Engineering champion who smashed through gender wall

Bridie Warner-Adsetts is a role model for encouraging more female engineers -and don't ever tell her she can't do something. Lizzie Murphy reports.

Bridie Warner-Adsetts

DON’T underestimate Bridie Warner-Adsetts.

That’s the over-riding message I take away from my 45-minute interview with the chief operating officer of Naylor Industries, a manufacturer of construction products.

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It’s the mistake her school careers adviser made when she told them she wanted to work with machinery and they sent her away with a typing course form, and it’s a theme that appears to have followed her career.

“I’m one of eight children and we’re all very practical,” she says. “My choice of career wasn’t discouraged at home but it was met with incredulity and humour at school - this funny little girl who wanted to be an engineer.”

She says she has become used to being under-estimated but she enjoys proving people wrong. “My attitude has always been ‘you can think that about me but I will show you you are wrong,” she says.

As a result, Warner-Adsetts returns to a familiar theme among female business leaders. “There are plenty of people along the way who say you can’t do something because you are a woman. You feel you have to work harder to prove yourself. It’s unfair but the reality of it is that we are still in a storming period of change. If I don’t say I will work harder and prove myself then it is never going to change for the next generation.”

Warner-Adsetts describes herself as “pretty unconventional in attitude” and “irreverent”. Although we’re speaking on the phone and I can’t see her face, I can tell she has a steely glint in her eye when she says: “just watch me”.

She is a role model for smashing through gender stereotypes. “This isn’t about men versus women,” she says. “A balance creates an environment where teams and businesses can make better decisions.”

The shortage of candidates for engineering and manufacturing roles continues to be a major problem and Warner-Adsetts believes there are two main barriers: One is a legacy issue. She believes the parents of today’s school children are out of touch with modern industry. The other barrier is the lack of support from education.

Warner-Adsetts wants to see a system introduced to monitor what happens to young people in their early careers when they leave education.

“At the moment it’s all about grades and that is important but if we knew what young people do with their education when they leave, the government could see exactly where the demand is,” she says.

She adds: “It has fallen on industry to prepare young people for the world of work but education needs to take some responsibility. There should be some connect between what industry needs and what education is turning out.”

Despite a shaky start with her careers adviser, Warner-Adsetts went on to study engineering at Sheffield University. But she was thwarted at the first hurdle when she graduated. “It was the 80s and I couldn’t get a job in engineering for love nor money,” she says.

She then applied and was rejected for an administration role at Sheffield Insulations, now SIG. But in an unexpected twist, the company sent her another letter by mistake inviting her for a second job interview, for a role she had never applied for, in the finance team.

“I didn’t know anything about finance apart from I didn’t have any money,” she says. “But I went to the interview and blagged my way in.”

Warner-Adsetts was at the company for almost a decade, working her way up to assistant manager in accounting services and was part of the team who floated the business.

She went on to work for a steel manufacturer followed by Jewson before taking a year out to travel the world, which included a stint running a charter boat around the Whitsunday islands in Australia.

On her return, she became operations director at furniture components manufacturer BLP, taking the company through a management buy-out in 2009 and its subsequent sale to BA Components.

Following a period as a consultant, six years ago Warner-Adsetts was headhunted to become chief operating officer of Naylor Industries. “You have moments in your life when you feel at home and that is how I felt when I joined Naylor,” she says.

Barnsley-based Naylor has a £50m turnover and employs 380 people at seven sites in Barnsley, Rotherham, Fife and the West Midlands.

The number of female managers has increased from five to 18 in five years and its board is 50 per cent female.

Exports have tripled in the last three years and currently account for 10 per cent of the business, sending its products to 65 countries.

The company is moving some of its operations to accommodate growth. It is relocating its concrete and plastics businesses as well as its head office after acquiring a nine-acre site in Wombwell, Barnsley.

It is also investing in new equipment for its plastics division following a grant from the Sheffield City Region LEP.

It’s towards the end of our conversation when I drop in the question of what she does in her spare time. More often than not in these interviews, the answer is bland and we move on quickly. “I run a small farm,” says Warner-Adsetts. Given our conversation so far, this doesn’t surprise me.

The farm in question is an arable farm, growing cereal, on the border of Sheffield and North Nottinghamshire. Warner-Adsetts lives there with and her husband and grown up step daughter’s family. They are soon to be joined by her other step daughter’s family, which will make six grandchildren in total.

“I’m new to this, I’ve only done it for three years but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and it’s so peaceful in the countryside,” she says.

Like I said, this woman should not be underestimated.

FACT BOX

Title: Chief operating officer

Date of birth: How rude!

Education: Degree in mechanical engineering at Sheffield University

First job: Gift wrapper in a toy shop

Favourite holiday destination: Havana

Favourite film: Frances Ford Coppola’s Dracula

Favourite song: Moon River

Last book read: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Car driven: Land Rover Discovery

Most proud of: The first harvest off my farm