Pamela Petty: How watercooler moments have helped shape her career at Ebac

Petty flies the flag for women in engineering, has starred in a BBC documentary about chest freezers and reveals how she relaxes with dressmaking

Pamela Petty is managing director of Newton Aycliffe firm
Pamela Petty is managing director of Newton Aycliffe firm

It used to be that Pamela Petty was introduced to people as John’s daughter when he was the driving force behind manufacturing group Ebac, which he set up more than 40 years ago in County Durham.

Now that he is taking a less active role in the business, and she is managing director, he is introduced as Pamela’s father.

“It doesn’t bother him at all. I think he’s probably proud, underneath it all, of what my sister and I are doing in the business,” she said.

John Elliott took the risky step of leaving work to follow his star, which has led to Ebac being on target for £21m turnover this year, with strong growth in its two factories in Newton Aycliffe, and a third in St Helen’s making dehumidifiers, water coolers and air source heat pumps

Petty said: “Dad left paid employment to do his own thing; he thought he wasn’t destined to work for somebody else. He went with the idea of making building dryers and we still make virtually the same product today.

Managing Director of Ebac in Newton Aycliffe, Pamela Petty.
 

The company is already Europe’s leading manufacturer of watercoolers and dehumidifers and was the subject of a BBC television programme two years ago, featuring former CBI boss and trade minister Digby Jones, which focused on its acquisition of the liquidated assets of Norfrost chest freezers. Cameras filmed the relocation of the production equipment from John O’Groats to Newton Aycliffe.

Petty recalled: “We hit some problems, the worst being that the foaming equipment which you need for a chest freezer wouldn’t have stood the test of being taken out of the factory and brought down here. And there were no instruction manuals with the equipment. But the guys who have run it have come down and helped.

“The technology that’s in a chest freezer is the same as is in our dehumidifers, it’s heat exchange, a refrigeration circuit, just a different application, so we understand the methodology of making these products. That’s all in and working well and we’re just finalising the details on the products. We’ve kept the Norfrost name because if you Google it, it’s the most talked-about chest freezer in the market place, so you just wouldn’t want to throw that away and start again.”

The move into the chest freezer market, and the forthcoming washing machine production, will see Ebac increase staff from the current 220. The plan is that over the next three years, headcount will grow to more than 350, mostly production operators.

Managing Director of Ebac in Newton Aycliffe, Pamela Petty.
 

Petty said: “The washing machines will be Ebac-branded. Hopefully that will be the start of us changing our business; we’ve always tended to be market leaders in niche products, whereas with washing machines we’re going out there to be a household brand name and we’re hoping that there will be a whole range of white goods with the Ebac brand on it that we’ve designed and made specifically for the UK.

“I think that’s one of the things that will give us a huge advantage, not just that there’s a passion for British-made products at the moment, but that when we design our products, we look at how UK homeowners own and use their products and interface with them.

“So, for example, we’re bringing back hot fill on a washing machine. It will cut down on the time the wash takes and the cost of heating your water. This hot fill has gone, but nobody really knows why it’s gone. We’ve researched it and we can’t find out, it’s like one night it just disappeared.

“We’re also trying to simplify the whole user interface and have done a lot of research. In fact, I don’t get invited out to dinner parties any more because I think all I talk about is washing machines and programmes and detergents. We spent time at Procter and Gamble to learn about detergents, we’ve really done our homework, so hopefully we will bring a range of washing machines that will press some buttons with consumers.

“We’ve got a consumer research site – ebacwashingmachines.com – where you can design your own washing machine so we can learn about the choices people make when they’re thinking about what they want on their washing machine.

“It’s gone down a real storm, people have raved about it, so much so that we’re thinking about turning it into a sales website, so you can actually configure your own washing machine.

“It’s a completely new line, we’ve finalised the design and got about a dozen washing machines around us which we’ve made with all our own tooling, but they’ve not been made here on a production line yet, they were made for us in Italy and Spain.

“Our first bit of kit arrived last week, the rest will arrive over the next two months, so come September, we’ll be commissioning the whole production line for washing machines ready so that we can actually start making proper production washing machines at the end of September/October. We anticipate them going on sale October/November, with probably a big launch in the spring of next year.”

Managing Director of Ebac in Newton Aycliffe, Pamela Petty.
 

Petty, 46, has been managing director of Ebac Group since 2003, but working at the family firm was not her first choice of work. “I honestly can’t remember that it was a real conscious decision, or it just never occurred to me that it was somewhere I should go to,” she said. “I wasn’t interested in doing any kind of further or higher education and the world of academia was not for me. I love logic and process, all of those things, but studying history and geography, I just never got the point of them.”

So she left school at 16 for a YTS scheme which saw her placed in a solicitor’s office. “I very quickly learned that the world of law was not for me either. Then I went to a laundry business – I’ve come full circle, haven’t I? – and worked in the office doing very junior admin tasks.

“I had cleaned at Ebac, worked in the summer holidays, and when a job came up for a payroll clerk I was invited by the-then finance director, because I had worked for him in holidays, to apply for the job. They knew me and a little bit about the way I worked and knew I would respect the privacy aspect of payroll work. I started working at Ebac as a payroll clerk when I was about 19 or 20.

“Very quickly I wanted to change the way that we were doing things – I’m somebody that likes to cut out waste and rubbish.

“I had to have a meeting with the production managers to tell them that I wanted to change the way the clock card system worked. When I think back, holding that meeting, I would only be about 20.

“I created the IT department because up until then it had always been the part-time hobbies of our technical director and finance director (FD). They were just at that point becoming more a part of everyday working life, so I introduced our email system and our manufacturing resource planning system into the organisation.

“Of course IT gives access all areas in an organisation so you get to see everything that’s going on.”

Petty says that having an overview of the operation made her particularly vocal about areas where she saw room for improvement, especially in manufacturing and stock record accuracy. This, and her passion for efficiency, were what has moved her through the company.

“I like to see everything proven by numbers, what difference does that make to the bottom line? I know everything isn’t about that, but when you’ve got decisions to make, if you can try to put numbers beside it, it usually helps.

“When the manufacturing director decided he wanted to leave, it was kind of ‘Right, Pamela, you’ve been on your soap box about production and how they’re not getting it right so away you go, it’s yours.’ It hasn’t taught me at all, though, if I see something that I think isn’t right I’ll still talk about it.

“I did make a lot of changes in manufacturing. My sister (Amanda Hird) now runs manufacturing and has taken stock record accuracy to another dimension, we track literally every component.”

Ebac makes a lot of its own components, one of the things that makes it very different, according to Petty.

“We’ve even toyed with making compressors and motors ourselves, but for me the investment in equipment means we’ll probably never be able to do it quite as cheaply as others.

“But never say never; as we grow, and we start to use more motors in different products that we do, it might become more of a reality that actually the investment in some of these things is worth it. To take those lead times down from 16 weeks, it means you’ve got to hold more materials and our view is that we hold as much as we can in its rawest sense, so we can then make it into what the customer wants.”

After taking over as managing director, Petty presided over a worrying time for Ebac when it took a downturn in about 2004-05, hit by cheap imports.

She said: “My sister took over manufacturing, our then finance director (FD) left and I stepped in to babysit the FD role and a bit of md role, kind of a joint role with Dad. At that point, Ebac wasn’t financially in a very good way, we’d lost a lot of market share, our overheads were too high, there were a lot of not nice decisions to make.

“We were trying to grow, so we invested in a water business abroad and a spa in Leeds. Amanda came back from maternity leave and she took over manufacturing then I stepped over on to the accounts, the cash, to try to get that back under control. It was about the time when the euro dipped right down and we had some horrible contracts.

“The FD, before she left, had had some contracts in place ... it cost us cash, not just balance sheet revaluations, it was hard cash. I did put a contract in place which stemmed the loss, but it still cost us about £1m.

“What hit us was the fact that consumers wanted to buy all these lovely cheap products and that hit our market badly. We had to make a decision then – do we compete with them and bring our prices down, or look at doing less in a more niche part of the market place and that was the route we took? We’d rather be smaller but profitable.

“The spa was just starting to take off and get to the numbers we wanted when Northern Rock hit and people weren’t spending money on spa days.

“So we said, ‘We’re manufacturers, that’s what we do best, we love it, we’ve just got to find a way to make the water coolers and dehumidifiers work on a smaller scale’ so that’s what we did and we sorted ourselves out.

“We paid off all the debt, cut cost, became even more efficient. We did think that the doors might eventually close, it did get really tough. Dad and I worked, I think, as a really good team. He had more of the experience and knowledge and blue-sky thinking than I did at that point, but I could get into the numbers, understand what the numbers were, work with the bank to say, ‘This is the situation and this is how we see our way out’.”

She was convinced the bank would come down hard and prepared for what she calls a dawn raid, but luckily, had established a good relationship with the relationship manager.

“Whatever figures I gave him, I made sure we delivered. If anything happened I made sure he was the first person I told. I kept him in the picture so he never had any surprises. The bank worked with us and we’re still with them today.

“I never want to go through a time like that again. We came out the other side and we’ve learned things from it. I’d rather have the £1m, but I’m sitting here looking at pictures of washing machines and that might not have happened if we hadn’t gone through that.

“We’re moving into uncharted territory with washing machines and chest freezers, the air force heat pumps is a new business for us and I’ve not mentioned the instant hot water tap that we’re going into as well, so we’re moving into very unpredictable times for us. Softly, softly, for the next year, we want to be in control, but if the indications back from the market place are that there’s an appetite for Ebac appliances, then we want to exploit that as much as we can.”

It’s obvious that manufacturing and engineering are subjects close to Pamela Petty’s heart, so much so that she bangs the drum for more women in the sector.

She said: “I don’t believe in any type of positive discrimination but I’m all for encouraging women into engineering. I will happily talk to girls about manufacturing and boys, in terms of career choice. The absolute key thing is that manufacturing is not dead, it’s a vital part of our economy and it’s a great opportunity.

“I work quite a lot with different schools and work with children to try and lift the pressure of making a choice. If you make a wrong choice, and at 23 you’ve got to change it doesn’t really matter, you’ve still got another 40 years to work. But instead, it’s all about the wrong career choice and some kids stay in education longer than they should.”

Home life is hectic with three young sons – James, nine, and six-year-old twins George and Adam. Petty and her husband Richard lost a daughter, Olivia, seven years ago, and have set up the Olivia Mae Foundation to raise funds to help families with travel costs when they have a child in hospital.

Petty said: “We believe she brought purpose to our lives. Setting up the foundation means for us that she came for a reason.” So much money has been donated via the website, oliviamaefoundation.org.uk, that hospitals other than the Freeman, where Olivia died, will benefit.

Spare time is spent with family, working out with a personal trainer, and sewing and dressmaking. A project on the cards is an 80s weekend away with friends when Pamela will be making ra-ra skirts for the group.

She said: “I wanted to be a fashion designer at school, and I do regret not pursuing that. My mam and auntie have a history of working in textiles so I always had more of an interest in that than Dad’s factory. I keep an eye on what’s happening with textiles and I’d like to see more of that come back to the UK, although I know nothing about the industry.”

Getting to know Pamela

What car do you drive? Volvo XC90.

What’s your favourite restaurant? La Tropical, Los Alcazares, Murcia, Spain.

Who or what makes you laugh? Mostly my three boys.

What’s your favourite book? You Choose, a book I read with my boys at bedtime.

What was the last album you bought? Paloma Faith, A Perfect Contradiction.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Something in textiles, either design or production of fabrics.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? I always wanted to be a lumberjack.

What’s your greatest fear? Being afraid.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Always make sure what you’re selling is worth more to your customer than it costs you.

And the worst? I don’t think I’ve ever had bad advice!

What’s your poison? Gin and tonic, with a splash of elderflower.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? I don’t really have time, other than a selection on Sunday.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? I had a cleaning job and I think my first pay packet would have been around £20.

How do you keep fit? I exercise twice a week with a personal trainer and try to use the gym at home too. I love cycling but it’s difficult to find time with a young family.

What’s your most irritating habit? I have to admit to being a serial pen clicker or snapper – pens just aren’t safe in my hands! Though some might say I talk too much.

What’s your biggest extravagance? My personal trainer, which is crazy paying somebody to torture me. I do wonder if those extra days at the end of my life are really worth it.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Lara Croft, now you have to guess whether I identify with her or admire her.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? Elvis Presley, Pink, Robbie Williams and Denise van Outen.

How would you like to be remembered? I’d rather live for ever

A day in the life of Pamela...

Despite not having much in my working life that is routine, I try to have structure to every working day, so that I can get as much out of every day as possible. I also have a young family so it’s essential that everything is planned and that I have a master list of everything that’s going on, so that I can focus on business during the working day and my family when I’m at home.

6.30am: The first hour of my day is teamwork with my husband Richard, getting the boys ready for work and school and feeding our pets (we have a Labrador, two rabbits, six hens and four fish). When I’m dressed, the troops head down for breakfast, then we have a military precision routine of showering and dressing and off to school.

8.30am: My working day starts officially; by this time I’m up to date with emails/calendar/things to do and am ready to take on the world. If I’m not prepared by this time, the day usually spirals out of control and is gone before I know it. Mornings are my preference for heavy meetings, like board meetings and meetings where presentations are made and decisions have to be made.

Lunch time: I pretty much always take time to recharge my batteries with something light to eat and some conversation, then time to reflect and make sure I’ll hit my objectives for the day. Afternoons are when I prefer to think, plan, create, consider strategic issues, the future and how to improve what we’re already doing.

6pm: I try to be home so that we can prepare and eat a family meal together and spend some time playing or taking part in hobbies and clubs. The boys all play for Bishop Auckland St Mary’s Juniors and they train just across the road from our house.

7.30pm: The start of bedtime for the boys, which is usually reading time together and time to relax ready for bed.

8.30pm: Time for me and Richard to recap on the day or sometimes just quietly enjoy each other’s company before it all starts again the following day.

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