.
She says: “I was working as a lawyer in Sheffield when my then husband, Paul, was made redundant from his job with a Rotherham company that provided external lighting.”
The blow left the newlyweds re-evaluating their options, resulting in a life-changing decision neither of them could have foreseen.
Julie recalls: “I just asked him what he wanted to do and he said he wanted to go it alone as a designer of security equipment.
“The problem was, he had no money to launch the business. However, I owned a house so I sold it and raised £28K equity, which we used to launch Pyronix.
“It was a big decision, but I just believed he could do it. He was a bright guy, and even though he had no formal engineering qualifications, he grew up messing about with things and learning how they worked – his father had been a university lecturer in mechanical engineering.”
Pyronix set out to become the UK’s leading manufacturer of security detectors and, says Julie, made some pretty smart early decisions, not least of all to invest in surface mount technology, an expensive but more efficient solution for printed circuit boards.
This made their product – which was also designed to be the world’s smallest – technologically superior to those of rivals, giving them a vital competitive edge.
Julie continued working as a lawyer in those first few fledgling years as the business became established.
“I would finish my day job then go over to the factory to do some work there, so it was really 24/7 for the first three years,” she says.
She joined the business full time shortly after having her first child and played a pivotal role in growing it, eventually becoming Managing Director in 1995, although she had been in the role informally for a number of years.
However, another life-changing bombshell was just around the corner…this time on a much more personal level.
“In 1997 Paul had a relationship with someone else and left me and our three children, who were eight, five and three-and-a-half at the time,” says Julie.
“It was a horrible time, especially with the children being so young, but I was determined to keep the business going.
“Essentially, I had to buy Paul out and that meant me once again selling everything that moved – all the stuff I had accumulated over the years, with the exception of the house.
“It took six years for us to reach a settlement, which was far too long. But I believe that bad times always come to an end eventually, that there will be a resolution, so I did my best to remain positive throughout for the sake of the children.”
Was there ever any danger of Julie handing control of the company over to her husband?
“Definitely not,” she insists, “this industry gets in your blood. As well as my role in Pyronix, I was heavily involved with the British Security Industry Association and, ultimately, became chairman, so I had no intention of giving up my work.”
Since taking complete control of the business, Julie has faced more challenges along the way. The economic downturn, in particular, hit the business hard…but she refused to make staff redundant.
Instead, in consultation with her workforce, she introduced a four-day week.
She explains: “It was a brave decision, but I knew we had to save money and felt it was important to keep our staff. I was confident the recession wouldn’t last, so what would be the point in making a third of the staff redundant then having to train people again when things picked up?
“We agreed on a four-day week and we had to work harder…we had to sell, sell sell. I went around the world to see customers face-to-face because I needed to know what their own markets were like and take a view as to whether they could pay us.
“For the first three months of 2009, I was only in the UK two weeks. But the strategy worked and we actually grew 2% in the recession.
“After that things returned to normal and everyone got a pay rise. And now we are investing in R&D, taking on staff and aiming to significantly grow our export market. Last year our turnover was £18.5m and this year it will be £22m.”
While Julie’s down-to-earth management style has clearly paid off at Pyronix, some of the most valuable lessons she has learned were gained outside her normal working environment.
For example, the second lucky break given to her by a man came when she was asked to join the board of Rotherham Training and Enterprise Council in the 90s.
She recalls: “At that time the government insisted local boards involved in regeneration work included women and people from ethnic backgrounds.
“There were only two companies in Rotherham run by women so they asked me. Of course, I knew I was the token woman but, as with law, I found I had an aptitude for the work, and I felt I was making a difference.
“After that I started to get involved in all sorts of things and found that, although I was contributing, I was learning a great deal too – lessons that I could take back to my own business.
“Now, whenever I talk to people about my story, I always say to them ‘get involved with other boards, or parent-teacher associations, or school governors, and you will learn.’
“These are organisations that you’re not the boss of. You can’t just tell people to do this or do that. So you learn to persuade and to listen, and to look strategically at something. It really is a massive learning opportunity.”
Julie also felt she learned valuable lessons throughout her year as South Yorkshire’s High Sheriff, which ended in March 2013.
Having cleared her diary and promoted her deputy at Pyronix to MD, she threw herself into her civic duties.
She says: “It was such an honour and a wonderful experience – I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
“I met so many amazing people – volunteers who make a massive difference to the lives of others. There was a very profound sign on the wall of a hospice in Doncaster that said it had benefitted from 55,500 volunteer hours. Without those volunteers, the hospice couldn’t have survived. I found that incredible and so humbling.”
With her year as a civic dignitary now firmly behind her – and yet another trophy in the cabinet – Julie is once again fully focused on growing the Pyronix brand.
She attributes her phenomenal success to having pounced on opportunities when they arose and, quite simply, to plain, old hard graft.
She adds: “My advice to anyone starting out in business is to be true to your values and to be happy in what you are doing.
“There will be tough times – times when you have to dig deep. But you must stay focused and persevere. Believe in yourself. Believe you can do it…and just do it!