HAVING started to wonder whether she was “always going to be the bridesmaid and never the bride,” Lilian Mains is overjoyed to be the latest winner of the region’s flagship female entrepreneur award.
“It was fantastic to win,” says Lillian, 64. “It’s a real thrill and a privilege. I was very touched by the personal effort of the Women into the Network organisation. I’m also incredibly grateful to everyone who works with me at Zodiac Training. Without their hard work, dedication and professionalism, Zodiac wouldn’t be such a success and I would not have received this award.”
Lilian began Zodiac Training 14 years ago after being made redundant from her previous job as director of Linked Training Group. “It was just before my 50th birthday,” she says. “I thought about whether I should take an early retirement and enjoy it but I realised that I have a lot more to give in this life than just sitting back.”
After the redundancy, Lilian recognised that apprenticeships “were still very new and not successfully being delivered.” She felt there was a good opportunity within the area.
“It was a good way of getting young people who were leaving school to continue education and training but to be trained in the way that employers wanted,” she says.
The beginnings of the company came after Lilian spoke with a colleague from her previous place of work and continued with talks held with the local enterprise councils. Wanting a name that would stand out, she chose Zodiac due to its “links to rising stars”.
When it comes to female role models, Lilian admits she did not admire a specific woman while growing up. For her it’s not about the gender, but the achievement itself.
“I’ve always admired any gender when they achieve something, but I admire women in history like Florence Nightingale and Emmilene Pankhurst who have done something and tried to make a difference,” she says. “It’s about admiring people who have followed their beliefs.
“Also in business I admire Richard Branson because of the way he’s tried different things; he’s surrounded himself with experts. He picks himself up when things go wrong; he does something about it and starts again. I think that’s an important message in any walk of life. There are times when things don’t go right but instead of giving in and not bothering, you must pick yourself up and start again.”
That’s exactly what Lilian did 14 years ago. Now, she’s the founder of a company which employs 200, with an expected turnover of £10m next year.
It not only helps train and educate young people for work, it’s also trained a lot of its own employees, many of whom are now directors within the company.
“Most of our directors have started with Zodiac, some at the bottom who’ve entered doing admin and we’ve given them the skills and trained them up,” says Lillian. Lilian has managed to achieve a remarkable amount from scratch. As well as winning the Susan Dobson award, she’s also highly proud of helping people develop their skills.
Zodiac gives everyone training plans; it sees them through basic skills, level two and three apprenticeships and on to university degrees.
“I’m very proud of the learners who we deal with,” she says. “When we deal with people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have no aspiration of working, and then we get to see them turn their lives around and get a job, but also be happy, it’s a really fantastic feeling.”
With the prestigious award under her belt, Lillian is now expanding and developing the company further.
Plans to open a centre of excellence for health and social care are underway. The specialist centre will be separated into three development areas, the first being an adult care home where trainees can develop the necessary skills to work in the care system.
“Our learners will be taught how to look after robotic adult dolls, learn how to give injections and practical skills,” she explains. “There will be a childcare facility, including robotic babies, and lessons in looking after children. The final area will teach its members about independent living, looking after themselves and household cooking and cleaning skills.
“It’ll be starting in early 2011. It’s going to be a boost for the region because it’s a specialist centre.”
Lillian lives just outside Morpeth in Northumberland with her husband Brian. The pair have three children Simon, 42, Samantha, 40 and Steven, 36.
So how has she kept the momentum up juggling career and family life? “I’ve always had a firm belief that everyone should maximise their potential,” she says. “And they can always do more than they first think.”