From Dicing Onions to Directing Operations

Let’s be honest, looking back at my childhood dreams of grown up life, Management Consultant or Operations Director wasn’t top of the list! I was a sensitive, emotional child and looking back I think I always knew I would be focusing on the softer skills used in Management.

After the usual array of jobs in my earlier years – paper round, pot wash, admin and a stint as a Christmas temp at Argos – I did a GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism and then aged 19, I trotted off to the South of France for a summer working for PGL (Parents Get Lost – if you know, you know!) Within a week, due to staffing issues, I found myself running the kitchen with a team of eight chefs and catering assistants . And there started a career that spanned over 18 years.

I found a love for the Service Industry, I knew I always loved food, but providing something so necessary and valuable to people appealed to me. So I returned home and went off to university to learn some more. I completed a HND in Operations Management followed by a BSc in Catering & Hotel Management. Sandwiched in the middle I did a Year in Industry. At the time, Loyd Grossman was spearheading a campaign to improve hospital food in the NHS (long before Jamie Oliver got his hands on it), so I chose a year working at Cheltenham General Hospital. I completed their Junior Management Programme, which saw me work all areas of food provision. From the kitchen, to serving on the wards, from hospitality for board meetings, restaurants and cafes, working with dieticians and nutritionists and everything in between.

I loved it, I really did, and believe me, NHS catering is a thankless task, everyone hates it, there are a lot of complaints. But it made me more determined to make improvements, to try, as celebrity chefs and others alike have done for years, to make hospital food better.

I ended up staying on as a Duty Manager whilst I completed my degree and following that I went to work full-time in another part of the Trust as an Area Catering Manager, responsible for the food provision at community hospitals, mental health units and residential care homes across Gloucestershire. I stayed with the NHS for six years.

The next step I took was into the corporate world – the NHS did not pay well for the level of work I was doing. So I jumped into the private sector and went to work for Compass Group UK – under their Eurest banner. Starting as a Unit Manager running a staff restaurant at Ageas Insurance, my nine years saw me progress to bigger units, managing more staff. Then onto other roles such as Assistant Manager of a Centre of Excellence, Customer Experience Manager and Contract Mobilisation Manager. It took me all around the UK from Farnborough to Aberdeen to Belfast.

A particular favourite was my nine-month stint on the BT contract at BT Sport TV Studios. This saw me learn so many new skills, starting with work on the contract bid process, and then project managing the build of a new kitchen, restaurant, bar and green rooms at the Broadcast Centre, Olympic Park in Stratford, London. It was a fun time dipping into the world of broadcasting and meeting so many famous faces in the process.

A few years into my time at Compass, I was really enjoying the work – it was an easy 7am-3pm Monday to Friday job, the client was easy, the staff were great and I was paid well. But I wanted more! So at that time I applied to join the Royal Naval Reserves. Compass had a great Reservist Policy and supported my decision, seeing the benefit that I could bring to the company learning new skills and keeping me motivated. I did five years with HMS Flying Fox in Bristol, taking me on some amazing adventures – sailing competitively for the Reserve in several regattas, security at the 2012 Olympics, a short stint on HMS Monmouth and a whole heap of leadership training. I also passed my Admiralty Interview Board, which saw me through Officer Selection. It was some of the best years of my life that gave me so many invaluable skills that remain with me today.

I peaked at Compass with my final role as Head of Catering. It was a challenging role with a big team of over 50, but the most enjoyable part was the little projects I worked on over that time and I came to realise that project management was something I had a real passion for. This led me to my next step and the biggest change in my career so far. At the age of 37, I left my catering career behind and moved into a management consultant role for Atkins (now part of SNC Lavalin – right about the time they merged).

This change of career and pace of work was a steep learning curve, I was using transferable skills all over the place, I knew all about planning, financial management, risk and issue management – I knew how to manage stakeholders and overcome challenges. But all of a sudden I was immersed in the IT world, the context was vastly different and I was the newbie. Needless to say, I still managed to navigate the changes and learning and really enjoyed the work I was doing. I started off as Project Control Officer and progressed to become a Team Lead, with responsibility for 13 PCOs.

Just to keep things challenging, a year later I went on my first maternity leave, followed swiftly by my second maternity leave and finally returning to work at the end of January 2020 in a part-time capacity but in a brand new role as a Strategic Programme Practitioner. Of course, six weeks later I returned home to navigate working from home with two small children during a global pandemic. Most of that year is a blur, as it was for many. I lost a lot of confidence, I had a virtual network but longed for the office. I felt isolated! Getting to know a new team, a new client and a new role from my dining room table with a two-year-old and a baby was tough. It pushed me to limits I had never seen before and taught me so much.

The next door that opened for me is where I currently find myself now. An opportunity to work for an SME. The NHS, Compass and Atkins are huge institutions that brought so much benefit to my career – each one offering me continual professional development, opportunities for progression and promotion, bonuses and pay rises, all the good stuff. Now, I wanted something a little different. So here I am at Infrastar. I joined over a year ago and have gone from strength to strength. It’s been another big change to adapt and learn in a much smaller company but it’s absolutely what I needed in my career and I haven’t looked back.

The team feel like family. It’s hard work and brings new and different challenges. However, I am so lucky to be part of building and growing a business from fairly early years. Seeing the progress, feeling the responsibility and working with some truly committed and conscientious people is what it’s all about. For me, that’s job satisfaction! I can’t wait to see what the future brings for my career and for the business I am invested in.