TRACY GARRAD was just 17 when she lost her mother. The painful fallout stopped her from going to university.
Instead, she found a customer services job at a home improvement company in Worcestershire.
“I was very fortunate that a lady that I went to work for spotted something in me,” says Garrad.
“She asked ‘why are you not furthering your education?’
“I had been through such a lot of personal turmoil with myself, the last thing I wanted at that point was to go off in isolation and not know anybody so she persuaded the company to allow me to study and they sponsored me to do an HND in business and finance.”
Garrad went on to thrive in her business career, holding diverse roles in sales and marketing, public affairs, operational management and technology in sectors including automotive, retail and financial services.
Her first job in banking was with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development; she then spent ten years with Abbey National and Santander.
Today, the mother of two is the newly appointed chief executive of retail bank First Direct, which is headquartered in Leeds.
Garrad remembers the kindly woman who recognised the potential.
“She has been a huge influence in my life and that has spurred me on.
“If I had not met her I might not be doing what I’m doing today.
“There are an awful lot of youngsters in our society who end up with fragmented family lives for a whole host of reasons and I don’t think there is any better cause than to help them.”
She questions whether a teenager facing the same challenges that she did would be able to go on and succeed in today’s world.
“Social mobility continues to be a bit of a problem in the UK.
“I don’t know now whether it would be so easy for someone in the circumstances that I was in to make the kind of progress that I was able to make.
“We have floods of graduates coming out without sufficient jobs of the calibre that graduates are looking for and they deserve, having spent so much time studying.
“We need as a society to have much more respect for vocational work, not just for academic achievement.”
Garrad wonders if employers are losing out on talent by insisting on university-educated recruits.
“There are a lot of employers saying you can’t get through the door without a degree. At First Direct, we have a policy that says we recruit for attitude and personality first and foremost and then we teach the competence, skills and knowledge that you need to do the job with us.”
She highlights the bank’s apprenticeship scheme and its work with the Prince’s Trust to mentor young people and provide training in areas like interview skills.
Garrad is adamant that the lack of a university degree should be an impediment to success.
“Businesses are almost cutting off a pipeline of talented, capable, driven people if they merely look for a piece of paper as the first filtering process.
“I do think that some youngsters are almost made to feel that they are not normal if that isn’t the route that they take.
“I just think there are many other options and as employers we have a responsibility to try and help our youngsters regardless of which routes they take and to open up opportunities that don’t have these barriers.”
Next, the issue of women in the boardroom. Although growing numbers of females are reaching top positions in business, official figures suggest that the rise will not be sufficient to meet Government targets.
Garrad is the first female CEO of First Direct. The pioneering telephone and online bank is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Asked why so few women get to the top, Garrad pointed out: “I think the good news is if you look at banking, you have got Ana Botin at the top of Santander, my old firm, you have Charlotte Hogg reasonably near the top at the Bank of England, you have Alison Brittain at Lloyds and you have Jayne-Anne Gadhia at Virgin.
“You have more and more. That is a great sign of the times.
“But it can be really difficult, particularly if you have a family. I have two children, 17 and 21 this year.
“I think the secret is that you need to have a really good partnership on the domestic front in order as a woman to succeed.”
She adds: “One of the things that charactises my career is that at certain times I have pushed forward and at other times my husband did and we were very willing to take that approach.
“The balance for us has changed over the years.
“ He is a very modern man in that he was quite happy to support my career and probably has as much as aspiration for me in my career as I do.
“I think that is really important that you have a partnership that is equal and willing to flex.”
Garrad says the Government could do more to support working families through tax breaks for childcare costs.
She believes that employers can create a more family-friendly work environment for women with families.
She said: “In a lot of organisations it is still the people who are there when the sun comes up and there when the sun goes down that are seen as the most committed when technology now enables us to work differently.
“A lot of women do drop out of the workplace that are very capable because it is a struggle if you have a partner who is working and if you are commuting.
“It is really difficult to juggle if you have young children. It is tough.
“It takes a lot of determination and compromise in family arrangements if you are going to make that work.”