Even in these relatively enlightened times there is still a dearth of women at the top of the packaging industry. Louise Hunt spoke to Charlotte King – one of the industry's few female managing directors – to discover what so many companies are missing

The number of women in senior management positions in the UK packaging industry can be literally counted on one hand. There are approximately five. This may well be a case of the proverbial glass ceiling. But it is just as likely to be a result of the meagre numbers of women choosing to launch their careers in the packaging industry.

This, however, is not a phenomenon unique to the packaging industry. When Charlotte King was recognised for her achievements as managing director of polythene packaging company Britton Gelplas in the 2003 Management Today list of female high-flyers under 35, she was the only representative out of all the manufacturing industries.

Charlotte King’s success story not only highlights the difficulties in breaking through to the manufacturing boardroom, it also proves that, once there, women are just as capable of taking a packaging business to new heights. And should, therefore, not be overlooked as MD potential.

Charlotte’s career at the Letchworth-based company began at 17 when it was still Gelpack. It was to become one of the first Britton Group companies and now represents the second biggest polythene packaging group in the UK.

Working up from assistant to sales director, Charlotte’s responsibilities rocketed when she was charged with putting in place the BS5750 quality standard. Success in this project led to Charlotte being given the task of implementing the Royal Society of Health and Food Hygiene standard across two sites in an impressive six months. Last year the company also achieved BRC IoP accreditation.

It was during this time two years ago that Charlotte’s efforts caught the attention of David Arden, whom she was working with when he became divisional managing director. David Arden had the unenviable task of fixing a company on unsteady legs. Gelplas had been run by a succession of three managing directors, all brought in from outside, who had lasted a year or under.

  “David said to me you’re taking over Britton Gelplas next week, and you’ve got six months to turn it around. I was just thrown in at the deep end,” says Charlotte. It also meant that at 28 she had achieved her ambition of becoming a managing director 12 years before the goal she had set herself – 40.

“The previous MDs didn’t understand the business as such. It didn’t work because they couldn’t pinpoint the problems. This was our last chance to get it right. So he chose someone who knew the business and could identify the problems.

“We restructured the whole company over six months and changed all the managers. Basically all the middle management were brought up to become the senior management team.

“We took out £300 000 of cost in a very short space of time. We bottom sliced the areas that weren’t profitable and focused on those that were – food packaging, furniture and bedding.

“It’s been on-going from there. We’ve got a massive growth plan. We’ve achieved 30% growth since October 2002. It all seems to have come together at the right time. We got into profit last year, when we hadn’t been in profit for five years.”

Food packaging, in the form of bulk, tray and box liners represents the largest slice of Gelplast’s business at 40%. The company is currently developing new polymer technologies and will be introducing a new range for the food industry. It has also just launched a one-stop-shop facility to outsource products for customers.

Despite her achievements in breathing new life into Gelplas, Charlotte didn’t expect to find herself on a list of top UK businesswomen. “I was absolutely shocked to be on a list with the likes of Stella McCartney. I was the only ordinary person from industry on the list. But I have been through a lot in the last couple of years and it was nice to be recognised for it and see my hard work and achievements pay off.

“I think it also sends a positive message to other women that, although I was the only one in a packaging or manufacturing environment, if you have got the drive and ambition to succeed then you can.”

Charlotte puts her success down to sheer determination. “I’ve always gone the extra mile no matter what position I’ve had. I suppose that’s just my outlook. I think that was probably one of the reasons that I was recognised to do the position here.”

But Charlotte admits that the chance to shine was helped along by the arrival of a more enlightened attitude at Gelplas. “Originally, before the set-up changed, the company was very male dominated. There was a male MD and sales director and there just weren’t the opportunities for women. Most of the women were in sales and the attitude was you go out and bat your eyelids at customers. “The change was when David Arden came in. He didn’t specifically choose women but he recognised that women could be just as good as men as managing directors. There was no difference if you had a knowledge of the business and the industry.”

Having a manager that recognises this potential does make all the difference, believes Charlotte. This meritocratic approach has led to the appointment of a further female managing director, Jill O’Regan, at Britton Taco in Wiltshire.

The new female touch within the group is having an effect on working practices. “There was definitely an embedded male culture here at Gelplas over the years. It was very much the bosses are seen as God when they go onto the shop floor. It’s not like that now. My door is always open. Some people are shocked that I’m so accessible. When I started you wouldn’t go to the MD’s office unless it was really serious. It’s a lot more relaxed now, less hierarchical.”

Charlotte believes that the group has no particular issues with her and Jill being women MDs and says she receives good feedback from customers. “I think people that know me know that I don’t pull any punches. I’m not a soft, fluffy female. If you’ve grown through the ranks from the early days it does make you more feisty and stand your ground. I think it helped that it was a very male dominated culture here because you had to speak out.”

A level of stereotyping still exists, however, and Charlotte has learnt to face it with a sense of humour. “There is an element with suppliers that if they’ve got a problem they ask ‘can I speak to the boss’, and it’s classic when I tell them ‘I am the boss’.”

It can’t be ignored that there are generation factors involved when it comes to workplace perceptions, with the majority of packaging industry senior management belonging in the 50-plus age bracket. But the blame cannot fall solely on male perceptions of gender roles. “I think really the lack of women in the packaging industry is down to the sheer factory-based nature of the industry,” says Charlotte.

“A lot of women when they set out in their careers don’t think it will be a female friendly environment. It’s inherent that women pick careers like sales, media and fashion. You don’t see many female engineers. I think this is as much based on our own perceptions of what is an acceptable career. I don’t think there are necessarily barriers, it’s more what you think you can do.”

This belief is echoed by Dick Searle, chairman of both the Britton Group and PIFA. Commenting on the question of whether women are being denied promotion to senior positions in packaging, he believes that this suggestion is a “non-event” on the basis that there are too few women in the industry to form a conclusion. It is rather a case of industry failing to move with the times.

“Industry isn’t doing enough to attract new people – let alone one gender – because it’s too busy worrying about the market. We should be doing far more to make the industry attractive to bright, young graduates,” says Dick Searle.

Charlotte King is optimistic that greater female representation is on the horizon. “There is definitely an improvement. Judging by the PIFA lunch this year, there were two to three women on every table of 12. There are a lot more women in middle management positions and I think this will change to senior management as younger people push through.”

  For better or for worse the changing nature of packaging business, from family run operations to sprawling, amalgamated corporations, means that while traditions may be eroded, there is perhaps growing opportunity for talented individuals to make their mark.

In-depth knowledge of how a company works and the drive to make it work better helped in Charlotte King’s case. Perhaps all that needs doing is for more packaging companies to keep an open mind when it comes to choosing the next helmsperson.