Gill Kelly - the boss at St Helens-based M&Y shows the caring face of business

PUBLISHED: 00:08 29 January 2014

Gill manages an almost entirely male workforce

Gill manages an almost entirely male workforce

David Jones

A woman’s touch has boosted business fivefold while becoming a model for helping disabled adults and disadvantaged youngsters. Martin Pilkington met Gill Kelly

At home, Gill cares for rescued battery hensAt home, Gill cares for rescued battery hens

Any woman who has climbed to the top in business will have a fund of stories about meeting male colleagues for the first time and being told: ‘Go and make a brew, love.’

Hopefully, it is largely a thing of the past and so it would be cliché to describe Gill Kelly as a woman in a man’s world. But managing a squad of 170 gardeners, electricians, joiners, gas-fitters, glazers, plasterers and plumbers - mostly men - isn’t a job for a shrinking violet.

And you don’t grow your business fivefold in four years by being any less than 100 per cent committed to the cause. However, not all the male chauvinist pigs have been send for slaughter. A fellow delegate at a conference told one of Gill’s senior colleagues: ‘A woman can’t do this job - it’s too tough.’

But beneath the elegant exterior, Gill, director of contract services at a St Helens-based company called M&Y, can do tough. ‘I started as office junior at a firm of bailiffs when I was 18. It was quite scary at first – people aren’t happy having their goods removed. But within 18 months I was the manager.’ After leaving to start a family, she joined M&Y, her father’s building business, to help with book-keeping. At that time they employed a handful of men, one of them her husband, then a professional rugby player boosting the family income.

It was working for housing associations that transformed the business. ‘I realised to compete in that area we’d need to get the business shipshape. So I looked at Investors in People [IIP] and joined St Helens chamber of trade. A business advisor came and suggested we get the ISO standard, and IIP – that was just mind-blowing for me. It helped improve my skills.’

In 2009 Regenda, a group of housing associations with 12,000 properties across the north west, acquired M&Y, and more specifically its skills and potential. ‘We were only serving 3,000 of their homes, now we deliver to the full 12,000. We’ve expanded from £2 million turnover and 30 staff to 170 staff delivering £10m of work.’

Gill and M&Y are not just about numbers. ‘The business has a huge social component, we’ve made such a difference in communities,’ she says. ‘I’m an ambassador for St Helens Disability Coalition, St Helens Chamber and for Women in Construction. I give positive speeches about employing people with disabilities, and go out to young girls in high school giving motivational talks about careers in this line.’

It’s to be hoped the next generation won’t face the foolish assumptions the now 38-year-old Gill’s looks have occasionally engendered. ‘Until about five years ago, I’d turn up to meetings and be asked “Are you here to take the minutes?”’

For obvious reasons she’s a great believer in the ability of hard work to transform lives of troubled young people. ‘Some of those kids have little chance, they don’t settle in school. Bring them here and put them in our stores with 40 multi-skilled operatives and they’re not going to mess about. They need that kind of discipline to understand the way of the world. It really helps them.’

She tells the story of a headmaster who asked her to help a lad brought up by his teenage sister. Without parental role models he was on the edge, about to be expelled.

‘We decided to give him a chance. For two years he’s spent every Monday with my staff. He has a really good relationship with them, and we’ve just given him an apprenticeship. This kid has never had a day off.’

M&Y’s corporate responsibility is tangible. The proceeds from recycling copper - £6000 in 2013 - are donated to causes chosen by the team. They’ve supplied the labour for community gardening events. And Fullagar Construction Skills Centre locally has benefitted from £2000 of materials supplied free of charge.

Work with and for the disabled is another major part of that corporate responsibility, and is clearly not a mere PR opportunity. ‘We employ somebody at the moment who has moderate disabilities, works for us one day a week as it’s all she can manage, but it’s the environment of work that matters. We work with Mill Green School in St Helens.

‘This is a school especially for students with moderate and severe disabilities, who come here and get to walk around the business.

‘I do interviews with them to prepare for college, give them some life skills, speak with the parents and offer some ideas of the types of roles they can have in businesses, and do their annual achievement awards.’

Such is the commitment that the Minister for Women and Equalities recently selected M&Y as an example of a business with a positive attitude to disability, and Gill subsequently gave a presentation to local employers about how a real business works with disabled people.

She’s keen for her two teenage daughters to inherit the work ethic possessed by her and husband Chris, now a contracts manager. ‘There’s times when my daughters have to tell me to put the laptop down and listen to them, but then I get flashes of reward. My 17-year-old is doing two college courses and has two jobs, only one day off per week, she’s a real grafter. My baby daughter, who’s 15, was in her English class a couple of months ago and they had to do a paper on who inspired them. Her friends did Rihanna and Beyoncé. She did me, which I thought was lovely.

‘As a female getting that work-life balance right is very hard. It can be hard to switch off. But out of work I love pets - we’ve lots of them, all rescue - battery hens, dog, cat, rabbits; and I love walking, and baking...’

After a serious operation last year her doctor advised two months off to recover. Gill was back within the week.

She tries to be first in and last out of the office most days: ‘There’s long hours, a big commitment – I’m sometimes hoovering and ironing in the middle of the night to keep everything together.’

So what was her reply to that sexist conference delegate? ‘I’m sorry I intimidate you.’ Sounds about right.

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