Not blinded by big-time demands

A woman often mistaken for her father's secretary is now clearly recognised as being in charge of the family business - and she intends to take it further.

A woman often mistaken for her father's secretary is now clearly recognised as being in charge of the family business - and she intends to take it further. Graeme King talks to Julie Lightfoot, of Solar Solve.

There has evidently been a quiet battle for acceptance by the managing director of Solar Solve.

Working in the almost exclusively-male shipping industry, running a business founded - and still headed by - her father, and doing so at a pretty young age has presented Julie Lightfoot with expectations, or prejudices, to be overcome.

But she is not someone to be put off by the gawping of a room full of wealthy ship owners, shocked to see a young woman with the nerve to negotiate a deal for her products.

And this is emphatically not a family business where the second generation has been able to simply stroll through the door and claim the top job, straight from some high falutin' Business Studies degree course, paid for by daddy.

Julie Lightfoot, 36, is quick to lay out her credentials and the fact that she joined the family business after working for two of the country's top corporate names, without finding the job satisfaction she was seeking.

She is proud to say she can do every job in the business, having started out at 21, when she and dad John were the only members of staff, so had to make all the products themselves.

The father-and-daughter team has since travelled the world, marketing their Solasolv and Rolasolv blinds.

Their work has won a market-leading position, with the products made at their South Shields factory recognised as industry standard.

Such has been their success, Lightfoot junior now works just four days a week, while her chairman father has shifted down to three days.

But there is no real sign of retirement plans yet, with both having property interests outside the business, and the younger Lightfoot launching a new strand of the business.

She is moving into providing blinds to the domestic market - where the company started more than two decades ago.

Lightfoot is wholly enthused by her work, revelling in the long hours it has demanded, and in the recognition she and her father have won for their achievements.

She tells how it all began.

"My dad had a shop in Sunderland when I was at school, where he sold vertical blinds, fabric blinds, Venetian blinds, etc. It was never assumed I would work full time in the company when I left school.

"I went to Whitburn Comprehensive and got 10 O-levels and four A-levels and took the dramatic decision not to go to university.

"I always believed that if you've got it `up here', you don't necessarily need certificates to prove it.

"I went for an interview with IBM to be a sponsored student and they paid for me to do an HNC.

"But then I left there and decided I wanted to work for M&S, to get on their graduate training programme, even though I was not a graduate.

"At first they said I could not apply, but I persuaded them.

"I wanted to go and work at headquarters on Baker Street, but first they sent me to be a trainee manager at the Durham store, when I was only 20.

"But then I realised it was not what I wanted to do - I was bored. Fortunately, that was when my dad went into the marine industry, so he offered me a job."

Looking back to that invitation from her father, Lightfoot remembers it was not exactly the salary of her dreams. She says: "He did not offer me a very good package at all, but I believe you have got to enjoy your job and I never looked back.

"I was 21 when I came to work for Solar Solve and dad gave me the title of general manager, even though there were only two of us.

" But we have grown the business to what it is now, with 21 staff."

International trade was part of the Solar Solve story right from the beginning, it seems, after the company was formed almost by accident.

Lightfoot says: "Although dad was manufacturing blinds, he's actually a marine engineer and used to go to sea.

"Getting into this business, he was basically in the right place at the right time. There was somebody from one of the shipyards on the Wear walking through Sunderland, who saw my dad's shop.

"The man's yard was building a series of ferries and they needed blinds to fit on the bridge of the ships.

"My dad could see there was some mileage in this. He always wanted to be designing, creating, developing, so he designed the product himself in his shop.

"Sales took off and we decided to move to South Shields and get a factory.

"We started out with an export order to Malta. We got the local export service - the equivalent of UKTI today - to explain to us about doing export paperwork and from then on we knew we could sell anywhere in the world.

"My dad and I travelled the world, visiting shipyards and distributors. You've got to speculate to accumulate with these trips.

"You lose money sometimes, but we are fortunate that most of our business is in just three countries - China, Japan and Korea - and some ship owners have 300 ships.

"You know that once they have made an initial purchase, they will want more.

"On nearly every ship produced in Korea, our product goes on as standard equipment. We supply a lot of blinds to Hyundai Heavy Industries - they are one of the biggest shipbuilders in the world."

Lightfoot says it has not always been easy to be taken seriously.

She says: "I'm often the only female in the room on trade missions and exhibitions. It's been the biggest challenge of my career - being young and operating in a male world.

"People used to think I was the secretary."

But in a business so wholly reliant on exporting, convincing ship owners to do business with her has not been so important as getting in tune with local customs.

She says: "It's very important, especially in the three countries we sell to. The Chinese are very flexible, but with the Japanese, everything has to be perfect.

"You have to hand over your business card with two hands, and you must never write on it. The Koreans are less formal and are becoming more Westernised.

"With the Chinese, the big problem is the way they speak.

"They speak very good English, but they talk so quickly you have to listen very carefully, and you get closer and closer to them, to understand what they are saying."

There's also some culture shock involved in witnessing the working environments to be found in the Far East.

"I go trudging round shipyards with my hard hat and boots on and they really are in the back of beyond.

"The workers live in little huts around the edge of the yards and work long shifts so they can send some money home." Solar Solve has grown from operating out of one small manufacturing unit in 1981, to take on five neighbouring units within five years.

And recently the entire business was shifted a short distance to a purpose-built block inside the Port of Tyne estate in South Shields. Lightfoot says: "The family invested a lot of money initially, in the early days. If we had not take risks back then, if we had been cautious, we would not be where we are now.

"Now we are self funding, but in the early days, we needed the bank to support us.

"I knew that if we just continued putting money in, it would pay off, as there was nobody else doing it.

"Eventually we started winning awards - export, international trade, business innovation, an MBE for my dad, and I won a Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award.

"There are a few competitors, but they are nowhere near as big as us and they don't have the same philosophy of customer focus.

"The kind of business our competitors get, we don't want to know.

"We charge a premium price for a premium quality product."

Solar Solve did have a scare recently when something they feared would happen eventually did - a company in the Far East produced a copy of their product and tried to undercut them.

But it was not the kind of threat they had feared.

"For 15 years, we have had two distributors in Korea, but this year we found that our number one distributor had copied the product and was selling it under his own brand.

"It was very similar to ours, but the quality was not so good.

"We were a bit concerned about it, but since we've stopped supplying him, our other distributor in Korea has gained a lot more business he did not previously get.

"So we have replaced the business we lost with far more profitable business, and we are looking for more end-user sales, rather than distributor sales."

Having broken through the £1m sales barrier for the first time last year, finishing up at about £1.1m, Solar Solve is heading for £1.3m this year and Lightfoot wants to keep growing steadily.

She says: "We don't want to grow too quickly. We want controlled growth from within. We don't want investors. We don't want to borrow. We focus on profitability, not turnover."

Lightfoot and her father have now installed management to reduce their need for day-to-day involvement.

She says: "We have got a dedicated team here now, running the business, and I have reduced my working week to four days, while my dad only does three days.

"It gives the staff the opportunity to think for themselves without me around, and I think they appreciate it - they love it when I'm not here - but four days is still quite a lot of time to be here."

But the new division of the business to serve the domestic market is taking Lightfoot's attention.

Sunshade Systems will make the same type of anti-glare blinds Solar Solve makes for ships, but for uses such as conservatories.

And it's not just in the day job where Lightfoot's interest in homes is taking off, for the property market is a hobby, and increasingly another business interest.

She says: "I do property development as a sideline - it's something I've always been interested in.

"My dad has property overseas, but I like to look at mine.

"I buy wrecks, do them up, spend a fortune. It's a hobby, but it's going to be a pension when I retire too. I'm a real DIYer. I love my drill, love doing some electrics and plumbing.

"I used to spend 24 hours a day working. I was a real workaholic when I was younger, but now I like a more balanced life."

With a thriving, market-leading business to run and a growing property portfolio, Julie Lightfoot is a busy woman.

She has succeeded by quietly sidestepping the world's preconceptions and - like her satisfied customers - keeping focused on the horizon without getting dazzled by distractions along the way.

The CV

Born: November 1969

Education:

2006 Durham University - currently studying for the Institute of Directors diploma in company direction

2004 Kellogg School of Management, Northwest University, Chicago, US

1999 Chartered Institute of Marketing - British Marine Marketing Programme

1988-1990 University of Northumbria - business, finance and law

Employment:

1993-present Managing director and shareholder, Solar Solve Ltd

1991-1993 General manager, Solar Solve Ltd

1990-1991 Marks & Spencer, management training scheme

1988-1990 IBM, Newcastle - sponsored studentship

Other positions held:

First female member of the British Marine Equipment Association

Board member of the Society of Maritime Industries

Other achievements:

2002 - North East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year (Best Woman in International Trade)

1998 - Export Challenge national winner

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

It's a Hyundai coupé, an automatic, and it's my pride and joy. I love it - it's a really nice shape.

What's your favourite restaurant?

Treacle Moon in Newcastle.

Who or what makes you laugh?

My friends make me laugh - I'm not really into comedy particularly.

What's your favourite book?

A Woman of Substance, by Barbara Taylor Bradford.

What's your favourite film?

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg. I didn't know much about the history of that period until I saw that.

What was the last album you bought?

Scissor Sisters by Scissor Sisters.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?

I would be an interior designer - it's what I love to do in my spare time.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?

"Keep smiling." That's something my boss at IBM said when I was in my first job.

What's your greatest fear?

Being stuck in a lift. I'm claustrophobic and though I have to use lifts in hotels all the time, I hate it - I always have to be next to the door.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

"Never give up."

Worst business advice?

"Don't take risks." Because I do take risks and if you don't, you never get anywhere.

What's your poison?

White wine.

What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?

The South Shields Gazette.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

It was £5 in a brown envelope for working a Saturday for my dad when I was 11, back in 1980.

How do you keep fit?

I don't. I'm hyperactive - I have a twin brother who is the same.

What's your biggest extravagance?

Luxury holidays. I like going to the US and I like to stay in five star hotels - as Solar Solve does not pay for them for work trips.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?

Margaret Thatcher - she is so determined and does not take no for an answer.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Jacqueline Gold of Ann Summers, Richard Branson from Virgin, Alan Sugar from Amstrad - I've always been a fan of his, even before The Apprentice - and Madonna.

How would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as an inspiration to other women in a male-dominated industry.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer