Profile: Amanda McLaren

Amanda McLaren, managing director of James Heal.  Picture Bruce Rollinson
Amanda McLaren, managing director of James Heal. Picture Bruce Rollinson
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In the last three years James Heal has doubled its profits and grown turnover. Lizzie Murphy meets the woman responsible, Amanda McLaren.

It was January 2014 when Amanda McLaren received a mysterious phone call from a former colleague.

He told her that her old boss, David Repper, owner and managing director of James Heal, wanted to talk to her.

She met Repper for a coffee and he told her of his plans to retire and sell the business, a manufacturer of textile testing instruments that had been in his family for 68 years.

“He recognised that his biggest challenge was taking the business to market with no leadership or succession plan,” McLaren says. “My name was suggested and when he asked me to rejoin the business it was a surprise but I said I was ready for it.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. McLaren was working as group manufacturing director for Swift Caravans in Hull but spending up to four hours a day commuting was taking its toll and she had already started to look for another job closer to her West Yorkshire home.

It was no coincidence that McLaren, who left James Heal in 2008, was put forward as a potential successor.

The 49-year-old who describes herself as ‘restless and energetic’, had been itching to run the business, based in a former textile mill in Halifax, when she was operations director there but being a family business there wasn’t the opportunity at the time and she reluctantly left to further her career elsewhere.

She re-joined as operations director in April 2014 with the understanding that she would step up as managing director when the business was sold.

“It was a big risk because I took a significant drop in salary with the vision of what I really wanted to do,” McLaren says. “I hoped that whoever bought us could see that I could do it.”

Her first job was to clear up a mess left behind by her predecessor. “The lead times in the business had gone out dramatically, the sales channel partners were upset and we were losing business. The place was in a state,” she says.

When the business was sold to global investment firm Battery Ventures five months later, thankfully it supported her move to the top.

Three years later, turnover has risen to £14m, up from £10m, and it has more than doubled earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). It employs 110 staff.

Key to its success, according to McLaren is its people. She overhauled the board structure and made changes to the workforce in addition to improving training and communication within the firm.

“I truly believe that people is your most important commodity in a business,” she says.

James Heal provides equipment to test the properties and performance of fabrics, such as tearing, pilling, fading and abrasion.

It ships instruments to its 55 agents and distributors around the world who sell them into the textile sector - to global laboratories as well as mills and factories for retailers including M&S and Next.

Ninety five per cent of its business is exported around the world but particularly to low cost manufacturing markets like Bangladesh, China, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. It also covers the US, UAE and Europe. The latter comprises about 12 per cent of the firm’s export activity.

McLaren says she is not too concerned about Brexit yet, although she is keeping a keen eye on trade agreements for exports.

The next year will be particularly exciting for the company as it makes inroads into a new market. It is working closely with Volkswagen and global tyre companies to test the abrasion properties of rubber in the automotive sector. “We recognise we need another string to our bow so we’re starting to build that up as a parallel offering,” McLaren says.

Born and brought up in Bradford, McLaren left school at 16 to work as a trainee buyer at Asda head office in Leeds.

But soon she realised she actually wanted to get under the skin of the products being made. “I always had an interest around engineering but I didn’t realise it,” she says. “I put myself on a car mechanic course when I was 17, although I didn’t know why at the time.”

She spent nine years during the Nineties in a purchasing role at Microvitec, which manufactured computer terminals and monitors for the likes of Bloomberg and BT, alongside studying.

The passion for manufacturing fell into place when she arrived at James Heal as a senior buyer in 1998. “This place was a proper dirty engineering shop,” says McLaren, gesturing around her immaculate office. “It was great.”

She worked her way up and was eventually put in charge of setting up a new test materials division, which now accounts for about 26 per cent of the company’s turnover.

When she left as operations director in 2008, McLaren decided go and get some ‘big board’ experience and became group manufacturing director at bus building firm Optare.

In 2012 she was tasked with winding down and closing its Blackburn factory in Lancashire which employed 120 people, a role she describes as “emotional”.

From there she moved to Swift Caravans.

Throughout her relentless career path, McLaren, whose husband Mark is an engineer, was also bringing up two children, now age 20 and 16. “The only way to do it is to have a good infrastructure behind you,” she says. “My husband worked shifts and my mum gave up work and she became a real backbone to our family.

“You need to be comfortable that the children are safe and happy. If you have that you can throw yourself into work.”

Factfile

Title: Managing director

Date of birth: July 24, 1968

Education: Rhodesway Upper School in Bradford; HNC Business and Finance at Bradford College; MCIPS, Open University.

First job: Trainee buyer at Asda

Favourite holiday destination: Cyprus

Favourite film: Godfather trilogy

Favourite song: Top three are Champagne Supernova, by Oasis; Don’t want to miss a thing, by Aerosmith; One Night, by Elvis

Last book read: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy

Car driven: Audi Q5

Most proud of: My children