JENNY STEWART is commercial director at Ultimate Products, the Oldham-based company which develops branded household goods for international retailers around the world. She joined the business after sixth-form and has built her career there over the past 14 years, including working overseas.
Jenny played an important role in Ultimate Products flotation on the Stock Exchange in 2017 and is a member of its Operating Board. Here, she talks about her background and career, the latest expansion and recruitment activities at Ultimate Products, which currently has 200 staff in Oldham, and the influence of and opportunities for women in business.
Ultimate Products has its base at the Manor Mill in Chadderton, which is home to offices, warehousing and an impressive product showroom displaying homewares, kitchen electrical, luggage, cooking equipment, audio technology and table wear ranges which are supplied to retailers worldwide.
The old cotton mill is a Oldham landmark which she loves but she said Ultimate Products is keen to raise better awareness of its activities locally in Oldham and Greater Manchester, especially awareness of its varied employment and career development opportunities.
She said: “ The public don’t really know who we are. They see the big mill but they don’t realise this is a business listed on the Stock Exchange which is on their doorstep. This is a company with a big global operation and a network of offices world-wide. It’s growing at a fast rate in quite a tough economic environment. There are good careers here. But we currently have more people working for us from across Greater Manchester than Oldham, which we want to address.
“We advertise vacancies in the media and on social media, and have a referral scheme which encourage existing staff to refer other people to us. Recruiting is a challenge and we have to get out there to raise awareness.
“We work in a beautiful Victorian mill which is full of history. People visit here from across the world and comment on the mill and landmark chimney. I think of it as my palace.
“People aspire to work in Manchester city centre but I can assure them there are many great businesses in the outer boroughs too. This is an ambitious company with a £100 million turnover and we want good people to join us. I’ve had a successful career within the same company over 14 years.
“There are easy transport connections here and free car parking. There are lots of advantages to not working in the city centre.
BACKGROUND & EARLY CAREER
Jenny grew up in Royton and attended Our Lady’s High School and Sixth Form. She took A-levels in drama, business studies, sociology and psychology, and was a member of Oldham Theatre Workshop from the age of six to 16.
She recalled: “As a youngster, I wanted to be an actress or a dancer. That didn’t happen but it gave me confidence, which is a great thing and helps me in my role I have today.
“I didn’t go to university. I intended to go and planned to take a year out during which I’d get an admin job. I always knew I wanted to be in an office environment. I also wanted to travel, meet new people and get involved in projects and challenges.
“Then I got a role with Ultimate Products, after seeing an advert, and it became my university. The experience and knowledge I’ve gained here over the years has been really enlightening.
“When I started at Ultimate Products I didn’t necessarily think I would spend my whole career here. I saw it as an opportunity to work for an ambitious company. It has led to great opportunities over time.”
Her father, John, owns a business called Portland Foods in Ashton. Her mother, Rosemary, ran the family home and later worked at Oldham Athletic FC.
She said: They are both hard-working, wonderful people .What drives me is making my family and my husband proud.”
Jenny’s husband, Jimmy Scales, has his own building and property business, Absolute Developments based in Rochdale. He grew up in Royton and attended Hulme Grammar School in Oldham.
Jenny said: “I met Jimmy when I was 18. We both work really hard and sometimes we don’t see much of each other when we’re really busy. When we manage to catch-up it’s like going on a first date again, with so much to talk about. We’re both workaholics.”
From her junior role, Jenny moved-up within Ultimate Products and is now the commercial director. She was an Operating Board member for the Ultimate Products flotation in March 2017.
She said: “We are incredibly proud of how far we have come including the floatation last year. My role now as commercial director means I’m responsible for all commercial activities and sales management for the organisation. I’ve to deliver as many opportunities as possible and help the business to maximise them. Following the flotation, I had to implement strategies in-line with the company plan and make sure everybody was implementing best practise.
“The Chief Executive and MD here, Andrew Gossage and Simon Showman, are fabulous people to work for. They work tirelessly to make things happen. Andy and Simon are very approachable, ambitious business men who interact with the teams every single day. They are hands-on leaders.
You are appreciated and valued – and they make this known. They are two different types characters who together make the perfect team. I take inspiration from both of them and learn a lot directly from them.”
Staff development, training and recruitment are high on the agenda, she said. Training is done in-house and externally. She said: “Ultimate Products wants to grow its own skilled employees. We invest heavily in staff development.
“Our graduate training scheme is probably the biggest in Greater Manchester. We have 100 graduates here out of 200 based in Oldham, which is a significant ration. It’s going from strength-to-strength. I have quite a lot of graduates on my team. They are intelligent and they give us good ideas, so this transforms all our work on all sides.
“We also have 14 members of staff on a Women in Leadership group which meets monthly. It offers training and team-building exercises for future women managers within Ultimate Products, it also offers a shoulder to lean on. I was fortunate to have good people managing me when I was younger and I want to offer the same to others, I want to encourage their skills and build their confidence.”
Craig holden, HR director at Ultimate Products, plays a key role in the various programmes and added: “In addition to our graduate training scheme, we are recruiting people who want to start work earlier through a programme with Oldham College and our academy programme.
“We also have another programme called Graduate Plus to recruit graduates who have left university and been working for a year or so. They are generally clearer about what type of work they want to do and they can hit the ground more easily, because they’ve already got experience of regular work. They know more about meeting deadlines and telephone and email etiquette, for example.”
Regarding Ultimate Products’ global growth, Jenny said: “We are recruiting more staff in the UK and expanding across the world. We have offices in China, Hong Kong, the UK, Belgium and Germany. We recently opened an office in Cologne. So the opportunities for staff are quite vast – from accounting to logistics, design, sales and merchandising. There are real opportunities to travel the world.
“I lived in Hong Kong for a year when I was 26. I was given the opportunity to set-up our Far East sales operation. I worked hard and partied hard too. That was probably still the best year of my life. That was where I found myself. I wanted to continue a role in sales and business development. After returning from Hong Kong I led our major accounts in the UK before being made sales director by the age of 29.
“These types of opportunities are still available now. Today we send our UK staff overseas for their development. We have a small office in Belgium but Cologne will be our European hub. We want to really penetrate the European market.
“Cologne has good connections and Germany has the only really thriving economy in Europe. Cologne has a lot of German retail and commercial headquarters based there and it’s also close to Frankfurt which is another centralised business city where many trade shows happen throughout the year.
“We have recruited a sales manager who lives in Cologne and has a wealth of retail experience. So Cologne is the perfect location and also a beautiful city. We opened the showroom there earlier this year and we need more resources to build-up that office from Oldham. We are recruiting constantly.
“Today, I travel a lot to Europe, China and the United States. I meet retailers, go to trade fairs and deal with customers and suppliers world-wide. It’s a really interesting and thought-provoking job, and also quite intense. I look at the latest retail industry data, intelligence and news, build relationships, and talk about new products and trends, often two years in advance.”
Of course, Brexit is linked to international trade and Jenny said the outcome is extremely hard to predict. However Ultimate Products has undertaken various plans and implementations for different scenarios.
CONTRIBUTION OF WOMEN
Another major topic of international news in the past 12 months has been women from all walks of life raising awareness of issues such as equal pay, equal opportunities and issues such as bullying, sexism and sexual harassment at work.
Jenny said: “It’s inspirational and reassuring for celebrities, business women and other women to speak out on these issues. It gives other women the confidence to speak out on such important things.
“Women add a different dimension to business and bring different thinking at work. I think women consider things more carefully and don’t act in haste, unlike some men. Women often think more before taking risks. I’d like to think women will take a greater leading role in future. Working together is the recipe for success.”
“When I first joined Ultimate Products, every manager was male. Now there are two female directors, myself and Emma Greenhalgh, and eight men, which is still small but its progress.”