Zoe reaches top after 20 years’ graft

Zoe Fearnley, MD of Ashton Seals Ltd. Picture: Andrew Roe
Zoe Fearnley, MD of Ashton Seals Ltd. Picture: Andrew Roe
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Zoe Fearnley is outlining what it took to reach the top of her company - and it’s not for the fainthearted.

Twenty years of total dedication and utter commitment to her employer - workaholism basically - plus supreme selling, problem solving and leadership skills.

Only more so, she believes, because she’s a woman in the traditionally male-dominated sector of engineering.

A tough entrance exam - which she passed to become the new managing director of Ashton Seals, based at Cortonwood in Barnsley.

Zoe, aged 42, said: “I’ve had to work harder and be tougher. In meetings I have to be tough, professional, assertive and friendly. But I’m not resentful, you just have to focus on what you want to achieve.”

She is also commercial director for the group which today includes promotional, presentation and stationery company Ashtons (Sheffield) and Ashton Corporate Clothing.

Founded in Sheffield in 1866 by Thomas A Ashton, his great, great-grandson Tim Wills is chairman today.

She admits the weight of history - the 150th anniversary is next year - is “nerve-wracking”.

But pressure like that only drives her on.

“Becoming managing director is a huge thing to take on, but there’s a degree of excitement, it was my biggest career ambition.”

Born in Jessops Hospital in Sheffield, she was brought up in North Anston and was privately schooled at Worksop College before doing ‘A’ levels at Thomas Rotherham College.

University beckoned but she didn’t want to go.

“I wanted to work, I’ve always been a workaholic. I even had a second job at Ashton, in a pub. It was only when I became a manager I realised I had to give it up because it was making me too tired.”

Her first proper job was at Ant Marketing in Sheffield, founded by Anthony Hinchliffe. Back then it was five people in an office above M&S on Fargate. She learned to sell on the phone and not be deterred by knock backs.

She also worked on a newspaper selling ads to business, before taking a job in sales at Ashtons. As she rose through the ranks her selling skills came to the fore. Even today, the month-end is a very important day as they strive to reach targets. And if they reach them before then?

“Set new ones!”

She adds: “I can sell anything to anyone, so they say, I’ve got the gift of the gab.

“We push and push to smash the targets. It’s definitely not for everyone, you have to enjoy the adrenaline of sales. But I think I would be bored doing anything else.”

Today the firm sells into automotive, oil and gas, chemicals and construction markets and Ashton Seals is having its best year in five years. Export is 20 per cent of sales, to Germany, South Africa, Europe and the US.

As the new boss, her ambition is to double turnover in the next four years.

“I live and breathe Ashtons, when you care you can’t help it.”