In 1988, Karen Hester took a job as a part-time cleaner at Adnams to earn money while caring for her two children. Now she runs the entire company’s day-to-day operations and will join the Suffolk brewer’s board as its first female executive director in April.
There was, Hester says, never a game plan as she rose through the ranks at Adnams. She got her cleaning job after returning to Suffolk from Germany where she and her husband were posted in the army.
Hester, 52, joined up from school and drove trucks and ambulances after becoming the youngest woman in Britain to get her heavy goods vehicle licence at the age of 17. When based at Aldershot, one of her jobs was to drive the chaplain to families of servicemen killed in the Falklands to tell them of their loss.
Her break at Adnams came when she got talking to Andy Wood, now Adnams’ chief executive, who joined as head of logistics in 1994. “He asked my background and said: ‘Why don’t you come and work for me and do transport again?’ But you know what women are like. I said it was a long time ago and I didn’t want to do it again.”
A year later, Hester separated from her husband and part-time work was no longer an option so she thought again about Wood’s offer.
“I either had to give up work and go on benefits or work more and I chose to work more.”
She told Wood she would join him if he paid her £2 an hour more. He beat her down to an extra £1 and then said she should not have relented because she was worth the extra £2. But the negotiation got her the job of transport clerk.
In 2000, Hester became Adnams’ head of logistics and in 2007 she was made operations director. By 2011 she had added human resources, sales, hotels, manufacturing to her empire.
“I wouldn’t say I had a grand plan. I’m the sort of person who thinks whatever job you’re doing if you do your best something better will happen.”
Hester is just the sort of woman Vince Cable, the business secretary, wants to see breaking into the boardroom. Adnams already has two women directors but they are non-executives who oversee but do not run the business as Hester does.
The government is pressing companies to promote women after Lord Davies, the former trade minister, set a target of 25% female boardroom representation by next year across FTSE 100 companies. He urged businesses outside the top 100 listed companies such as Adnams to do the same.
With the government approaching its target, Britain is among the top five countries in the world for female boardroom representation, according to a survey by Egon Zehnder, the recruitment firm. But executive appointments, and not non-executives drafted in, are the key to unlocking the boardroom door for the long term.
Miranda Pode, head of Egon Zehnder in the UK, said: “Whilst it’s very good news that women account for nearly 25% of board roles, the gains have almost entirely been made in non-executive positions. The bigger challenge is to carry this through into executive positions, which is a much harder task as it will require a sea change in how organisations identify and develop talented women.”
Adnams is now a progressive company, Hester says, but in the male-dominated worlds of brewing and logistics she met resistance along the way. “When I became transport manager, one of the directors, who is no longer here, said it was absolutely ridiculous that a woman should be in charge of transport.” When she became the first senior woman manager, “there were people in the room who thought I shouldn’t be there and I found that quite uncomfortable.”
Now, half of Adnams’ executive committee are women, putting them in line to follow Hester into the boardroom. One of the company’s three master brewers is a woman who persevered to get her qualification at Hester’s urging.
The push for female representation at the top of companies is not just about securing fairer representation. Studies have shown that companies with women on their boards are less susceptible to groupthink and more alive to risks.
Hester says: “If you can have a mix at a senior level, it’s less likely that anything will be missed. The biggest failure in business is when communication goes wrong somewhere.”
But she is wary of talk of “diversity” as a goal, calling instead for companies to be open minded so that talented women can make it on their own merit.
“To appoint a woman for the sake of diversity is as insulting, if not more insulting, as not appointing them because they’re a woman.”
As for women looking to make it to the top, they should stop being too hard on themselves.
“We are our own worst critics. We think if we’re at work and the kids are at home then we’re wrong and if we’re at home because our kids are ill then we’re not doing our job. You can only strive to be the best you can be.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010