After browsing through my clients list recently, I noticed that there were not very many senior women in finance. I understand that this may be due to personal choices women make, but I was keen to get some first class advice and knowledge from one of those women who has broken through the glass ceiling: Catherine Empringham from Ella’s Kitchen, newly promoted to COO.
She has an interesting career history which she was kind enough to share with me and offered some fantastic advice to women aiming for senior management roles.
Why did you decide to choose finance as a career?
At University I did a degree in Psychology. I initially anticipated I would follow a career in that field. I had never considered a career in accountancy. One day I happened to read a friend’s brochure, who was applying to the Big 4 accountancy firms and I realised it looked more interesting than I first thought. I did apply for a couple of HR roles as well, but in the end decided that a career in accountancy would suit me better. I was thinking pragmatically that that this would give me numerous career options for the future and a professional qualification.
Can you explain your career after leaving practice?
My first role was as a financial accountant; a very typical first role for someone coming out of practice into industry. I was managing a team of six, so I learnt a lot about managing people as well as accountancy. After a year, a role came up in Dulux Decorative Paints as a polycell accountant. It sounded like a pretty interesting job, as it wasn’t just accounting.
I then moved into a wider business partnering role, working on the homebase account. My next role was providing financial support for the retail marketing team. I then took over responsibility for supporting the marketing team in the trade business. I then took what I can imagine a lot of people would think was a strange career move. I became the financial controller for the business. A significant promotion, but some considered this to be a strange career choice as the commercial side of finance is always seen to be the more exciting area to be in. I did it with reason; I looked at my career and I could see I had very much gone down a commercial route. Moving forward I knew I wanted to be finance director and if I didn’t gain more experience in the day to day financial management and reporting, I wouldn’t be able to make that move.
What made you decide to move from a larger business to a smaller business?
I always had a plan work for a smaller company, so I thought I would have a look around. At the time I applied for the job, I didn’t know it was working at Ella’s Kitchen. I didn’t even know the brand existed! I soon got to know the story behind Ella’s Kitchen, but at the time it was the role and opportunity to move to a small FMCG business that interested me.
What was it about Ella’s Kitchen that made you choose them as an employer?
Once I had found out the role was with Ella’s Kitchen and did my research, I could see it was a much more exciting opportunity than I had appreciated when I first applied. The company has a fantastic history and Paul Lindley is a very inspiring leader.
How did you cope with moving from a large business into a smaller company environment?
A lot of people think it’s going to be really hard to deal with the change in environment, but I didn’t find it hard at all. I certainly found it different, but was able to adapt to those differences relatively quickly. I was one of the first people to be recruited into Ella’s Kitchen from a larger business. But at the end of the day, I am dealing with the similar issues at Ella’s as I did at Dulux. As a consumer products business, many of the issues Ella’s Kitchen faces are similar to those in any other company selling branded products in retail environment.
Can you explain exactly what your role entails now you are the COO of Ella’s Kitchen?
I am now responsible for finance, supply chain and technical. I work with third party suppliers, with the technical team and I am the FD so continue to have day to day responsibility for financial matters.
It seems you have had the perfect career in finance, is there anything you would have done differently?
I perhaps stayed at my previous employer too long. However for most of that time my children were small and I was working part time, so I actually consider myself to be very fortunate I was able to build my career and be a mum. I’ve been provided with opportunities to change roles regularly and that kept me interested and challenged. I would have like to have been more confident earlier on in my career. However, I have to recognise that working part time makes it incredibly hard to move into a senior role on a part time basis in a different company.
Do you believe businesses should be more flexible regarding part time? Is that something you yourself would enable within the business?
I definitely think businesses need to think carefully about the roles they can offer to both men and women who want flexibility in their working lives. There is a wealth of female talent who would love to have a part time role, but can’t find one. There are part time women working at Ella’s Kitchen at all levels and the key to making it work is careful planning, balancing the needs of the individual with those of the team and open and honest communication. I have recruited people into my teams on a part time basis in the past, and I will continue to do so in the future.
What was the reason you chose Ella’s Kitchen as a whole?
I was looking for a company that was growing, so I knew my career could grow with them, and I wanted to work in a business I knew I could contribute to. Ella’s Kitchen is an incredibly family orientated company - with a great values based culture. I’m a working mum, my children are very important to me, and I wanted to be confident the organisation I worked for supported a blend of family and work that would allow me to thrive.
What has been impact on the business of the acquisition by Hain Celestial?
The impact has only been good! They are very respectful of our distinct company culture and love spending time with us. And this year we’ve become the UKs No 1 baby food company, which shows that the being part of the Hain Celestial business has been a success.
Have you ever noticed that being a female within finance has ever held you back within the workplace?
I think this is a really interesting question. I have been very fortunate to have achieved some success in my career, but also I know that I have worked hard for it. I can’t think of a moment in my career where I have sat in meeting and thought that being a woman was adversely impacting me.
When you go to Networking events, do you look around and notice you are one of only 3 women who are at the senior level?
Sometimes I do, but when I go to finance networking events these days it’s often more balanced. Things are changing in the workplace compared to, let’s say, 20 years ago when I started my career. There’s a vast difference in the numbers of woman of my age choosing to continue at work after they have had a family. I fully expect that this will lead to more women in senior roles in the coming years. I am very confident that my daughter will have even more opportunities to pursue a successful career when she grows up – if that is what she chooses to do.
What’s your advice you would give to a young woman coming out of finance?
My advice is don’t apologise when you go for interview. I see far too many young women coming into interview apologising for the things they can’t do, rather than talking about the things they can do. It’s all about confidence.
When you recruit, what do you personally look for from a finance candidate?
I like to see a reasonably good academic background. I like to see they have achieved things at work or in their personal life, but I also look for evidence they can work cross functionally as that is a vital part of any finance role. It is important to recruit someone who has a bit of a spark about them – they need to be interesting to talk to and interested to be part of our team.
What do you think Ella’s Kitchen has for a potential employee compared to FTSE or large corporate business?
One would be we are a fast moving, growing company. Secondly, the culture of the organisation; we all work hard but we also like to have a good time and some fun at work. I think a large corporate business can offer a great environment to gain a variety of experience, but a smaller company gives more autonomy and the opportunity to make a real difference, whatever your role. Like most things in life, there are positives and negatives to both.