Parkinson Lee Executive search are delighted to be sharing a series of interviews with Business Leaders from across the region. Each month we will be publishing “an interview with…” that our Managing Partner, Lee Bhandal has conducted with highly respected Executives from across the region.
Our fourth interview is with Elizabeth Wigley, Technical Director at Bawtry Carbon. Elizabeth leads the decisions, relationships and strategy of the Quality, Continuous Improvement and Research and Development department in Doncaster. She works closely with the wider team to improve the business operation and to scope ideas, whilst establishing relationships with customers to better understand their needs for future technologies and products.
Bawtry Carbon Limited is a leading manufacturer of carbon cathodes, sidewalls and ramming paste for the aluminium smelting sector, based near Doncaster. Exporting nearly 100% of their output, Bawtry Carbon are a trusted partner who places emphasis on innovation, on-time delivery, quality and customer service.
In this interview, Elizabeth shares an insight into why she chose a career in Engineering and Manufacturing, the most challenging and rewarding parts of her role as Technical Director, and how Bawtry Carbon are implementing green initiatives into their operation.
Interview with Elizabeth
Why did you decide to choose a career in Engineering and Manufacturing? Were there any particular influences on your decision?
At school, I was a typical all-rounder; sporty and fairly academic; I also worked very hard. In the end, I chose to pursue science and maths at A-levels as I originally wanted to become a GP. Throughout my A Levels, I worked as a Care Assistant for the elderly and loved it. Combining science and people seemed like the perfect job for me.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the grades for medical school, so I decided to study Chemistry at university. I had hoped to continue to Medical School after that. However, I quickly learned that medicinal and synthetic organic chemistry were not for me! Time for a plan B. It was mid-way through my BSc when I met my PhD Supervisor. This was a turning point. I was fortunate to be able to work in his laboratory for two summers, working on polymer and colloid research. It was here, I discovered that the practical side of research and development really suited me and my style of learning. Choosing to do a PhD in Polymer Chemistry was an easy decision, and undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever made. It was a fantastic three years working with a great team of students and postdocs from around the world – I made lifelong friends and I’m extremely proud of what I achieved.
Being funded by Unilever gave me a great insight into industry life. I’ve always had this at home too, as my Dad was a Chemical Engineer in the petrochemical industry. His job seemed exciting, always talking on the phone to plants around the world about specifications, shipments and random chemicals! At this point, I knew I wanted to work in industry rather than academia, turning R&D into tangible results whether financial or technical. I was fortunate to start my career within a large chemical corporation. I started work whilst still writing my thesis (What was I thinking?). The next key decision for me was moving to a non-polymer industry, refractories. Here I learned the benefits of bringing a different but overlapping discipline (polymers) to another (ceramics/refractories).
You have had a fantastic career, progressing from a Research and Development Chemist to a Technical Director over a 13-year career span, what would you say has been your highlights so far? And what has motivated you to achieve so much?
Thank you! My 10 years in the refractories industry equipped me for what was to come next in my career at Bawtry Carbon. I thrived on working in R&D and had several different roles allowing me to build my skills and experience as a leader. Because it was a large organisation, I learned business structure and processes, particularly surrounding New Product Development and Innovation. I was fortunate to work with leaders with a breadth of styles and skills. I found myself fascinated by the impact they had on on the people around them and the delivery of results. It was here, I discovered another avenue that would allow me to influence people’s lives in a positive way: leadership. I’m motivated by seeing other people grow and love seeing someone arrive at work with a spring in their step, energised by their work; it’s great for business too. A highlight for me has been learning about human leadership and the importance of empathy, building positive relationships and psychological safety in a team.
I’ve always been driven and had my next career goal insight with some kind of plan in my head. This could be anything from an external course to a development project. I thought that having two children would change that, but I returned from maternity leave the second time with renewed energy and purpose (admittedly, when the sleepless nights stage had passed). My two boys will always be my greatest achievement in life, but I had space and a desire to achieve more in my career. Now, I’m also motivated to do it for them. I was extremely lucky that this opportunity presented itself at end of last year when I first met our Managing Director. I felt so motivated and passionate about Bawtry Carbon and what I could contribute after only an hour of discussion- I knew it was the role for me.
It’s very exciting working for an SME. Especially, armed with all the tools and skills I acquired during my time in larger organisations. I particularly enjoy contributing to decisions at board level and influencing the future direction of the organisation, aligned with our newly derived vision, mission and values.
What does your role as Technical Director entail?
I am responsible for technical decisions, relationships and strategy at Bawtry Carbon. My team cover Quality, Continuous Improvements and R&D. Since joining, I have been working on our plan to improve the department and position ourselves to drive growth and realise our vision. I have spent a lot of time talking to our customers and building technical relationships, asking them for feedback and ideas for the future. This is key for increased success for Bawtry Carbon, and supports our core values, including innovation, knowledge, customer focus and collaboration.
What would you consider the most rewarding and most challenging part of your role?
I’m finding working for a smaller organisation, making decisions and generally standing on my own two feet extremely rewarding. As Directors, we continuously work beyond our own departments. I’m learning so much from the team here about the commercial, financial and operational aspects of running a manufacturing business. It’s also great working with our Private Equity Investor owners, Enact.
The downside of a smaller organisation is there is nowhere to hide when things don’t go to plan, you are accountable. Before I left my previous role, my boss at the time told me that as a leader you must “be prepared to fail at least 50% of the time”. This was great advice. Having courage to make decisions, based on the information you have at the time. Knowing it could be wrong but that a decision is better than standing still in most cases.
This is made easier by having a great team supporting you. One highlight for me has been promoting two of my current team members. Two individuals who have been contributing to Bawtry Carbon’s success for a few years and clearly have an appetite for change and want to improve our department and business overall. The next step for us will be to grow the department with some new key R&D team members.
I’ve also found that some of the experience I have now means I am able mentor and coach others, this is very rewarding. I’ll never stop learning either; Bawtry Carbon is enabling me to do that with Leadership MBA and regular Business Coaching. Feeling invested in, is so important.
Are there any significant projects that you have led as Technical Director at Bawtry Carbon that has made a great impact to your operation or overall business success that you could tell us about?
A particularly inspiring leader I worked within the past, taught me the power of a establishing a roadmap to communicate future plans. Setting out the aims of the business, or in my case the Technical Department, and aligning them with the scale of our ambition. I used this in the first presentation to our board, highlighting what a world class Technical Department would be and where our ambitions should lie to meet our business growth objectives.
I also created the first departmental vision within Bawtry, which was later expanded to create our new company vision, mission and values with contributions from all departments. I aligned our technical roadmap with key future projects supporting our potential for growth via product development. I’m pleased to share that one of these projects was successfully backed by a local grant, highlighting the strength of our business case. This has accelerated the upgrade of our laboratory and testing capability. The first phase is due to be completed in Q1 2022.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on us all, but particularly for the engineering and manufacturing sector that had to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. How did you overcome those challenges?
At Bawtry Carbon, Covid caused a considerable downturn in our industry forcing the furlough of staff and mothballing of our plant. I’m pleased to say that we are now back to full capacity, with some remaining supply/freight challenges to carefully manage. I was not part of the team in 2020, so I cannot claim to have helped weather the storm.
During this year, I was placed on furlough from my global R&D role for two months. I was very grateful to be able to care for my children at home without having to work at the same time. I’m fully aware I was one of the lucky ones and many others have struggled and continue to struggle as a result of the pandemic.
At Bawtry Carbon, since the pandemic, we have focussed on Mental Health Awareness. Many of the team completed Mental Health First Aid training, including me. I’m extremely grateful that I now feel more confident in knowing how to best support people suffering with their mental health and the importance of checking in with team members and offering appropriate support.
Going green has been a hot topic for a very long time and businesses have been more focused on making plans to implement new technology, the use and production of sustainable components and chemicals, and waste reduction. How have you considered this within your technical operation, and have you made any changes already?
We are at the start of our journey, recently completing a corporate social responsibility survey. We are working on reducing our plastic packaging and minimising our environmental impact. In our industry, since REACH came on the scene, we have been busy trying to reduce and replace hazardous chemicals. We have made some progress with our non-hazardous ramming paste for aluminium smelters but certainly there is more work to do in the future.
To any aspiring Technical Directors, and particularly women who are considering a career in the field, what advice would you give in regard to ensuring they have the right skills and experience in order to be successful in their first Technical Director role?
Research! Never stop learning. And I mean beyond your scientific field or application. The world is full of people that want to share their path to personal and business success, including inspiring female scientists and leaders. Check out podcasts, TED talks, self-help books, to name a few. Find something that resonates with you and apply the learning. Understand what you are energised by at work and your gravitas as early as possible. When faced with imposter syndrome, or a lack of confidence, I’d recommend thinking “why shouldn’t it be me” and see where that takes you!
For more information on this interview or to discuss how Parkinson Lee could assist your organisation in hiring Executive or Board Level appointments, please contact Lee Bhandal on 07590 529 274 or firstname.lastname@example.org.