At just 33, Emily Smith is managing director and finance director of two successful manufacturing firms, as well as Chair of the ICAEW Manufacturing Community. She tells us about her career journey so far.
Tell us a bit about your background – why accountancy?
It’s down to my mum, really. My parents ran a car mechanics business, and during the school holidays she would take my twin brother and me along to work with her. My brother would go and do mechanics and she’d get me on the bookkeeping, using Sage and processing invoices. So, from quite a young age I knew I wanted to go into finance. My dad was good friends with his accountant, and I got some insight into the world of accountancy from him – and that’s actually who I ended up working for. I went for an interview at 15, and started at 16 based on my provisional GCSE results.
What appealed about the apprenticeship route?
It appealed because I knew what I wanted to do. I had the option of following the apprenticeship route rather than doing A levels, and I had employer support as well. I did three years of AAT, then another three of ACA, all with the same firm. Some of the people I was at school with went down the further education route, but I was almost qualified by the time they’d finished university. When I was training, my long-term goal was to stay in practice – I wanted to run my own firm eventually. So, after the ACA I went on to study tax, and I became a Chartered Tax Adviser (CTA) a couple of years later.
How did you find working and studying at the same time, especially completing one qualification after another?
I lived off Creme Eggs and Red Bull! In all seriousness, my employer was really supportive. I went to college in Birmingham on block release, and I was given time off before exams too. During the later years of ACA and CTA, I was promoted to manager and had a small pool of clients to look after, so it was quite hard to juggle that. But it’s just about putting the effort in. When you come straight from school, you’re used to having that routine of exams and education. I think if I’d stepped away from education, it would have been harder to come back into it, but because I did it straight after school, it wasn’t so bad.
What prompted the move from practice into industry?
I had come to a point in my career where I was considering the direction I wanted to go in. By the time I was in my early 20s, I’d discovered there was so much more to accountancy, and after qualifying as a CTA I decided I wanted to move to a tax firm. My husband at the time was working for Michael Smith Switchgear, and their finance manager had just left, so I agreed to come and help out for six months. Nine years later, I’m still here! I got sucked into the business side of it and the industry, and then learnt about health and safety and HR and pulled all those things into also running the finance function. I really enjoyed it, and I could use the skills I’d learned in practice. I’d worked with some amazing clients, from manufacturers to retail, so I was familiar with how they ran their businesses, and could bring that knowledge here. So here I still am, and we’ve just grown and grown.
It must have been a steep learning curve coming into an industry you didn’t know anything about?
Absolutely. An accountancy practice is a very professional working environment, so then coming into a factory environment is very, very different. How you communicate and collaborate with people is totally different to professional services. So that was a massive learning curve. I’m also a firm believer in understanding what people are doing and the value they add to the business. When we took on AVW Fabrications, I got myself some steel toe cap boots, went on the shop floor and learned about fabrication. I needed to understand those processes to make sure they were running efficiently and how we were protecting the people doing the work. Building those relationships with the staff, getting on their level and doing their job to fully understand the business was really exciting.
You became managing director of AVW Fabrications – how do you juggle so many different roles and responsibilities?
When we bought the company in 2014, it didn’t have a large customer base or a lot of high-tech machinery, so I was putting a lot of time into learning the business, coming up with new processes and procedures, and trying to get more customers. I was able to use all the health and safety, HR and finance practices I’d implemented at Michael Smith Switchgear, so a lot of the hard work I could just transfer over. At the time, we were working from different sites, so I spent a lot of time in the car flitting between the two! But since 2017 we’ve been on the same site, and I’ve got an office that covers both roles. I’ve now got managers who take care of the day-to-day running, so I can concentrate on pushing the businesses forward.
You’re also Chair of the ICAEW Manufacturing Community. How did that role come about?
I was introduced to the group in 2019 after winning a leadership award for my role at AVW Fabrications. Just after I joined, the previous Chair was stepping down and I was asked if I’d be interested in taking it on. I didn’t expect it at all, but it was nice to be asked, not just on the basis of my career and professional status, but also because I’m a young woman in what is a male-dominated industry. I won’t lie, I was absolutely petrified! But I did the ICAEW Women in Leadership programme, available to ICAEW members, last year and it was absolutely amazing. I’d recommend it to anyone – and my confidence has risen so much as a result. So I took the role of Chair on, and I’ve had some really great feedback. Becoming Chair has opened even more doors: I’ve been asked to join other committees, and I now sit on the regional board for Make UK. When you see what you can achieve by being in these groups, it’s absolutely amazing.
What are your proudest achievements in your career so far?
For the business, it’s focusing more on the environmental side – we’ve just achieved carbon neutral status, which was a great achievement for us. For me personally, it’s taking on roles that the 16-year-old me would never have imagined: becoming the managing director of a fabrication company and using the knowledge I’ve gained working in practice and through the ACA qualification to open the doors to be where I am. And then last month, I won Businesswoman of the Year for Leicestershire at the Niche Business Awards.
What are your priorities over the coming years?
My priority is how we move the business forward in terms of productivity and efficiency. I want to look at streamlining more in terms of production, and perhaps looking at robotics, as manpower is an issue in manufacturing. Also top of my agenda is engaging young people and getting them through the door. Attracting people into the industry is such a challenge, particularly for switchgear as we are very niche. We’ve worked with De Montfort University recently and had students placed with us, and I’ve also signed up to be an enterprise adviser at a local high school. I want to promote women in STEM, and make sure that we have an equal opportunity to come and work in manufacturing and engineering. I think it’s something that’s going to take time – women currently only make up around 15% in manufacturing. I also want to show how fulfilling it can be working for an SME. There are so many opportunities for people who have studied accountancy to come into the SME market, and even broaden their skills by doing so, because then they have the opportunity to wear those few extra hats but still use the training they’ve worked so hard to achieve.
If you could give one piece of advice to today’s students, what would it be?
I would say you can do anything. You don’t have to just work in an accountancy practice as an accountant: it’s such a wide-ranging qualification that will open doors in any way you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or you can’t be something, because you can. Particularly in this role, I’ve had a lot of negative comments – I’ve had someone come in and tell me I couldn’t be a managing director because I’m a woman. So if you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I’m a woman, or a young person, and I can’t go and do that and be where that person is,’ then get that out of your head, because you can be whoever you want to be.