#006 – Women in business, the path to General Manager

In this episode, we travelled to Doncaster to visit Polypipe’s Professional Development Centre. Whilst visiting, we spoke to Rachel Smith general manager for Polypipe Underfloor Heating. Rachel talks us through her work life journey from leaving school up to her current role at Polypipe.

Host: Darren House 
Produced By: Freddie Dalton & Darren House 
Copyright: Inside The House 

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Podcast Transcription

Darren:                Welcome to episode six of Inside the House podcast.  Today we are again at the Polypipe’s Professional Development Centre with Rachel Smith, who is the general manager for Polypipe Underfloor Heating.

                              Great conversation talking through her career, discussing her career, from what she wanted to be as a young person and how she became general manager of Polypipe Underfloor, including some real career highlights for her in marketing as well.  So, definitely worth listening to the end, and we really get into the nitty-gritty with this one.

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                              Rachel Smith, general manager, Polypipe Underfloor Heating.

Rachel:                 Yes.

Darren:                Here today at the Polypipe Professional Development Centre which is obviously dedicated really to the underfloor heating.  What’s your career path through Polypipe?

Rachel:                 Okay, so how did I get here?

Darren:                Yeah.  I mean go back to school if you want.

Rachel:                 Literally, I mean I’ve been in the construction sector for over 20 years now, which kind of gives my age away unfortunately.  I left school with no real plans for knowing what it was that I wanted to do, didn’t go to university, fell into a job working for a manufacturer that sold bearings for precision engineering companies, enjoyed it a lot, working in their export department actually.

So I got to see lots of the world, travelled quite a bit, which was exciting, and kind of thought, I quite like this work lark.  I enjoy being in a working environment.  I like the cut and thrust of it, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I’d like to climb the career ladder.

So at that point I approached them about sponsoring me to do my degree.  So I did a degree in international business and finance, sponsored by the company, which is fantastic, because it gave me then, I felt, the experience, the hands-on practical experience of being in a real life organisation combined with that university education.  So I got the best of both worlds.

Darren:                And when did you do that?

Rachel:                 In my early 20s.  So I was 22 when I did my degree.  Yeah, so I’d got a fair few years’ work experience up until that point, knew which channel I wanted to progress down and enjoyed the degree that I did, which covered various aspects of business and finance, and some of the marketing stuff that I did, I warmed to and really enjoyed, which took me down a path towards a marketing career.

                              So I did my degree, moved to work for Saint Gobain Pipelines, who supply ductile iron pipe systems to the utility sector in the UK, and went there as communications manager.  Did a stint in product management for them as well, so I got both angles of the marketing mix, which was fantastic, and I was with them for six, seven years. 

Really enjoyed it, enjoyed the sector, thought I’d get some marketing experience and then go and use it somewhere sexy like Chanel or Dior or Donna Karan or one of these big labels, but no, that didn’t happen.

Darren:                It’s not very relatable either.

Rachel:                 No, and I kind of got sucked  into the whole construction sector and I loved it, and I loved the challenge of trying to engage people and talk to people about products that really, on the face of it, aren’t that sexy.

Darren:                We had the same conversation with Becky earlier.  It must be difficult to be creative in trying to make a piece of plastic a sexy product –

Rachel:                 Appealing, yeah.

Darren:                – yeah, and what to talk about it and someone wants to listen when you want to talk about it.

Rachel:                 Exactly.  But when it’s relevant to you and your job and what you do, and how we make life easier because our products are easier to install or maintain or whatever it might be, then you can get behind the messaging a little bit.

                              So I loved it, really enjoyed it, and the opportunity came to join Polypipe in the civils part of the organisation down in Loughborough.  They were looking for a marketing manager to join the business.  I felt I’d got the right skillset to be able to bring the comms side of it as well as the product management and analytical angle to it.

                              And was successful, got the role, and I spent eight years as marketing manager for Polypipe Civils and loved every minute of it.  Had some real career highs there.  Worked with some of the best minds I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and learning from, which is always great.  I think if you’ve got someone that you can learn from and have as a mentor; that really helps with your career.

                              So I learnt from some of the absolute best while I was there, and really enjoyed my time.  We did some significant things.  We launched the first ever large diameter [CRA] line in the UK, which is German technology brought into the UK to help with flood alleviation schemes and water management schemes, so that was mega impressive.  I mean three metre diameter pipes that you can literally drive cars through.  It was fantastic to be a part of the project team that brought that to the UK and brought that technology to the UK market.

Darren:                Was there, obviously there’s demand for that.

Rachel:                 Massively, and I’m going back to the time, we were around early 2000s where we’d seen some significant flood events in the UK, water management was being a hot topic, and you know what?  We needed to learn how to deal with it and manage the infrastructure around that in the right way.

                              So there was lots of government legislation around at the time that was pushing people and residential developers to manage their site water run-off better, and stop allowing it to cause flooding problems further downstream.

                              So we were in at the right time really.  We had this perfect storm of opportunity legislation, the technology to bring it in from Germany –

Darren:                And the floods happening as well, which brings it to people’s attention –

Rachel:                 Forefront, exactly.

Darren:                – we need to do something otherwise we’re going to be in trouble.

Rachel:                 Exactly.  So it was right place, right time, but I like to think as a management team down at Polypipe Civils, we’d got the right capability to bring it to market, and it’s an incredibly successful part of their portfolio now, and something that they’re expanding on, although a side of the business that I don’t get hugely involved in these days.

Darren:                And then you moved over to where?

Rachel:                 Moved over to Polypipe Building Products, yes, so I was head of marketing for Polypipe Building Products for four years.  Thoroughly enjoyed that role.  We work very closely with our merchant partners, so everything that we do is through the plumbing and heating merchant network across the UK.  Independents are a staunch part of who we work with as, as well as some of the nationals too.

                              But we weren’t really communicating to our end users.  So, the installers who were using our products day in, day out; we weren’t really capturing their hearts and minds and their attention, and why Polypipe over anybody else for example.

                              So I spent quite a lot of time and effort pushing the message out to our end users to hopefully encourage them to walk into their nearest branch and say “I want Polypipe”, and I think we did a pretty good job of that.

                              I spent four years doing that, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and then in 2017 we started having some serious discussions about underfloor heating and the opportunities that the underfloor heating market brings to the UK, and the possibility that maybe we needed a separate management team to look at how we handle that part of our market and the business.

And we started those discussions and we had lots of them, as I’m sure you can imagine, but then we took the decision that yes, having that focus management team and focused sales team and customer support team, because underfloor heating needs to be handled slightly differently, was the right thing to do.

So of March 2018 I became general manager for Polypipe Underfloor Heating, and here I am.

Darren:                Yeah, excellent.  It’s amazing when you went through that sort of career history and you think about some of, I can see some things that I’ve done similar, and I’m sure it happens to lots of people.

                              When I left school I wanted to be a theatre lighting electrician, and I’m not that now, but for me it was like, I actually went to college and studied it, Westminster University for a few years, and studied the electrical side, and then I fell into working for a builder as a receptionist basically, as officer manager, but it was basically a receptionist.

                              And then I went back when I was with Grant & Stone during my period at Showroom, because I needed some more real world knowledge of marketing and business and finance, because I wanted to move up the chain of being a manager and that kind of stuff, but didn’t have the experience academically and I wasn’t that bit of real world experience with the people but not as in …

And marketing’s not something that you necessarily pick up.  You have to do a little bit of structure and [taught]

, and there’s a few principles, and I felt that I needed something.  You can’t just get someone to come and do marketing, it doesn’t really work.

And I think in our industry, specifically merchant industry, you know, he’s a good lad on the counter, he can dress up a few leaflets on the counter; we’ll put him in charge of marketing.  It doesn’t really work like that, and sometimes it does, but it doesn’t tend to work.

And whilst you were saying that, I thought it was really interesting.  Why do we always have this feeling that we need to leave school, go to university?  Why not do like you did, which I think is a really sensible idea, and you fell into it, you didn’t plan it, but why not go to go in from work?

Rachel:                 I’d like to say it was thoroughly planned, but no, it wasn’t.  It was one of those situations where I’d kind of dismissed university, because I didn’t have a particular vocation.  I didn’t want to be a doctor.  I didn’t want to be a lawyer.  So there was nothing for me to go to university for.

                              I didn’t want to fall into the trap of media studies.  That wasn’t going to be right for me either.  So I kind of thought, no, this isn’t going to work for me.  I don’t really think university’s the path, and actually I quite like having a bit of cash in my pocket and being able to go out and spend a few quid at the weekend and stuff like that, you know.

Darren:                Go on holiday or travel, whatever.

Rachel:                 Exactly.  And so my parents were like, well that’s fine and if university’s not for you that’s absolutely fine, but you are going to get off your backside and you will get a job.

                              And I’ve got quite a strong work ethic and I think it comes from my dad actually.  My dad instilled a really strong work ethic in me. 

So I would agree.  I’m not so sure that, especially now, you’ve got universities out there charging a small fortune to students to attend, and actually on the one hand that’s great, because therefore students have a right to reply to say, you know what?  You’re providing me with a service and I expect a certain standard of education and I expect a certain level from you as a student.

So yeah that’s great, if university’s right for you then maybe you can hold them to account a bit better than you could do before potentially, I don’t know.  But then equally it’s a big investment on the part of the student and if –

Darren:                Huge amount, and if you don’t use it.

Rachel:                 – it’s not right for you it’s a lot of debt to carry around for a lot of years afterwards. 

So I think we should start looking at more vocational courses.  I think we should start thinking about work placements and apprenticeships, which is something that we at Polypipe are very big into actually. 

We’ve got a number of apprentices who work in our design department, which is in the office next door, and we’ve got a number of apprentices across the business in extrusion, moulding, various different departments, who rise through the ranks with us as well.  We tend to keep people.

Darren:                I mean it is interesting to go the other way round, because then you think, I went to university, I studied something and never used it, and technically you might have to go and retrain again, take some more debt on, whereas if you think about it, go into a career, get in and say “I’m happy with this one, no I’m not”, go into this career, I’m happy, no I’m not.

                              Then when you’re 24, 22, 28, with all the distance learning available now to us today, it could be actually physically out of college and work placement or whatever it may be, it’s available to you.

Rachel:                 It doesn’t have to be that university’s the only option does it, and that’s the point, yeah.

Darren:                Not the first one, definitely.

Rachel:                 I think things are changing, definitely.  Definitely.

Darren:                Yeah, really good, perfect.  Thank you for your time.  It’s been really interesting.

Rachel:                 You’re really welcome and thank you very much for coming.  It’s been fantastic.  Thank you very much.

Darren:                Thank you.

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