Judith Armstrong has landed her first chief executive position on what she calls a part-time contract – although she seems to be available every day of the week. BQ editor Steve Dyson reports.
There are two crucial aspects to Judith Armstrong’s life. Firstly, she’s the proud mum of two young children, and wants to spend quality time with them as they grow up. Secondly, she’s the new chief executive of Millennium Point, the huge, 500,000 sq ft building that overlooks the east of Birmingham city centre, a stone’s throw from where Curzon Street, the new high-speed (HS2) rail station, will be based from 2027.
Armstrong not only leads Millennium Point Property Limited, effectively a landlord with high-profile tenants and a turnover of £5m-a-year. She also heads the charitable Millennium Point Trust, which after running and maintenance costs spends the rest of its £900,000-plus surplus on educational, business and creative activities.
How does Armstrong square such busy roles across a part-time week, as well as being mum to four-year old Evie and two-year-old James? To start with, she says, she answers to a board who understand that her hours are technically Monday to Thursday.
“Their understanding that it’s those four days is important because my first role is as a mum, and I want the flexibility to do things like taking the kids to school, watching the odd school play, and going see their teachers. But flexibility is the key word.
“Tomorrow’s Friday and there’s a meeting that can’t be held any other time and so this week – from choice – I’ll be there. And of course, I’m always available to take important calls from people like my chairman, although on Fridays he understands the children might be in the background.”
That sounds like a part-time role creeping into a full working week, but for Armstrong the flexibility works. And for Millennium Point, it means her wage bill is lower than if she was full-time.
“Part-time roles are few and far between at this level,” the 38-year-old says. “There’s a traditional view that if you’re in a senior role then working has to mean five days a week. But why shouldn’t companies look at the huge pool of people with all the skills, knowledge and willingness to work hard in senior positions, and who come a lot cheaper because they want to be part-time?”
Armstrong started life as Judith Rees in Sutton Coldfield, the youngest of three children to a mum who worked as a deputy head teacher and a dad who owned an engineering business. When she was 11, her parents became “fed up with the rat race” and they all moved to the Loire Valley in France, buying a large property to run as property lets. This meant a young Judith grew up bi-lingual, returning to England aged 18 to begin a Languages degree at Coventry University.
But her unconventional background soon gave her the confidence to make her own decisions in life. “I didn’t want to stay in languages,” she says, “because I didn’t want to be a teacher or translator, so after my first year I left university and went and found myself a job.”
This may have disappointed her parents to start with, but it was the beginning of a career. She became a finance assistant in TNT’s newspaper delivery division, then a logistics analyst. She studied at night school for a HND in Business and Finance and moved into operations to help improve projects and cost processes.
Then she took a job as a reporting manager for logistics giant DHL, who sponsored her to become a Chartered Management Accountant. She worked in the foreign contracts and logistics division, and led a change management programme to relocate the finance office from Ipswich to Birmingham, taking the team down from nine to four.
Next came a job on DHL’s capital investment programmes – buying trucks and warehouse equipment – and from there she became finance manager of the company’s £50m Same Day division. This fast-track development saw Armstrong – then still the single Rees and aged just 29 – appointed as Same Day’s finance director, working directly for DHL’s UK chief executive.
“This was hard work and very demanding,” Armstrong recalls. “But I probably learned the most I’ve learned in my career, including how to manage and lead people.”
By now, she was married to Francis Armstrong, a regional sales manager at DHL, and after maternity leave decided she wanted something more local and part-time. She joined Millennium Point as financial director in September 2012, starting at two days a week, then three days a week, and finally four when she became chief operating officer – deputy to the then chief executive Philip Singleton.
Armstrong’s senior role has helped improve Millennium Point’s financial performance every year since, and so she was the obvious choice to succeed Singleton when he left last October. Her appointment is ‘interim’ for the first year, but she hopes this will be confirmed “six months down the line” once she’s “proved my contribution to the organisation”.
Armstrong’s plan is to separate the Millennium Point property company and trust, which until now have been run jointly. “They’re very different,” she explains. “The property company is there to make money. The Trust is there for the good we can do for Birmingham and the community. That means setting different objectives.
“With the property, we need to improve the building to make more money, reinvesting so that we’re ready when HS2 arrives. We’re right in the middle of what will be the city’s new gateway, so we’ve got to make as much money as possible to invest in buildings and reap that prime opportunity.
“We’ve had success in the past, but there’s more to be done to make us a real landmark in Birmingham. We’d like to be better known as the place to experience the future. But we need to maximise assets.”
When Armstrong joined Millennium Point, it was still operating the IMAX cinema, with a giant 3D screen that had become “old era technology”, making large losses. This was closed, and the space sublet as an auditorium for Birmingham City University, making money. The building’s current space is 99% let, but Armstrong is determined to plan that final slice of rental carefully, and to consider changes to drive more events.
She says: “There are different pockets where we could maximise space, converting some areas for events. And we’ll keep a very tight rein on our large facilities contracts, making sure we maximise things like energy efficiency. Millennium Point is one of most successful millennium projects outside London. We’re independent. We generate our own funds to run and distribute. Our budget this year will see another increase in the bottom line, but will be by quite a lot more.
“By doing that we can make more money for our charity enterprises. We’d like to expand our Young Innovator Prize programme. We’re going to run a number of exhibitions, including hosting the Big Art Project. And we plan a social media campaign to invite people to share their favourite art in Birmingham.
“We can also consider other applications, because the more money we make, the more we can do for the public. That’s the real beauty of this job and why my eye’s on the bottom line. Rather than making loads of money for shareholders, we’re making money for a much better and a local purpose.”
Back to women in senior roles having children, Armstrong adds: “I’ve got a great job and
am very lucky. It’s so demanding to be a mum – it’s almost easier to go out to work! Juggling motherhood and a job isn’t easy, but with the right, supportive employer, you can do both.”
Millennium Point opened in 2001 after a partnership development by Birmingham City Council, Birmingham City University and Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.
It cost £114m to build, which included £50m of lottery funding, £25m of European money, £7m of government funding and £8m from the project partners, with more coming from private corporate sponsors.
The building aims to help visitors to explore ideas, science, education, technology and the arts, and has triggered the regeneration of the surrounding brownfield site over the last 15 years – creating the Knowledge Quarter.
Millennium Point’s major tenants are Thinktank (Birmingham’s science museum), the Birmingham School of Acting, the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment, and the Fashion and Graphics Labs.
One of its charitable activities is the Young Innovator Prize, which sponsors a Year 13 student from the West Midlands through an undergraduate degree at Birmingham City University. Entries are now open for the 2016 Prize, worth £27,000, with the final taking place in March 2016. There’s more information at www.millenniumpoint.org.uk/yip.
Millennium Point also holds large public events, with recent examples including: Anne Frank and You, an exhibition telling the story of Holocaust victim and diarist Anne Frank; the Birmingham Independent Food Fair; and Birmingham Made Me – a showcase of local design and manufacturing.
Vivaanta is at 22 Water Front Walk, Birmingham B1 1SN. Tel 0121 665 6568,