Joanna Robinson this year stepped into Alan Pollard’s shoes to become managing director ofBradford-based ventilation and air-conditioning specialist Mansfield Pollard.
Now a global success story for Yorkshire, making bespoke double-decker sized systems for banks and hotels worldwide, the business started life working with sheet metal used in the woollen industry.
Although the firm has been through a major evolution in the past 150 years, Robinson is aiming to ensure no dyed-in-the-wool attitudes survive to prevent the company achieving its potential.
The 40-year-old, who joined Mansfield Pollard back in 2000, admits that being a woman heading a manufacturing firm in the North of England puts her in a pretty unique position.
“I would say so,” said Robinson.
“Women are a bit more creative and a bit more driven. For me, it’s about modernising a very old company, set in its ways. That’s the way this company is and has been run for a long time. And it’s been perpetuated because another bloke’s taken over, and then another...
“I’ve got two young children – I’m a mother as well. It is difficult and that’s probably why a lot of women aren’t in that position because it is hard.
“I’ve never experienced a glass ceiling. I know some people have so I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but I have been fortunate and the people I’ve worked for have been superb and I’ve never felt like that at all before.”
Leeds-born Robinson left school at 16 with GCSEs and ended up doing an HND in business and finance, which led to a job as an accountancy junior. She qualified as a certified accountant, worked her way up and joined Mansfield Pollard as financial controller 13 years ago.
“The company had expanded between 1995 and 2000 quite considerably and outgrew their existing staff so they decided they wanted somebody qualified,” she said.
“From financial controller I was made company secretary in 2005, in 2007 I was made finance director, and then at the beginning of this year, managing director.
“We have a board of directors, someone proposed me and everyone agreed so it was quite an easy process really. I was fortunate but I think the fact that I was younger as well – a lot of the company is aging – meant I’m probably the right person at the right time. I’ve just turned 40.”
Shaking up Mansfield Pollard’s public image and raising its profile is central to Robinson’s vision. Vision is a word she uses a lot and she has very definite ideas of what she wants to achieve.
“We are very team oriented but we have just lacked that somebody in charge saying ‘right, we’re going to go in this direction’,” she said.
“And because that’s not been my role - finance is not that involved in other areas, although I did stick my nose in other areas and try to get involved. People can be very difficult and if it’s somebody else’s responsibility it’s hard to influence what they do, especially when you’re not in any kind of control or a position to do that. The company’s just been going through the motions.”
‘Going though the motions’ has seen the business grow from a £5m turnover at the start of the century to just shy of £13m last year. This year’s figure is around 13 per cent ahead of 2012, which experienced a dip, and around six per cent higher than 2011.
“We’re hoping to increase turnover to between £18m and £20m within the next three to five years,” Robinson said.
“We’ve just rebranded and got a new website and redone all the literature. We’ve got a new logo and a new image, just to try and show off what we do.
“We’re very good at what we do and we’ve got a lot of customers that come back to us and have done for a long time. But with very little effort we are managing to grow year on year so imagine if we put a bit of effort into marketing and the image and how we actually think about the strategy and how we grow. We’ve got a lot of growing to do and it’s bound to pay off.
“I need to raise the profile of the business. I’ve got a new sales and marketing director I’ve hired who is starting in a month and it’s all about going and finding the work. There’s lots of work out there.”
Although the majority of the company’s business is domestic, Robinson’s eyes are firmly fixed on the export market. Mansfield Pollard currently has contracts in the UAE and has recently produced a number of large ventilation and air con units for customers in Nigeria and Australia. Its products are also in demand from top hotels and restaurants in Dubai, where the bespoke nature of the equipment – such as the ability to add odour control features to kitchen canopies – is proving very popular.
“UAE has been simmering for a few years and in the past year it’s really taken off for us. We’re hoping that’s going to fuel growth elsewhere in the Gulf,” said Robinson.
“We are considering moving into a couple of new areas which we are just investigating at the moment like Scandinavia. We’re looking at the areas that want to buy British because we can sell easily on the back of that. British manufacturing I think is quite highly regarded and at the moment there are various countries that are actually positive towards it and looking to buy British.”
One of the biggest projects the business has undertaken was a £120,000 stainless steel kitchen canopy for a Russian catering company. Mansfield Pollard is one of the UK’s top suppliers of canopies to the restaurant trade and is aiming to build its share of the market through innovative green product development. Improved fans, motors and lighting in the kitchen canopies, for example, have reduced the equipment’s electricity usage by an astonishing 80 per cent. The company is investing in innovation across the board as part of Robinson’s master plan.
She said: “We’ve also got a ventilation department, air handling unit department, which controls the temperature and the freshness of the air, and we’ve got a controls department and a refrigeration department.
“Each of these requires someone at the top who’s really technical, or more than one person. We’ve got all these highly experienced people that can all get their heads together and usually solve any problem that anybody’s got to do with ventilation, whereas most of our competitors are just a canopy company or a controls company. That’s all that they’ll do. We do everything, so we can get together and solve any problem that exists really.”
A key growing market is air con units for data centres housing fileservers, a market that is set to explode in tandem with the growth of cloud computing.
“If you’ve just got a bank of severs, a bank of computers, the heat that’s generated from this equipment is immense,” says Robinson.
“Once it gets to a really high temperature your equipment can stop working. So it’s really specialist high quality stuff. We are probably one of the dominant players in that market. It is highly technical and again that’s another product we’ve developed that’s very energy efficient.”
The company’s newest department, Vibration and Acoustic Control – known as VAC – reduces noise in back-up generation systems used by large financial institutions, hospitals and schools, via a housing system for the generator.
“We’ll definitely be looking to create jobs. It’s a highly labour intensive company,” said Robinson.
“We’ve got about 130 staff, with 80-90 in the factory. Everything we do is bespoke and manufactured by us.”
Taking the helm of the business has been a steep learning curve for Robinson; she is working on her leadership skills and has regular one-to-one sessions with an external mentor. It’s been a tough process to both manage change and translate her vision into something the rest of the team can understand and take ownership of.
“It’s been great - very exciting, very hard, and very difficult. People are the main problem to be honest - getting them to understand where I’m coming from and what I want from them,” she said.
“That’s the difficult part, getting people to understand what my vision is for the company and making sure that they’re on board and translating.”
However, being a woman and the first non-family member to head the firm has not been an issue. Predecessor Alan Pollard is now chairman and owns the majority of the company. The rest is controlled by the board of directors, which bought out Alan Pollard’s brother in an MBO in 2011.
Robinson said: “It’s just difficult stepping up really from being one of the directors. It’s now my vision as opposed to me following someone else’s vision, to get people to understand and get on board with what I want to happen.
“There is a lot of pressure, but I think my role is to modernise the company really. We’ve got lots of guys that are highly technical and engineers that are not the most creative people. They haven’t got a great deal of vision.
“Just like this room for example,” Robinson points to the boardroom, “renovating and making the whole place a nicer place for people to work, rather than a dirty old back street engineering company.
“If you’re going to step up to the next level and you’re going to impress your customers, you’ve got to have somewhere that’s worthy of that. So it’s a modernisation process.
“Not just in the site, but the way that we approach everything and the attitude to marketing and selling needs to change.
“It is a lot of pressure but it’s exciting and we’re going through the biggest amount of change we’ve ever gone through.”