Women in Innovation: Q&A with Karen Friendship

Susie Parker
Senior Marketing Manager - Membership, Policy & Climate Change | Business West
7th March 2019

To celebrate International Women’s Day we caught up with a number of leading business women in the South West. 

We chat to Karen Friendship, Managing Director of Alderman Tooling Ltd about her role, women in Innovation, her thoughts on the challenges for the next generation and who inspires her!

1. Tell us a bit about your role? 

I’m Managing Director of Alderman Tooling, a metal fabrication company based in Plymouth.  We offer a suite of metal fabrication services, one of the most comprehensive in the South West.  We don’t have our own product but manufacture components for major industrial brands across the region.

Aldermans is a family owned business, started by my father in 1969 – so we celebrate our 50th anniversary this year.  He has now largely retired from the business.  I was appointed MD in 2005.

My role is diverse.  Ultimately, I need to ensure that my team are doing their jobs in a safe, ethical and motivating way.  I have an Operations Manager, Production Manager, Supervisory and Quality team all supported by a team of design engineers and skilled tradespeople.  We’re now a 50-strong team here, which includes apprentices through to operators with some 40 years’ experience!

2. What is a typical working day for you?

No two days are the same, which makes it exciting. After delivering my energetic children to the school bus, my day starts with my ‘to do’ list from the day before and the list of emails occupying my inbox.

Within the business I meet regularly with our quote team, to ensure all new enquiries are being handled.  Financially, I set and monitor budgets, cash flow and profit & loss, and ensure the bills are paid on time.

I’m also constantly exploring new opportunities with technology and machinery to ensure we stay ahead of the competition.  And I’m also the main sales spokesperson when it comes to winning major new accounts.

3. What do you enjoy most about your job?  

There’s a huge amount of personal satisfaction in seeing what we’ve achieved as a team over the last few years.  I’m constantly aware of our heritage at Aldermans, and I’m keen to keep our roots and values strong, while looking to the future and exploring how the business can adapt, invest and modernise.  We have a great team of people, and we like to prove that we can have a friendly environment and a family culture, while still achieving the highest standards of manufacturing and business excellence.  Gaining awards and recognition is always gratifying - such as our ISO triple certification; and the Employer of the Year award in the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards UK 2017.  Being named as one of the 2018 Top 50 Women In Engineering was an honour.

4. What are the most challenging aspects of your job? 

Customers demand three things – keen prices, quick lead times and high quality.  The challenge is delivering all three, while building a healthy margin so we can invest for the future.  This has been the key focus of mine since I became MD.

5. What are 3 key things you think are important to succeed as a woman in business?

Professionally, you need to have depth.  Personally, you need to have vision.  Practically, you need a support network.

Depth, because you need to really know your business and your customers, especially if you’re working in a male-dominated industry.  You really need to know your figures, and technical details, and the bigger market issues, so you can speak with confidence and command the confidence of others.  Vision, because you will face set-backs, juggling life and work, and facing tough decisions – so being focused on the goal is key, and celebrating your achievements along the way.  Practically too, as a working woman (and in my case, a mother), it’s helpful to have the support of family and friends who can step in and help in emergencies or if I need to be away on business.  A support network of other women in business is helpful, so you can learn from those who have journeyed ahead of you and can also provide support to those starting out.  

6. What are the biggest challenges for the future generation of women in business?

Sometimes (not always) women seem to lack the confidence to step up and put themselves forward for roles.  It’s recognised as a big issue in recruitment generally.  Women can sometimes focus on what they think they can’t do, rather than what they can.  There is much good work being done to encourage women into STEM careers, to demonstrate the appeal of engineering and break the stereotypes; but building confidence is also vital; and showing how skills can be transferred from one career or role to another.

7. How can we help a younger generation of women be prepared to succeed in life and business?

I think it starts at home, with mothers inspiring their daughters to work hard and achieve.  My mother has been a huge inspiration to me and has been a major part in the Aldermans’ story.  It wasn’t just my dad’s business – it was my mum’s too; and she worked on the machines, and supported the business financially in those early days.  The more our daughters see positive female role models, the more they will be inspired to emulate.  Getting a good female mentor is so valuable too.

8. Why is it important for women to be involved in innovation and creativity? 

It’s important for everyone to be involved in innovation and creativity, male or female.  Everyone has different skills, life experiences, personalities and ways of looking at the world, and all of these are equally valuable in driving and implementating innovation.  It’s also vital for everyone to understand what innovation actually looks like, so they know they can contribute to it.  It’s often assumed that innovation has to be a radical new invention or disrupter.  In reality it’s often a series of small, incremental, persistent changes which add up.  It’s important to create a culture at work where this is not only encouraged but it’s the norm.  At Aldermans we’ve invested heavily in training for ‘lean’ skills – the skills that drive process efficiency.  Male and female staff, shopfloor and office staff have participated, because creative solutions can come from anywhere within the business.

9. How can we inspire younger generation of women to lead in innovation roles?

There are some great initiatives which encourage girls to pursue STEM careers – such as the Plymouth Women in STEM group.  For my part, I’m a local STEM ambassador.  I work in close liaison with University Technical College Plymouth, and Plymouth University to help promote STEM education and mentoring.  My degree is in Civil Engineering, so I speak from experience.

10. What women inspire you and why?

I would have to be honest and say that there are no particular famous women that have inspired me. I believe my ambition to succeed may have started when I started to play golf at the age of 14. I was the only female junior at our club, and I have been surrounded by my male counterparts ever since. I simply felt I must be as good as them to play in the team and to succeed I must be equal. I stretched myself by playing off the men’s tees, which helped my golf. I still play golf today when I have time and I still have the competitive spirit that drives me on.


Read more in this series:

Women in Innovation: Q&A with Kathryn White 

Women in Business: Q&A with Emily Kent 

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