Don’t tell Jan Ward it cannot be done – because she will tell you the barriers are in your head. Ward is very keen to attract more people into engineering and promote exporting – and she’s certainly in the right place to do it. Ward founded Corrotherm in 1992 and started supplying high-grade metals to the oil gas and desalination markets. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength, expanding significantly and building up a strong global presence and blue-chip customer base. In 2009, she was named the UK’s most inspirational female entrepreneur, winning the coveted NatWest Everywoman Award which champions female entrepreneurs. A keen international traveller, Ward has used her experience to build overseas markets and develop long-term customer relationships, especially in the Middle East. Highly passionate about manufacturing industry, Ward is a non-executive director at Hampshire Chamber of Commerce.
The second youngest of six, Jan Ward left school at 15 without the 12 O-levels she was on course to pass – because she was pregnant. It was not the easiest start in life, both personal nor working, and she admits she had no idea what she wanted to do, or what she could do. She married the father of her baby boy, but after moving out of her family home and getting a flat, realised marriage at such a young age was not what she wanted. She had a thorough education behind her though. Being musical and passing her 11-plus got her into the then Woolston Comprehensive in Southampton, a school which had only just changed from a grammar school to a comprehensive. That solid grounding and wandering around the Vosper Thorneycroft yard at Woolston in dresses, where her father worked as a boilermaker, fired Jan’s ambition. Ward’s son is 40 and she has grandchildren in France, but with her husband Jon you will find her enjoying wide-ranging activities – walking, cycling, sailing, her garden in the New Forest and, until six years ago, she had a motorcycle and would like another one.
Where did your career start?
I had no qualifications and needed a job. I was lucky with childcare because I come from a very large family who helped, so I began working with a programme called On the Move, teaching adults to read. It seemed incomprehensible to me that adults did not have this skill and I love books. I read a lot of proper books, old hardbacks. You won’t find me with a Kindle. I had a shop job and worked for Readers Digest, but spent nearly all I earned on books. I separated from my husband and had an opportunity to undertake the Institute of Export course, Foundation and Part One, which led to a trainee job with Tubesales (now TW Metals) at 19. I stayed there for eight years and found that it was the engineering side that interested me the most, although I liked the commercial side too. Seeing steel being made hooked me, utterly. That was it – engineering.
And from there, what were your next steps?
By the late 1980s, I had a MEng qualification and had built the export department at Aalco, but I was not allowed to go on trade missions. When a Kuwaiti delegation came over to sort out a highly complex order, I was not asked to attend the meeting, initially, yet I had put the order together. I was brought in to resolve issues. I have never had a problem dealing with Middle Eastern colleagues, because they view European women in business differently to their own. I went back to Tubesales because they asked me to; when I left export sales fell. By the late 1980s I had worked my way up from sales supervisor to export director. I moved to start the Middle East office for Phillip Cornes, and having started three export business for other companies I thought ’I will start my own’.
Tell us about the company
Corrotherm (which is an amalgamation of corrosion and thermal) was formed 22 years ago. Most people were surprised I had not done it earlier. I sold a car, obtained huge credits from industry friends – including £80,000 from Martin Devaney at Thyssen for my first order – wrote a business plan, got a £20,000 overdraft and began working in my front room with no salary for six months.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in business?
I remarried by the time I started Corrotherm, which meant we had a liveable income, so I gave my early staff shares and built it from there. I’ve learned a lot about finance through the decades and I won’t take no for an answer. Where we are now is modest. We are a small company but well known in our sector. We are one of a dozen in the world which supplies high-grade metals to the oil, gas and desalination markets. I want to do so much more, but need to raise investment because we do not have the capital for increasing stock at the moment. Investors don’t know what we do, but we have a prospectus which highlights it and we apply for relevant funding schemes. Equity is not a problem. We are happy to let shares go. We grow every year and are on course for £20 million turnover this year. But when you remember some of our competitors hold £16m in stock, you can understand why I am committed to raising more.
Is there a secret to your success?
I don’t listen to people who say ’it’s not possible’. We’re very good at what we do, we reinvest profits. I have used my international travel experience to build our overseas markets, especially in the Middle East. We have offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea as well as Australia, India and South Africa.
Greatest achievement? You have so many awards – including the IoD Global Director of the Year – and commitments to developing our region as director of the Solent LEP
In 22 years as CEO of Corrotherm no one has ever handed their notice in. That is the achievement which eclipses everything and the one of which I am most proud. Our staff like working for us; we are good at what we do, productive, and I work very hard to keep things fresh.
Are you good at delegating and how many emails do you receive each day?
I don’t have a PA because I best understand what I need to do and how to block out my time, especially because of my travelling. I’m very independent. Emails – I have 15,000 in a deleted box and 100 unread probably at any one given time, but then I have emails for so many organisations that I am involved in.
What will you do next?
I’ll never retire. I would like an interesting non-executive-director job which is not in industry, but where I could help a company expand. Because the LEPs have money now they are like the former Regional Development Agencies. Through my role at the Solent LEP I want to see cooperation to apply funding on a local level to really achieve things for our local economy. It is down to the LEPs to get local authorities together, particularly when it comes to planning. I love the LEP because it is local. UKTI puts me on a world stage and I learn so many interesting things. Also because my work is outside the UK, Hampshire Chamber is brilliant for giving me local connections to people with whom I may not usually come into contact.
As a woman in a man’s world, especially when you started out, have you overcome sexism?
The barriers are in your head and I’m not averse to taking a male colleague to meetings when I want to field something in certain environments.
How do we bring the next generation into engineering?
You’ve got to have imagination to be a good engineer and use it to create something that is fit for purpose and a beautiful design not contaminated by conventions. It’s very creative and not only a career that uses the sciences and maths. It’s schools, not further and higher education institutions, that need to generate engineering interest. By tertiary education it’s really too late because they channel talent into the academic side, not hands-on engineering. It’s an area where a body like Hampshire Chamber can act as a broker and build the connections.