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Business spotlight: Becoming MD in a pandemic

Author: Katy Davies

Published: 22 Jun 2020

Katy Davies, the new managing director of CamdenBoss, talks to ICAEW Insights about taking on the role during lockdown.

Moving jobs can be as stressful as it is exciting. But, for Katy Davies, the experience was a challenge unlike any other.

A “reformed financier” who trained as a chartered accountant, Davies worked in an operations role at Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group before joining plastic enclosure and electro-mechanical component manufacturer CamdenBoss in March.

It is her first stint as an MD, and could not have come at a more turbulent time – right in the middle of the biggest pandemic the world has seen in a century.

“It was crazy,” she says. “They announced the lockdown on the Monday of my final week at Marshall. I was working from home at this point, camped in a spare bedroom, and only emerging for lunch and occasionally to get away from Skype calls. Then I would disappear again until the evening. It was so intense.”

During that final week, she was trying to help her old company through its lockdown strategy while also getting stuck into the procedures at CamdenBoss, knowing the size of the task that lay ahead.

“March 31 was the worst possible time ever to start a new job, let alone as MD! It was so intense, but you just do it,” she says. “I tried to keep a cool head and plough through, being sure to check on people throughout this highly stressful and frankly bizarre situation.”

Manufacturing challenges

With a few days of leave to take between the move, she went to the two CamdenBoss locations in Mildenhall and Thetford to assess the factory floors and meet some of the staff who remained in situ.

The company is the UK’s biggest manufacturer of high-quality plastic enclosures and electro-mechanical components. Like many others in the sector, it cannot shift the majority of its workforce to remote positions.

“Working from home being the new norm may be fine for some industries, but not when you have a manufacturing, shop-floor based workforce who cannot do that,” she says. “It could be damaging to have too much of a split, so it is important to keep people connected. It will be a challenge for everyone in the sector.”

The company decided to have a director present at both sites, with two working remotely as back-ups in case of sickness. “This was to reassure staff they were being supported, and it was a case of ‘if they are in, we are in’, knowing that furloughing and remote work can cause isolation,” she says.

The announcement of several government business schemes throughout April also meant constant forecasting and taking big decisions daily.

First task – furlough staff

“My first act as MD was technically having to furlough staff I hadn’t entirely met, which was horrible,” she says. “The workforce was absolutely incredible in terms of how they dealt with it. They understand it’s about protecting the business and cashflow.”

A swathe of further clarifications and business support schemes were rolled out through April, with emotions running high throughout the corporate world, ensuring Davies and her team were constantly shifting their position to respond. She said communication during this time was the most critical aspect of keeping things running smoothly.

“I am for being present and engaging with the workforce, so when you are told to socially distance and avoid contact it goes against every fibre of what I believe leadership to be about,” she says. “Open, authentic, regular contact with people is so important. Then when you act, it sits with the fact you have been consistently communicating this information.”

Directing via Skype

Despite being a hands-on leader, she says the video calls, while tiring, have led to “genuine, meaningful actions”.

“Skype calls can be far more intense, but the nature of the conversations everyone is having right now are also far more intense given what is going on around us,” she says. “Flexibility being the new normal is one positive from all of this. I feel far more prepared, and it’s normal to flit between sites and occasionally work from home. I’ve always made sure I have power packs in the right places for laptops, and the right apps on my phone to ensure from a technology standpoint I can do as much as possible.”

Davies has also been sure to keep her sense of humour despite making the transition during a stressful time for the entire team.

“If ever Skype is going to fail you, it knows when you have a very important call! Of all the moments, the hundreds of calls in my diary, it had to go down twice when I needed it most,” she says. “Stuff like that can break the ice and provide more common ground though. If you are on a video call and there is a cat in the background about to knock an antique over, it can add something unique and funny to existing relationships.”