Profile - Sue Sharples: Steely resolve of the woman who forged a career in a tough world

YOU can tell a lot about a person's character from their viewing habits.

Sue Sharples's favourite film is Fargo, a thriller in which the dominant character is a female policewoman, who comes out on top by foiling an assortment of hapless, male, criminals.

Ms Sharples enjoys watching a strong female character lead from the front.

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She is probably tired of hearing this, but very few women become managing directors of large steel building firms.

She wants the sector to shed its male-dominated image and have a workforce that reflects life outside the factory gate.

Along with John Brennan, she became joint MD of Bradford-based Barrett Steel Buildings in 2007, after they completed a management buyout from the Barrett family.

Within months, the financial world was sucked into the abyss and companies like Barrett had to fight harder than ever to win work.

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At the time of the deal, the company had a turnover of more than 25m. Today, it is around 13m, which reflects the way the world has changed.

In response, Ms Sharples is bullish but pragmatic. Barrett, which has 60 staff, is still winning work, but she has no illusions about the challenges ahead.

Recent triumphs have included a contract to work on a giant Marks & Spencer distribution centre in Bradford.

Ms Sharples said: "The local community worked very hard to bring the M&S scheme to Bradford. We did our bit to try to convince the developers that we were the right team to work with. They were proved right when the job came in on time and to budget.

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"We've had to reduce our costs substantially and, unfortunately, that's resulted in a number of redundancy rounds. We have to look at our costs every week to see where we can reduce them. We want to try to continue to give the service we have always done, but at a much lower cost."

Ms Sharples career began at the age of 16, when she joined British Gas, in Leeds, as a junior office clerk. Keen to move up the career ladder, she qualified as a certified accountant in 1989 and went to work for the Henry Barrett Group, in Bradford.

The company was founded in 1867, when Henry Barrett decided that the future lay in the steel industry. He left his job at an iron stockholding company to set up a steel stockholding firm. The company proved to be a resounding success, and by the time Ms Sharples arrived, it was a bedrock of the local business community.

She became finance director in 1995 and a shareholder in 2001.

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Her career was boosted by her decision to take an MBA at Huddersfield University in 1993.

"The part of the MBA I found most interesting was the section on strategy,'' she recalled. "That's what I've been able to bring to this business. We need to be more strategic in our thinking and develop proper business plans. That certainly proved valuable when we had the MBO. We wanted to be seen in the premier league of contract steelworkers in the UK. I think we've achieved that."

If the steel building sector is to flourish, it must attract a quality workforce. In her role as chair of the British Constructional Steelwork Association's Human Resource and Training Committee, Ms Sharples wants to be an agent of change.

"As a sector, we're not actually very good at training people,'' she said. "We've got a diminishing number of people within the sector. It's very white and male dominated. My role is to identify the training we need, so we can 'upskill' the sector and bring new people in.

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"We are seeing more women coming into the sector in areas such as quantity surveying, project management, architecture and engineering."

However, few women are to be found on the factory floor. To resolve this problem, the industry needs more apprentices.

"Unfortunately, when times are tough, people do cancel their apprenticeship schemes,'' she said.

"I know there have been a number of initiatives to encourage apprenticeships. I think the difficulty for businesses like ours is the huge amount of bureaucracy surrounding a lot of the support that's available to businesses. It's very complicated. It's changing all the time. As managers, we don't have time to sift through

all that.

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"People like Business Link are there to help us, but they're in a bit of limbo as well, because times are changing within them and within Yorkshire Forward. For businesses to get ahead, they need consistent and good advice from these sort of organisations."

Today, she believes the waste sector offers opportunities for growth.

She said: "We have done two quite big contracts in waste – one over in Lancashire and one in central Manchester, which is just coming to an end now. We're tracking a few of the newer developments which we hope

to get for 2011.

"We know that each council has to meet certain recycling targets. That involves rebuilding a lot of their existing facilities. That's why we think it will be a growth sector for us."

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She must surely be the lone female at many steel industry networking events. So does the glass ceiling still exist?

"Every day, I do see inspiring stories about women being successful in business,'' she said. "It's very important to have good role models. That's what inspired me. I hope other people will be inspired by women they see working at high levels."

During this lean period, Barrett is still winning high-profile work, including a contract to provide the steelwork for the new pit and paddock at the Formula One Grand Prix circuit at Silverstone.

"It can be difficult to see beyond the day to day at the moment,'' said Ms Sharples. "Our plan is to stick in there for the next year or two. I don't really see things improving substantially in construction, but then we hope growth will come after the next two years. We are looking to take advantage of that. We want to retain the key skills in the business and we can build on that when the time comes.

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"We have a big responsibility to carry the Barrett name forward. Yorkshire has a fair share of structural steelwork contractors. That's good in some ways, but it means people can move around to competitors. Overall, we welcome competition and that includes competition for good staff."

Ms Sharples's passion for helping people achieve their potential extends to her life outside the boardroom.

She's a volunteer with Open Country, a small charity based in Harrogate, that helps disabled people to enjoy the countryside.

"I've been involved in other charities but it usually ended up being a bit like work," said Ms Sharples. "We were going to meetings and sitting on committees all the time. This time I wanted to do something that was different to my job.

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"We take out disabled people to the North Yorkshire countryside. The rest of us can go to the countryside whenever we want, and these people can't. I get a real kick out of doing it.

"I've added to my skills again, because I passed the test to drive the minibus.

"It makes me realise that my work worries really aren't that important compared to what these people have to deal with."

In these straitened times, Ms Sharples believes it's good to keep the pressures of corporate life in perspective.


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Title: Joint managing director, Barrett Steel Buildings, Bradford

Date of birth: June 15, 1966

Education: Batley Girls' Grammar School, Leeds Polytechnic and the University of Huddersfield

First job: Junior clerk at British Gas in Leeds

Favourite song: Don't go back to Rockville – REM

Favourite holiday destination: Sydney – I was attending a conference and got the chance to run around the Opera House

Car driven: Freelander

Last book read: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Favourite film: Fargo

Thing I am most proud of: My career achievements.