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Karen Hester

Adnams

Chief Operating Officer

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From cleaner to COO: Karen Hester of Adnams

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Karen Hester is Chief Operating Officer at the award-winning brewer and distiller, Adnams. In April this year she became the first female executive director to sit on Adnams’ board, since it was founded in 1872 – a remarkable achievement after joining the business as a cleaner in 1988. Here, she talks about her journey to the top, first hand, and the things learnt along the way.

When I was 16, I left Suffolk and joined the Army. I was the youngest female in the UK to obtain an HGV licence (aged 17), you might wonder what this has in common with my current role, COO at Adnams. Then again, you might wonder what me qualifying as a play group leader has to do with it too – but both have stood me in good stead at times!

The most important thing, whatever business you are in, is always the people; knowing what makes them tick and how to get the best out of them whilst accepting them as individuals. Working hard, showing commitment and not being afraid to take on a challenge as well as having self-belief have all helped my career. I learnt a lot from being in the Army including self-discipline.

Working hard, showing commitment and not being afraid to take on a challenge as well as having self-belief have all helped my career.

When I was pregnant with my first child I was ordered to leave the Army. I went out to Germany as a civilian with my husband in 1982 and got a job visiting the homes of service personnel selling clothes. Within four weeks I realised how much money I was making for someone else so decided to set up my own business. I flew back to the UK, found a local wholesaler and began exporting goods to Germany. Working from home, I soon employed eight other women. I created a successful business until my return to the UK in 1986 due to unforeseen personal circumstances.

Because I returned to the UK in a hurry I still had a lot of stock so I brought it back to the UK selling it on market stalls across Anglia where I had returned to.

I learnt a lot from being in the Army including self-discipline.

In 1988, I took a job working as a cleaner at Adnams. Working evenings meant I could spend more time with my children during the day. Two years later, I decided to leave as my kids had started school meaning I could get a day job to fit around school hours. I left on a Friday and on Monday got a call from Adnams’ HR manager offering me three mornings a week in stores and procurement. I was talent spotted by Andy Wood (CEO, Adnams) and asked to move to transport in 1994.

Andy had learnt of my background in logistics. I became a single parent in 1995 and moved to Adnams transport department. If you think brewing and distilling are traditionally a man’s world, you should have seen the transport world back in the 1990s! On one occasion, at a Freight Transport Association lunch, I was the only woman among 600 men – many assumed that someone had brought me as their secretary!

On one occasion, at a Freight Transport Association lunch, I was the only woman among 600 men – many assumed that someone had brought me as their secretary.

I was instrumental in building the award-winning distribution centre at Reydon in 2006, which I proudly delivered on time and on budget. I won East of England’s Business Women of the Year in 2008 and was recognised at the ‘First Women Business of the Year Awards’ in 2013. When asked how I have achieved so much I always reply, ‘I simply did my best and that was good enough’.

I am an approachable COO and boss. Anyone in the business can come and talk to me about anything. It’s important to understand that work is just one part of an individual’s life – you get the best out of people by being approachable, honest and sincere.

It’s important to understand that work is just one part of an individual’s life – you get the best out of people by being approachable, honest and sincere.

I’m a firm believer in encouraging people and helping them grow. I never assume that the person in the warehouse is less capable than the person in the office. I actively look for talent in everyone; sometimes this is as simple as chatting to someone informally, as Andy [Adnams CEO] did with me. I always try and focus on what people are trying to say, not how they say it, and enjoy coaching and mentoring others.

Having spotted talent, I’ve learnt to try to give that person the autonomy to take on a challenge and run with it. I believe respect is very important, I have never asked anybody to do anything I either haven’t done or am not prepared to do myself. I take huge personal satisfaction in developing my senior team who in the main started at the bottom and worked their way up like me. We have created a culture of trust as well as mutual respect.

What happens when things go wrong?  Personally, I find that a crisis is where I excel, I don’t do ‘stress’. Being able to think clearly, strip out the emotion and take a step back before leaping into action to resolve a challenge works for me – and of course the question I always ask the team when things are resolved is ‘what can we learn from this experience?’

Being able to think clearly, strip out the emotion and take a step back before leaping into action to resolve a challenge works for me

How you communicate with your people is exceptionally important. Being a leader means that you have to be honest, firm but fair, even when delivering difficult messages.  

I’ve had a great career – but haven’t managed to fulfil my dream yet to be on the board of Ipswich Town Football Club. When I first became transport manager at Adnams I had 28 men to manage and couldn’t imagine what I would talk to them about until I thought – aha football! Suffolk born and bred, I began supporting Ipswich and am now a season ticket holder and I’m there every Saturday. 

So, what would I say to today’s youngsters embarking on their work/life journey?

I’d say ‘make sure you give it everything, because your best is all you can be and no one can ask more. Take pride in your work – and have fun while you’re doing it!’

One Response

  1. Hi Karen Hester,
    Hi Karen Hester,
    Thank you for sharing your journey.
    You are a shining example of how it only takes determination and hard work to succeed! Your story is an inspiration to all the youngsters like me and its true when we take pride in our work we always land up into a better position in life.

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Karen Hester

Chief Operating Officer

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