Anne Wilson occasionally ponders how her life would have been if flapjacks, crumbles and cross-stitch had become the main focus of her days.
At 16, she desperately wanted to be a domestic science teacher, training schoolchildren to cook and sew, make and mend.
But here she is, 55 next week and in her eighth year as M.D. of an engineering company. Her world could not be more far removed from the one she had imagined for herself as a teenager.
Though the philosophy of thrifty nimble-fingeredness she would surely have instilled in her pupils is right at the fore of her business.
Numill Engineering’s 18-strong workforce re-condition and repair heavy duty engineering equipment for companies all over the world. “We make broken or worn out machinery and tools work again, saving companies thousands,” she says proudly.
Numill is niche; there are few companies in the world, let alone the UK, that are into tool reclamation. Even fewer, one imagines, with a woman who had not one ounce of engineering knowledge at the helm.
Though how she came to be so is a inspirational story of determination and entrepreneurialism.
Luck played a major part, too - though it didn’t feel like that when her parents explained family finances were too tight for her to go to college.
The daughter of a Manor Park bus driver and a canteen cook had to leave school at 16. “I loved cooking and handicrafts but I was also good at numbers and got a job as a junior cashier at Queen Street toolmakers Buck and Hickman,” she says. A year on, she landed a better job with the Midland Bank, staying for 13 years.
She would have continued her banking career, but within months of having her son, her mum died. Devastated, she couldn’t go back to work full time - and there were no part-time women bank managers in 1988.
She took book-keeping work around her husband’s police shifts and when her son was old enough, took full-time work in credit control and night school classes in accountancy. When her husband was forced to take early redundancy through ill health, she became the sole breadwinner.
Spotting a tiny advert in The Star in 2000 changed her life again. “Book-keeper required. That’s all it said. I replied to the box number and discovered it was at Numill engineering,” she recalls.
Engineer Kevin Scott had set up the firm on Sheffield’s Balacalava Road in 1969 and needed someone with a business head. Anne took on more and more responsibilities and became commercial manager. “Meeting Kevin was my lucky break,” she says. “The trust and faith he showed in me is fundamental to who I am now.”
Kevin encouraged Anne to further her qualifications, paying not only for the last two years of her night school classes, but also a degree in management, then a post-grad in strategic management.
They say luck finds its own luck, though; Anne chose to do her dissertation on a hypothetical management buy-out at Numill. “Kevin was thinking about retirement and could see two options. I wrote my dissertation on his third; a management buy-out. I presented it to him and a few months later, we began negotiations for me to buy the company.”
Anne took on a huge bank loan and took over in July 2006, aged 47, learning about engineering from her workforce. “I watched and I listened,” she says. But it was her old skill-set which saved the business when it was struck by the recession in 2009.
“Our sales dipped and the banks wiped 40 per cent off our overdraft overnight. The overdraft blew its top a few months later and a client went under owing us £20,000, Things looked bleak,” says Anne.
“I had to produce weekly cash reports for the bank just to get the money to pay the team’s wages, find new orders and a new backer,” she says. “Tough times.”
The fact that her background was finance, not engineering, was what everyone acknowledges saved Numill. She knew how to make every penny count.
Once things had stabilised, she threw herself into growing the business, firstly in the UK and Europe. “Few do what we do because it’s very complex and requires highly analytical people. We can save companies a lot of money,” she says.
“Anyone who invests large sums in their equipment is a potential customer. We recently repaired a $9,000 drill for a customer who was about to throw it out because a 9mm section of it had worn down. Our bill, including freight costs, was under 20 per cent of the cost of a new drill.”
With the help of Business Link and UK Trade and Investment advisors, she then began to woo the Far East. “It’s an untapped area. They just don’t repair equipment there,” she explains. “On a recent trip to Singapore I walked into a company that had thrown away 6,000 tools worth a phenomenal sum. What a waste.”
She succeeded in picking up business in Singapore and Malaysia and is now is working up other relationships across Asia,
Now delighted to be a grandmother, she works long hours and flies all over the world for Numill. When she arrived as its book-keeper, only 18 per cent of the company’s business came from overseas. Now it’s 35 per cent, a factor which has earned her a place in the finals of a Guardian export award being judged on May 13. Anne sees that figure as just the start.
Numill’s turnover is now £750,000 with a gross profit of 50 per cent and significantly reduced bank debts. There are often times when the office phone rings, she answers and the caller assumes they are speaking to the receptionist, but the M.D. who once wanted to be a domestic science teacher laughs as she puts them straight. She knows she’s got it all sewn up.