Seal of approval for company leader with high ambitions
IT’s always good to have ambitions that are out of this world.
Zoe Fearnley’s vision of an export-led recovery isn’t limited to Earth, it seems.
She’s the new managing director of Ashton Seals, a Yorkshire company that has supplied sealing units containing scientific equipment that is tough enough to survive the vacuums in space.
That’s to say nothing of Ashton Seals’ work to supply cryogenic seals for scientific studies in the Arctic circle.
The company she leads also supplied some of the seals to CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research – in connection with the Hadron Collider; the huge atom-smashing machine built to probe the origins of the universe.
All this is a towering rebuff to those who believe engineering is dated and a tad dull. Far from it.
Based in Cortonwood, near Barnsley, a place synonymous with the last great miners’ strike, Ashton Seals is David Cameron’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in action. Exports make up 20 per cent of the company’s sales, and this figure is poised to grow under Ms Fearnley’s leadership.
Ms Fearnley, 43, has secured the top job after spending 20 years rising through the ranks.
“We sell to just about every country in the world,’’ she said proudly.
She is a tireless advocate for UK engineering, a sector which has traditionally struggled to recruit women. Just one in 20, or 5.7 per cent, of professional engineers are female, and recent research from WISE, which campaigns to promote women in science, technology and maths roles – or STEM – found that just 13 per cent of people working in occupations classed as STEM were women.
“An engineering degree is one of the best things to have, because it will open so many doors into so many different sectors,” said Ms Fearnley.
“Engineering will always exist and it will constantly be developing new innovations.
“The market sectors that we sell into are vast – we sell into petrochemical, pharmaceutical, automotive, white goods and distribution.”
Born in Rotherham Hospital in Sheffield, she was brought up in North Anston and was privately schooled at Worksop College before doing A-levels at Thomas Rotherham College.
Her first proper job was at Ant Marketing in Sheffield. She learned to sell over the phone, an art which requires plenty of patience, persistence and tact. She also worked on a newspaper, selling ads to business, before taking a job in sales at Ashtons.
The firm can trace its heritage back to 1866, when Thomas A Ashton trundled his handcart through the cobbled streets of Sheffield.
He spotted a need for a local firm that could repair machinery quickly. Today, the company supplies seals, gaskets and lubrication equipment to customers in places such as South Africa and the US.
“We’ve got about 50 people on site,’’ said Ms Fearnley. “I’d love to increase that number – we have got good expectations of growth this year, and we want to expand our product portfolio.
“We want to see our business expand with our existing customer base. I’d love to take on more staff.”
Ms Fearnley still has a passion for sales and customer service, and she wants the spotlight to shine on the team she has helped to nurture.
She said: “I love it when I take on people in the sales office and I see that they are starting to get relationships with customers and they are bringing in business which they know is solely down to them.
“They feel proud that they’ve brought that in. It’s our people that set us apart from our competition. We don’t want to be the cheapest price; we want to be the best supplier. The best in terms of the service, the quality, and on-time deliveries. We want the customers to enjoy the experience of talking to Ashtons, and get off the phone and say, ‘That person was really helpful’.”
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that persistence pays,’’ she said. “You’ve got to be proactive, you’ve got to be asking the right questions and understanding your customers’ needs.
“Economic trends can have a significant effect on our business, especially during the recession.”
Ashtons prudently decided to supply a wide a range of sectors, which helped to protect it from the toughest headwinds when the recession struck in late 2008.
Ms Fearnley said: “A few years ago we only did one or two types of seals. Now we do so many.
“They are in your bathroom pipes, they are in your refrigerator, they are in your oven, your kettle, and in your sink.”
Although engineering is not for the faint-hearted, it can certainly fire the imagination of younger members of the Ashtons team.
Ms Fearnley recalled: “We took one of our young lads into one of our top automotive customers’ factory. It was such an awesome opportunity for him. He was completely wowed by it.”
She believes senior management shouldn’t hide in ivory towers if they want to command respect.
“I choose to sit in the middle of the office,” she said. “I have got an office where I can have quiet meetings or make a phone call. But the staff know if they have got a problem with a customer, or they need help immediately, then we are all there to find solutions as quickly as we can for the customers.”
She’s a big fan of engineering graduates, but a degree can never be a guarantee of a top job.
She said: “They’ve got to be prepared to start at the bottom and work hard and exceed expectations.”
A philosophy that has certainly served Ms Fearnley well.
Title: Managing director, Ashton Seals Ltd
Education: Worksop College Private School
First job: Behind the bar of the local pub then Ant Marketing in Sheffield which was a great company to start my career in sales with. Then on to the Trader News Group selling advertising space.
Favourite song: John Lennon – Imagine.
Favourite film: Al Pacino’s Scarface (my brothers and I know all the words) or Harry Potter.
Last book read: Girl on a Train – strange but gripping read.
The thing you are most proud of: I am proud and privileged to be chosen as managing director of Ashton Seals.