Nikki King: 'Never promote out of loyalty'

INSPIRING WOMEN: Nikki King, the world's first female MD of a truck manufacturer, on starting her career at 40 and why she's known as a 'different sort of chap'.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 20 Nov 2014

1. Which businesswoman do you most admire and why?

Without doubt, Carolyn McCall of easyJet. The role of CEO in this company is not an easy one (pardon the pun!). The major shareholder is not easy to work with and the slim margins leave little room for error or spending on soft skills. Carolyn has managed all facets brilliantly and has given the company a leading edge by massively improving customer service. Even Ryanair has been forced to change culture as a result.

2. Do you have a mentor? If so, who and why?

I have had many mentors in my career. Sometimes you need to bounce off many different people with different skill sets so one mentor rarely cuts it.

However, my number one mentor who took me through the management buyout, the early days of owning my own business and the eventual sale to Isuzu was John Harvey, chairman of Tibbett & Britten. Having bought the company from Lever Brothers and sold to DHL, John was the perfect mentor and a hugely supportive friend.

3. What's been your biggest business setback/mistake?

The biggest setback was, of course, the 2009 recession. For a business only four years into an MBO, it was very scary! I went on holiday in August 2008 and we were 20 per cent over a very ambitious plan. When I returned to work, we didn’t take another order until March the following year. Also, because of the long lead time on our vehicles from Japan, I had six months of stock coming at me whether I needed it or not. Our order take is only now fully recovering. However, our USP of great customer service meant we didn’t suffer as much as our competitors and our market share continued to rise albeit at lower volumes.

The biggest mistake I made was when I started the business in 1996: I promised the seven people who originally worked with me that they would grow with the business if they worked hard. I then promoted on loyalty and emotion rather than intellect and it took me ten years to sort the problem out.

4. What are your top tips for negotiating a pay rise?

Honestly, I have never had to do it so my experience is fairly limited. However, if you're working for a company that doesn’t recognise your talents or is paying you less than your peer group, then you should leave. They don’t deserve you!

5. How do you juggle the work/life balance? Any advice?

I write copious lists and revisit them every day to change priorities. If it’s not on the list for today, I don’t worry about it.

I am also two different people: chairman and CEO; and mother/grandmother and friend. The changeover used to happen on my 65-mile journey to and from the office. I only have understanding friends who are just so patient with me. They don’t expect me to be in their pockets and understand when I go missing for months.

I also have a mantra – I never look back. Yesterday has gone and, while you can learn from it, you can’t change anything. Tomorrow is yours.

Most importantly, a friend once taught me the 'What is the worst thing that can happen?' technique. If you are faced with a real problem, asking yourself that question followed by 'What is the next worst thing that can happen?' until you run out of worst things is really liberating. You realise that nothing is really as bad as you think.

6. What's your take on boardroom quotas? 

I'll be taking part in a debate about this at MT's upcoming Inspiring Women conference. I'm on the 'no' side to quotas.

Firstly, if there are quotas, many companies will appoint a token woman and go on as usual. This doesn’t help the situation at all. In Norway, for example, where quotas were brought in, the headline is that around 450 companies in Norway now have a woman on their boards. Actually, these 450 posts are held by around 35 women – that says it all!

This proposal is shutting the stable door after the horse has gone. If we don’t make it easier for our young talented females to stay in the workplace by being flexible with home working, flexible hours etc, the talent pool is just not there at board level.

By allowing our female staff at Isuzu to bring their children to work, work from home and change their hours to suit their family, 30% of our senior management and 45% of our middle managers are now female. And this is in a very male dominated industry.

7. What nuggets of advice would you give to young women starting out on their careers?

As my career did not start until I was 40, the first thing to tell them is it's never too late. Many of the skills necessary for management were learnt bringing up the children such as time management, negotiation and anger management.

The other advice I would give is to network as much as possible, not just with women’s groups but in mixed groups in your own industry. It is surprising how many opportunities can be found at such events and how quickly you will be remembered as you are a 'different sort of chap'.

Lastly, do not try to be a man – what is so great about that? I know from my own experience that women bring a really valuable additional skill set into a management team. Given a challenge, the men will be going gung-ho for a practical solution while the women will be considering all the soft people issues that the men completely forget.

8. As a high-flying businesswoman, have you ever faced discrimination in your industry?

Not too many or perhaps I am too thick-skinned to notice. The main times were when I asked a technical question and the answer was given to my male colleague. However, when I have met with discrimination I have learned to meet it head on and challenge it immediately rather than crawl into a corner and cry. So, in this instance, I would say 'No, I asked that question. Please do me the courtesy of answering me' – that stops it in its tracks.

Interestingly, I have found that discrimination only happens as you're climbing to the top. Once you're there, you receive more respect and admiration than your male colleagues.

9. What do you look for when hiring a new person?

Above all, a real appreciation of customer service and a genuine love of people. Without that they are useless to me and the company regardless of their qualifications.

10.Where do you see yourself in five years?

Now I am semi-retired and honorary chairman of Isuzu, I feel it is time to give something back. Therefore, I am now chair of a new Academic Trust in Kent and am absolutely loving it. I am also a member of the South East of England and South London Head Teacher Board advising the SE Commissioners at the Department of Education on all matters relating to academies and free schools. There are eight Head Teacher Boards around the country; it’s a new initiative and I’m really honoured to be the only business leader who has been invited to join.

I feel there is a myth that has been propagated that education is for children. Actually, it is for the adults they will become and our Trust is now teaching Skills for Life. We want our children to have early and relevant careers advice through regular careers assemblies from different industries. We are exciting them with the world of work.

We also provide mentors from the industry of their choice to work with them throughout their last two years at school. These mentors help them on how to behave at work, how to write a good CV and how to interview well. We also teach soft skills such as team working, how to present, customer service and sales skills and to be aware of the world around them. We also teach them how to be great parents and good citizens. If any readers would be prepared to help us on this, I would love to hear from you.

So, who knows where I will be in five years? Semi-retirement has proved to be just a new start on a new direction so all I know is it will be massively exciting.

Meet Nikki King at our Inspiring Women event on 20th November. Fellow speakers include Thomas Cook boss Harriet Green, Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold, Links of London founder Annoushka Ducas and M&S style director Belinda Earl. Check out the progamme and book tickets here

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