It doesn’t seem to matter what life throws at Valda Goodfellow.
To Valda’s logical mind, serious business challenges are just complex problems to take apart and solve – even the devastating consequences of the BSE crisis and 9/11.
As one very determined entrepreneur, the 55-year-old has achieved her two main ambitions, to run a factory (sausage firm Mr Lazenby’s) and build up her own business (with husband Paul, luxury catering company Goodfellow and Goodfellow).
So now, through her love of manufacturing, Valda has set a new goal, to bring North East manufacturing into the business.
She said: “The sky’s the limit – I don’t think enough women say that. I might own something new in two years.”
Born and raised in Westerton, County Durham, her mum a local girl and her dad a former Latvian POW, Valda left Bishop Auckland’s King James I school and tried university, enrolling at Leeds for an industrial psychology degree and moving across to the North West. She lasted a day.
“That’s just part of my character. I just knew it wasn’t for me – I wanted to actually do something and get on with my life.
“So I joined the TV manufacturer Rediffusion based near my home town in Bishop Auckland.”
The workforce was 90% female and, this being 1977, there wasn’t a computer in sight, meaning Valda had to carry out her trainee production controller role, which required vast amounts on planning, on huge spreadsheets.
She said: “It’s hard to believe that in my lifetime there were no computers, but we started off writing everything by hand.
“And it was brutal there. It was the best and worst of work environments and I probably cried for the first year, but I had to stand my ground and become what that environment was all about.”
While studying for qualifications in production control, Valda saw how punch cards and other computer machinery were becoming popular, so convinced the directors to look into installing a system to handle stock requirements.
She said: “It was very unusual for women to want to go into manufacturing, so when I went to them with this idea they said: ‘Why don’t you do this project? You look into putting in one of those new-fangled computer things’.”
The system took off, and it also set Valda on a new career path.
“I always say I don’t think I had any particular talent but I can sense where there are opportunities and when things are changing in a market,” said Valda.
“Computer systems are logical and I’m quite logical – and that project started me on a path very few people were on.”
Various highly-technical roles followed, and she learned more about computer systems when entering businesses that were being acquired by her employer MTM Chemicals Group – a global offshoot of ICI – and even more about the inner machinations of businesses.
Often the first person going in post-acquisition, Valda got to see how different companies operated.
Wanting to learn more about company operations, she spent five years as a Business Link advisor based on Teesside, giving strategic advice to firms to help them grow or overcome issues.
The experience led to her being headhunted by one of her clients, Mr Lazenbys, the Hartlepool-based sausage manufacturer which granted her wish to run a business. The firm had serious financial issues, but as their advisor, Valda hatched a strategy to return the firm to profit – a plan they asked her to put into practice as operations director.
Within a year she was managing director, while still in her twenties.
She recalled: “I had only been a production controller and never been near a sausage factory.
“But I had always wanted to run the factory and now I’d got my wish. On the first day I stood there in white wellies, hard hat, standing 5ft 2ins like a midget in the sea of workers.
“At the time I was the only female production manager of a sausage meat plant in the country.”
While it was having financial problems when she first joined, Valda ensured a return to profit within five months on the brand’s power and strong principles.
She said: “We only used prime cuts of meat and the only best spices, and that’s how we came to make the Duchy Originals sausages.”
The true test for Valda’s skills, however, came a matter of months after she became MD.
“The story broke about the BSE crisis on the Thursday and we held a crisis meeting on the Saturday morning. It was like the world has collapsed.
“At that time most of the supermarket buyers were in their twenties and graduates, so I thought ‘how do we get their attention?’ and sent a fax headed ‘Do you practice safe sex?’.
“We included five or six bullet points on how our products don’t contain any beef or any derivatives of beef.”
Business took off and they struggle to keep up with demand.
Once the business got to a certain size, she spoke to shareholders about securing a sale to secure their pension funds, so embarked on a successful mission to attract a buyer.
Cranswick PLC bought the £10m business in 1998 and Valda stayed on for another two years before taking on yet another career adventure in 2000.
A year earlier she had met Paul Goodfellow, whose accountant was a shareholder Lazenby’s, and, tempted to take on her earlier mission to build a business, she went into the business 50-50.
Within two years Paul would also be her husband as well as business partner.
Continental Chef Supplies (CCS), originally supplied clothing and light kitchen equipment to the catering and hospitality sector and Valda could see massive potential for growth.
“There were serious financial problems with the business, but it turned over just under £1m and I really wanted to build a business. So we took it apart, looked at what’s good about it and what’s bad and what had to change.
“Then in 2001 came the World Trade Center attack. Fate throws some fairly big interventions at me. It was while we were on honeymoon that 9/11 happened, and we knew then that all the hotels would stop spending.”
Valda’s logical brain got to work and constructed a plan to diversify into innovative and exclusive tableware with Paul using his contacts as a former professional chef, who worked in London and around the world, to get the brand known in luxury hotels and restaurants across the UK and beyond.
To save the business Valda had to put her house up as security to refinance the business, but it worked.
A restructure and new management team followed and Valda and Paul prepared CCS for sale and subsequently sold it to global distribution company Bunzl in 2008, for a substantial sum.
The pair then had to wait three years before they could re-enter the market, but used that time to keep abreast of changing trends, as well as the rising importance of social media.
When they were ready in 2012, Goodfellow and Goodfellow was launched, dealing at the high end of the market, specialising in fine quality, exclusive tableware and innovative kitchen equipment for luxury hotel and catering brands.
Tableware has moved away from mass-produced, matching sets, to top quality, innovative products that top chefs can use to show off their culinary creations.
Exclusive supply arrangements are in place with key manufacturers from Europe, Asia and the UK – including the ‘Scandi-cool’ Norwegian brand Figgjo – and the product range includes chefs’ clothing (with an in-house logo and name embroidery facility), knives, kitchen tools, innovative equipment, small machinery and tableware.
Valda said: “I’m the one who thinks outside the box and Paul, who has been a chef in London and all over the world is all about the chef contacts, the food, who will like what product.
“We’ve got an amazing fit between us that’s very lucky to have.”
The result on the top line has been £2m in turnover in the first 18 months of trading and expansion to a team of 18 employees across the two sites, and the business closed 2014 with £3m in sales.
Within three years Valda hopes to have grown sales to £6m, the growth triggered by a host of factors, including TV cookery, which has also hugely affected the business, not least of all because their products have been used by the chefs battling it out on BBC’s Great British Menu.
Thanks to the popularity of Professional Masterchef and other cookery shows, members of the public taking their cooking seriously are also going to Goodfellow and Goodfellow.
Just as important as the products is the networking opportunities the whole Goodfellow and Goodfellow brand has created, through its social media, growing website and its impressive showroom.
Well known chefs from across the UK and further afield visit the showroom, meet and chat and a whole community of expertise and ideas is born.
Taking that a step further is their new ‘For Cooks’ website at forcooks.co.uk which aims to bridge the gap between professionals and amateurs.
Valda said: “I want to bring this whole community together, for chefs, the serious home cooks and the food bloggers. We’re just starting to build up the traffic. Initial reaction has been really good.”
Goodfellows also designs and creates its own products, to meet a need from chefs wanting original designs with a fast turnaround.
“The chefs who come in want things now because they’re used to an environment when things happen fast. The one thing I will never give up is my love if manufacturing so I’m trying to get more involved.
“We’re already the go-to company for the best products so we want to expand into new areas, make products ourselves. We’re already working with some crafts people who are making things for us.
“If we can, we will look to bring them under one roof – after all speed-to-market from design to product is much shorter and that is key.
“We’ve always had a manufacturing capability in the region because we are very dextrous and that’s where I would love to see the future of the North East grow.
“I do bang on about manufacturing but I think women are shy of saying that.
“But in my working career we’ve gone from having no computers to having everything run by computers.”
Deservedly on a current high, Valda feels like the sky’s the limit for the business, and hopes more entrepreneurs will follow her and Paul’s lead and set up business in the region.
“There should be more people putting money back into the North East. If we do that we create jobs and a more vibrant economy,” she said.