BQ Newsletter

Ruling the roost

Tuesday 10 April 2012 7:00

As the only girl in five generations in her family, Victoria Hopkins swapped scuba diving to lead the family firm in Pudsey. She tells Peter Baber why.

I am on a street in Pudsey – not perhaps the most dazzling of Leeds suburbs. And not even in the centre of Pudsey, in fact, but on a street leading out from the centre that is lined with the usual kind of metal bashing and engineering firms that most northern towns seem to spawn. It’s not a particularly appealing road either.

Halfway along it, the council has put up a barrier apparently, it turns out, to stop joy riders who had previously taken advantage of this long uninterrupted stretch of road to roar out into the countryside beyond.

So who would have guessed that just here, in amongst this very masculine environment, is a catering equipment manufacturer called Hopkins which, despite being owned by a family which has seen five generations of nothing but boys, is now effectively run by the one girl they have had in all that time? That’s right – a woman running an engineering firm.

She unfortunately remains a real rarity – the kind of person that girls’ empowerment programmes should perhaps come running to. (And, as we shall find out later, they have.) I say “effectively” because Victoria Hopkins, the lady in question, isn’t actually the overall head of the company – her father Chris still is, although she is clearly the point of contact for all aspects of running the business right now.

“I haven’t got full control,” she says. “My dad and I are very much key. I am officially deputy managing director. But I am not really into titles. I come in and I do my job.”

Nevertheless she has a fair idea of what her grandfather Vince, who founded the company more than 50 years ago, would have thought of such a situation.

“My granddad was very much a chauvinist,” she says, “very much into the idea of women staying at home. I remember as a small girl him sitting me on his knee and saying: ‘I don’t ever want you near the business. If you want to run a business, I will open you a teashop.’

“If he knew what was happening now he would be turning in his grave.” Such instruction must initially have taken its toll, because when she was growing up Victoria wanted to be a barrister.

She did try engineering at university when she didn’t get the grades for her chosen profession and went through clearing, but she only stuck it for one term.

“I just decided that engineering wasn’t for me at the time,” she says. Instead, like all young adults, she felt she wanted to travel and see the world and in particular continue with a sport she had been crazy about since being a young teenager – scuba diving.

For two years she went off to be a scuba diving instructor in the Caribbean.

“I was living a very glamorous life,” she admits. “I had done a couple of seasons of it, and got a bit bored, so I had planned to go out to the Philippines instead. I came back to the UK to get my visa. Someone in the sales office had left. So dad said: “I am not having you sitting at home, come and answer the phone for two weeks. That has been the longest two weeks of my life.”

She giggles when she considers that, in a choice between the Caribbean, the Philippines and Pudsey, she chose Pudsey.

“There are moments when I think: ‘What was I thinking?’ she says, “although not so much now I am a mother. There was a guy involved in this. The Philippines went out the window, but I was originally going to emigrate to Australia with my then partner who was studying to be a nurse. I wanted to get there on my own visa, so I needed a degree and thought I would do a part-time business course at Leeds Met. Yet the more I got into it, the more I came back and started integrating things I had learned into the business, the more I enjoyed seeing the results of what I was doing.

“To cut a long story short, my partner went off to Australia, he is living the dream there, and I stayed in Pudsey.” It could be said that Victoria had the advantage when it came to joining her company of being the oldest in her generation.

All her brothers and male cousins – only two of whom have followed into the business, with only her brother staying for any length of time – are younger than her.

Nevertheless this is a company that has thrived on innovation from the start, so perhaps the innovation of having a woman at the head was no big deal.

“My grandfather started the business and he was an inventor,” she says. “He had an electrical shop, and one day someone brought in an onion peeler, which he thought he could improve on, so he started fixing people’s catering equipment. The machine he created then is similar to a machine that we make now that does potatoes.”

Hopkins Catering, as it was then called, quickly established fish and chip shops as its significant client base.

Today it supplies a full range of catering equipment, offers a design service, and can manufacture bespoke orders too.

Victoria says there is no other company like it in the country – which is one of the reasons why it is hard to talk about the firm’s market share.

“There is no other company in the UK that does exactly what we do,” she says. “There are probably around five companies who manufacture fish and chip ranges. Two of them are Dutch. We certainly have competitors in our online department, and then you’ve got other designers, you’ve got service companies and people who build fish and chip ranges. But no other one company has the broad spectrum of what we do.”

But in fact, Hopkins has never been entirely focused on the fish and chip business either. It also supplies to school, hotels, and nursing homes.

And in the 1970s, when the recession and cod war with Iceland caused something of a hiatus in the number of people wanting new fish and chip shop equipment, Vince Hopkins soon found new markets to focus on and products to produce.

“He was living next to a canal at the time, so he started making narrow boats in the yard,” says Victoria.

“The skills were there, and it was important to sustain the workforce through difficult periods.” More recently, when Chris Hopkins bought a house belonging to a man who had previously made refrigerators for undertakers (a niche market if ever there was one), and continued getting calls after the man had emigrated to Australia, the company soon decided there was business to be had in making smaller cooling units for smaller undertakers who only needed a cooling unit to sit on top of the coffin.

This led to enquiries from most unusual sources. As a small girl, Victoria remembers being taken down to London by her father, who had been contacted by archaeologists who urgently needed some cooling device to preserve a prehistoric man they had excavated from a peat bog.

More recently, the company has been producing armour for a man who hires it out to theatrical groups.

Victoria shows me a stage dagger. As it doesn’t retract, it looks surprisingly like the real thing.So does she think innovation has been the key to the company’s survival?

“That is absolutely how we survived,” she says, “by looking at other areas we can venture into without moving away from the main focus. It is imperative that the company has that flexibility.”

It is one of the reasons why the decision was made to drop the word “Catering” from the company name.

“This other business probably only accounts for 5 to 10 per cent of what we do,” she says. “But we didn’t want to be synonymous with catering.” As for her own managerial experience, she admits that coming in as a family member to run the family business does set up extra challenges in terms of your relations with the workforce.

Particularly when on the surface you do not appear to have the kind of engineering qualifications to run an engineering firm: Victoria’s father, by contrast, was forced to serve as an apprentice in another engineering firm before he was allowed in.

“As a family member you have to work twice as hard for half as much to get that respect,” she says.

“You have to earn it. I like to think I have done that. I get on really well with staff. They know I don’t have the technical capabilities that my dad or my granddad had, but I have got the best interests of the company at heart. They are very much my family – I know that sounds cheesy, but it is true. They have seen me grow up. They have confidence in me.”

But it is in fact only in the last few years that that confidence was really put to the test. The last few years have been “all about survival, rather than growing.”

That wasn’t necessarily the result of the recession. She says although this is the first recession she has been through where her customers have really “felt the hit”, Britain’s 11,000 chippies are “not doing too bad.” Some are even expanding through franchising.

“People can’t afford to go out now, but they are still lazy, so they will have takeaways,” she says. “Fish and chips is recession-proof.” Nor, she says, has the industry been hit by the new emphasis on healthy eating.

“Fish and chips is the healthiest of all takeaways,” she says. What did, however, hit the business was first the huge rise in commodity prices, particularly stainless steel, and then the bank manager coming in to say he was withdrawing the company’s overdraft facility virtually overnight.

“The last few years have been really tough,” she says. “Previously we had always done all right. Now I know what it’s like to run a business when it’s not all right. But the staff have really pulled together.

“In fact, I have learned so much for the better. I have had to re-evaluate the business and how we do things.”

This re-evalutation has included effectively getting rid of the company’s telesales operation – most orders come through the internet these days. And Victoria has been introducing key performance indicators (KPIs) for the first time.

“We had some KPIs through our ISO accreditation before but now we are all about production efficiencies and financial efficiencies right across the board.”

As a result she feels that over the next financial year, which starts in August, for the first time in ages the company will be able to focus back on innovation. It already is, to a certain extent.

“We have started bringing back in equipment we used to make years ago,” she says.

“There’s a machine – called a little willy – that spins fat scraps and heats them off to take off the oil. The cost of oil has been going up and up, and it has really been eating into the bottom line of fish friers. So more and more customers have been asking if we still made the product. The amount was getting so high I realised we needed to start making it again. The machine is currently out on test and a prototype is launching soon.”

As well as launching higher efficiency ranges which are at the top end of the market, she was pleased to see “the lads on the floor” come up with their own design for a more budget range too.

“It’s only been on the market a couple of months but we are already seeing lots of orders,” she says.

“It’s a real ‘what you see is what you get’ range.” The fact that the lads on the floor came to her to put forward their designs must surely show that, after all, they are comfortable with having a female boss.

However, although she is heavily involved in encouraging schoolgirls to take up careers in engineering, and was very disappointed when the company’s first girl apprentice left early, she says she personally has hardly had to battle any sexism at all in her role.

“There aren’t many glass ceilings there any more,” she says. “I have never seen them. If you really want something, you will go for it.”

But there is one young lady Victoria certainly looks to guide; her five-year-old daughter Abigail.

Because Victoria is a single mother, and despite them both having wide support from the family and friends, Abigail does spend a fair amount of time in the office – so much so that she has her own desk complete with executive chair and pink laptop.

Victoria says she has certainly become accustomed to this.

“She understands that if she wants the latest Barbie DVD then Mummy has to go to work and earn pennies for it,” says Victoria.

“But she has never known any different.” And Abigail being there is starting to have an effect.

“She emulates me,” says Victoria. “We recently had a bad break-in in the accounts office. Abigail walked in and started organising everybody else doing the clean up. She does little jobs for me – she opens the post and hands it around to everybody. A lot of women would disagree with what I am doing, but I am making the best of a situation I have found myself in.”

And possibly building up another generation of Hopkins female leaders, you can’t help thinking.