ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Emily’s journey from the garage to the boardroom

Emily Smith took an unconventional route in a male-dominated world to achieve recognition for her leadership. She spoke to Rachel Wilcox.

Emily Smith’s journey to becoming a chartered accountant started when she was a teenager working in the family car repair garage during school holidays. After her interest was piqued by the bookkeeping aspects of the job, the garage’s accountancy firm, Nuneaton-based SFB Group, offered her a job based on her anticipated GCSE results. It has paid off for both Emily and the firm. 

She completed her three-year AAT qualification in August 2008 and set herself the goal of becoming a chartered accountant, receiving her certificate of membership in January 2012 at the age of 22. She went on to qualify as a Chartered Tax Adviser at 23. During her eight-year tenure at the firm, she rose up through the ranks to client manager, running a small team and managing a portfolio of around 100 clients. 

Smith then joined her in-laws’ electrical switchgear business, Michael Smith Switchgear Limited. “My plan was to stay for six to 12 months to make the business more efficient,” she says. Her ambition to modernise working methods started to reap rewards. The introduction of a vehicle management system saved £8,000 a year on fuel and she made more savings renegotiating all existing supplier contracts. 

When the company acquired its steelwork supplier in January 2014, Smith was promoted to Managing Director of the fabrications business, rebranded as AVW Fabrications Ltd, in 2016. “I took on the challenge of building a business in an industry I had little experience in,” Smith explains. “I enrolled on training courses in CAD and basic fabrication principles, researched our competitors and invested in new equipment to future-proof our production.” Smith’s hands-on approach proved invaluable. “It allowed me to understand the business further, and to recruit the people I was looking for to improve it.”

It was key to her winning Company Leader (up to 100 Employees) at TheBusinessDesk.com’s East Midlands Leadership Awards. One of the judges, ICAEW’s Regional Director for the Midlands Dr Sophie Dale-Black, said Smith’s understanding of manufacturing processes combined with her chartered accountancy training made her a rounded leader and praised her “drive and determination in the typically male manufacturing sector”. 

Smith describes her own leadership style as firm and fair. “Being a good leader is about being flexible and embracing change. It’s about doing lots of things – some of them little – that make a difference.” 

Smith concedes that the impact of automation on her industry is huge. The quest for modernisation has seen the business invest over half a million pounds in new machinery and expand its services. “We managed to obtain £25,000 of grant funding to expand our services and opened a powder coating facility, AVW Powder Coating, in 2018,” Smith says. 

Today, the ambition to widen the company’s client base beyond Michael Smith Switchgear is being realised. “In the last two years, new customers represent almost 25% of our turnover. At the same time, it has grown from three staff to a team of 11 and the company has enjoyed double digit year-on-year growth in turnover since 2014,” she says.