The chief operating officer of Adnams joined the brewery as a part-time cleaner in 1988. In April, she became the first woman to join the board in the company’s history. Here she talks about coping in a crisis, brave leadership and why gender is irrelevant
Growing up, I wanted to be a barrister or join the army. My family had all been in the forces so at 16 I left Suffolk, got on a train to Guildford, and joined the army. I was promoted to lance corporal after 10 months and, when I was 17, I became the youngest girl in the UK to obtain an HGV licence.
I had to leave because I became pregnant. I got married at 18 and when I became pregnant at 20 I was asked to leave. I didn’t want to stop working so I got a job with a lady who went to the homes of service personnel and sold clothes. After four weeks I realised how much money I was earning for her and decided to do it myself. I flew back to the UK and began exporting goods to Germany from a local wholesaler. I worked from the cellar at home and employed eight women.
I joined Adnams in 1988 and worked as a cleaner. By 1990 my youngest child was at nursery school and I decided to leave because I wanted a day job and the cleaning was in the evenings. I left on the Friday, but asked the HR manager to ring me if any daytime positions became available. I got a call on the Monday morning, asking if I would work in stores and procurement three mornings a week.
Andy Wood [Adnams’chief executive] spotted I had talent. He joined the business in 1994 and, when he discovered that I had a background in logistics, asked if I would move across to the transport division. At first I declined, but I separated from my husband in 1995 and needed more money so I went back to him and agreed to become transport clerk if he paid me £2 an hour more.
It doesn’t matter what gender you are as long as you can do the job. Brewing and manufacturing are male-dominated industries and one of the challenges in the early years was proving my gender didn’t matter. I remember going to a Freight Transport Association lunch and there were about 600 men – and me. They made an assumption that someone had brought their secretary with them.
Never think you’re too old to learn. By 2000 I was head of logistics and decided I needed qualifications. I was a single parent and I spent my evenings studying for a diploma in management and for my certificate of professional competence to run a haulage business.
I work best in crisis. Other people get stressed, but I excel. Every business has a crisis point and the key to overcoming difficulties is to be able to look at the problem with critical reasoning skills – and not get emotional. You need to step back, take a breath and think about what the issues really are.
Leaders have to be brave. They must lead by example and be visible. I am open and honest, and will deliver a difficult message as equally as I’ll deliver a good one. It’s about being firm, but fair. I have an open-door policy. I am very approachable. Anyone in the business can come and talk to me about anything, however silly it may feel to them. Leaders need to be able to understand that their employees have all sorts of things going on in their lives other than work.
My dream is to be on the board of Ipswich Town Football Club. When I first became transport manager at Adnams I had 28 men to manage and I thought, ‘What am I going to talk to them about?’, which is why I started watching football. I was born and bred in Suffolk so began supporting Ipswich – that was many years ago and now I’m there every Saturday with my season ticket.
Be the best you can be because your best is good enough. The biggest lesson that I’ve learnt in business is to simply ‘be yourself’. With women, sometimes there can be a lack of self-esteem – but it’s important to accept who you are and believe that what you’re doing is right.
I am most proud of my staff. They are an extremely motivated bunch. A lot of my senior team started at the bottom as I did, and I have really enjoyed developing them and helping them to grow – there is mutual respect and trust between us.
There will never be another Karen Hester. I would like people to look back and think that. I want the people who worked with me to feel they knew where they stood with me – and that I said what I meant and meant what I said.
Karen Hester, chief operating officer of Adnams
Position Chief operating officer, Adnams
Previous roles Adnams operations director, customer services director, head of logistics, transport manager, transport clerk and cleaner
Awards East of England Business Woman of the Year 2008, and First Women Business of the Year Award 2013
Did you know? Hester was responsible for the development of the brewery’s award-winning environmental distribution centre in 2006. She relocated all staff to Reydon, Suffolk, on time and on budget – and now regards this as one of her proudest achievements
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