From low points to High Sheriff

Pyronix chief executive Julie Kenny
Pyronix chief executive Julie Kenny
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For the first time, five of South Yorkshire’s most significant posts are held by women. Julie Kenny, the next High Sheriff, tells her rags-to-riches story...

Debt collectors are battering at the door again and a little girl burns with shame. Why can’t her mother pay the bills on time? They’ve been threatened with eviction twice; where will they go if the threat becomes a reality?

In the midst of such chaos and uncertainty, a little girl vows to herself that her life will be so different when she grows up.

She becomes a self-made success story, a woman at the helm of a multi-million pound, global business.

Julie Kenny CBE, so respected a member of the British business community she is currently chair of Yorkshire Forward, Recovery Board intervention commissioner for beleaguered Doncaster, a UK commissioner for employment and skills and come April, soon-to-be the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire.

Few people to have held the highly respected title will ever have come from a background such as Julie’s.

Down to earth, modest as they come, Julie will, I feel, view her appointment as a massive victory for the working class.

An indicator that, wherever you have come from, you can become whatever you want to be through sheer hard work and self-belief.

She learned that when she was still in ankle socks.

Hillsborough-born Julie was one of five children; dad, a stock manager for a car parts company, left when she was five.

Mum, suddenly solo, took every part-time job she could; usherette, barmaid, fryer at a fish and chip shop. But life never got any better for her.

“She was a very poor manager of finances and home,” says Julie.

“She didn’t pay bills; the house we lived in was eventually condemned. I remember the legs of one of the cots falling through the rotten floorboards.”

She moved when she was ten because her mother met a new partner and they moved home.

The council house had central heating. Julie got a new brother.

Life should have got better, but her step-father was an alcoholic. The house was always filled with booze and violent rows.

As the oldest girl, she had to take charge of the little ones. She remembers: “I did the washing, cooking, housework and ironing. I virtually brought up my youngest brother, who was born when I was 10.”

She was always, she says, the opposite of her mum. “I was mortally ashamed of some of the things that happened.

“I had really strong values about what was right and wrong. I loved my mum, but I distanced myself from her for a long time.”

Unsurprisingly, the teenage Julie with the weight of the world on her shoulders, snapped under the strain. The years of abuse had begun to haunt her.

She got a job as a typist in Sheffield at 16 but had a breakdown a few months later. She got through it and resolved to be a survivor, not a victim.

She landed a junior secretarial job in a Cornish law practice.

“I sat on the train with £45 in my purse and vowed to change my life,” she says.

Soon she landed a better-paid job with North Cornwall District Council.

“My boss suggested I train as a lawyer. I was amazed, but decided to go for it. I worked my socks off to hold down a full-time job and study part-time.”

Life finally seemed to be dealing her a better hand when she got promotion. She moved to Aylesbury, met a tall, good-looking Sheffielder called Paul Kenny and fell in love.

After qualifying as a lawyer, she moved back to South Yorkshire to be with him. He was director of a lighting company, she got a job with a law firm in Sheffield and they married at Rotherham Register Office. There didn’t seem to be any chance of bailiffs ever knocking at Julie’s door again.

Just five weeks later, though, Paul was made redundant. But instead of sinking, Julie sold the house she still owned in Aylesbury for £28,500 and the couple launched their own business, intruder alarm specialists Pyronix, with Paul at the helm, designing passive infra-red security systems.

As the fledgling company fought for orders, Julie worked full-time at her solicitors’ office, then all evening for Pyronix, doing what she had done as a child; keeping everything on track and the business’s house in order.

It paid off and business boomed. The couple set up a factory at Hellaby, near Rotherham and employed over 200 staff.

Home became a converted farmhouse in North Anston. They had three children. Everything seemed golden.

Then they decided to buy a new kitchen for a tumbledown manor house they had bought to transform into their dream home. The dream soured.

“Paul fell in love with the kitchen designer and within four weeks had left me and the kids for her,” she says matter-of-factly, though only because 15 years have diminished the pain.

Julie found herself in her mother’s shoes, facing the rejection caused by a husband walking out and the stress of becoming a lone parent.

Her children were aged just three, five and eight.

“It was devastating. He just went and I had to keep everything going, even though I was heartbroken,” she reflects.

Julie did what she’d always done, though; she buried her hurt, took control of the situation and threw herself into work.

Two nannies on round-the-clock shifts took charge of the kids and the house so that Julie could work up to 80 hours a week, running the business and travel the globe on vital sales missions.

It wasn’t just her own kids she had to protect, either. Her employees had families: “So many people were depending on me; I couldn’t let them down. For the second time in my life, I vowed to pull everything back on track and change my life for the better.”

Now 54, she sees her husband’s leaving as “the best thing,” explaining that in their years together, they had become increasingly unhappy.

“I accepted it, I think, because I’d suffered as a child and this made me devalue myself.”

Despite the reeling blow of the recession in 2009, when $800,000 of orders disappeared in three months, her business has become a world-leading provider of quality security equipment.

After the order losses, she sat down with the kids and told them she had no option but to dedicate the next three months to visiting every customer in every corner of the world.

In a seven-day period, she spent 50 hours in the air and 20 hours travelling to airports. But the business grew by four per cent in the UK that year and in 2011, turnover hit just under £15 million.

She is so highly thought of, she was awarded a CBE in 2002 in recognition of her contribution to the Yorkshire and Humber’s business and industry and is now chairman of the British Security Industry Association, the first time a woman has been appointed, and a UK Commissioner for Employment and Skills.

But her biggest achievement is that her children are now well-adjusted, happy adults.

Charlotte, now 18, is studying for A levels and determined to become an opera singer.

Oliver, her eldest, qualified as a sound recording engineer in the USA and is now a staff trainer at internet provider Plusnet. Laurence, 20, is still deciding his future.

Home is still the converted farmhouse in North Anston she bought with husband Paul back in 1987. She’s still single, but dating, and will be taking on the High Sheriff’s role with her kids by her side.

“We are extremely close. Being their mother has been my most important role and the only opinion that counts to me is theirs, though I think there were many times when they didn’t think that,” she says.

They do know they are loved, without a doubt, though; I tell them every day,” she says. “I had to wait too many years for my mother to tell me that.”

Important office

The office of High Sheriff dates back to Saxon times, when the Shire Reeve was responsible to the king for the maintenance of law and order within the shire.

Duties nowadays include attendance at royal visits, support for high court judges working in the county and assisting local charities.