A Woman in Welding

Claire Spillane portraitI started my career 32 years ago as a Physiotherapy Assistant at the local accident and emergency hospital. It was the best job ever and I really enjoyed it but after 10 years, I felt I needed to challenge myself more.

If I had to describe my day to day routine, I would admit I am quite a slow starter and I need at least two cups of tea before I leave the house, which is thankfully only five minutes away from work. I am normally at my desk by 8.30am. Emails inundate me and I know the banking task is crucial. Our orders or processes by payment status and therefore everyone needs to know what work to do first.  I carry many business hats at work and depending on what’s going on, I need to quickly switch between the commercial, financial or marketing side of the business.

Welding runs in our family business. My father started the company over 50 years ago by selling refurbished used welding machinery. At the time, the industry thought he had gone mad. This was long before the concept of recycling was considered to be fashionable. Some business people even tried to knock him down, but he was persistent and he succeeded. We are proud to have won various international awards in the past few years, and only a couple of months ago my father was presented with a special merit Lifetime Achievement Award, a ceremony organised by the Association of Welding Distribution (AWD). We attended a black tie gala evening and it was a huge privilege to be standing in front of over 200 people, leaders in our industry as well as colleagues, all there to witness his business commitment and passion for the job. 

Despite his dynamic and still highly energetic approach, we do realise that the years are catching up with him, as he is nearly 80 now. He would not allow family to join him until he suffered a serious of heart attacks 20 odd years ago.  It was fate that both my brother and I were looking for career changes so we both came into the business at a similar time.  We benefitted greatly, however, from doing our own thing first. And we had been brought up in the environment so some aspects were familiar. The business has since then grown a lot and we now have five extra staff working with us.

One of the parts I enjoy most about my role is meeting and speaking to different people every day from all over the world.  It opens your horizons and educates you on both the world, current affairs and economy cultures as well as foreign business etiquette.I work closely to both my father and my brother, however, personality-wise, I am totally different to them and I normally wouldn’t socialise outside of work much. But at work, we complement each other brilliantly. The reactions I get from people about my job vary a lot. Some people think I have had it easy because my father started the business. However, when I took over from his 80-year-old secretary, who still had manual accounts and record keeping, I had to learn the job from scratch and I had to train myself and understand all about the welding industry. I thoroughly enjoy attending international exhibitions whenever possible. I love meeting engineers, who I find both clever and creative at the same time. I find myself immersed in their stories when I hear about their projects. Our clients span from underwater welders to motor racing specialists as well as artists. 

No day is exactly the same for us and I don’t feel there is quite an average day either. My daily to do list can often go untouched if something else comes up that is important. Recently I’ve had to be on hand to help all employees with work or personal issues. With an international family business like ours, even people management work, so that, for example, staff know they can come and see me at any time, are aspects that make a great team. Sometimes I’m asked if I ever feel like a woman in a man's world. I must say that being blond and female in this industry is certainly an unusual factor. Does it open doors? Of course it does.  You are noticed and remembered for one, and that must be a good thing when you are in a suppliers’ market. It may even get you a sales lead, or better still, discounts on machinery. I find that a bit of mild flirting over the phone always puts a smile on my face. However, believe it or not, hands-on welders don’t notice me that much really.

I don’t think that it is just welding or engineering is a male dominated world: the hardest part was proving to my father and my also my brother that I was capable of running a business in such industry. They had a bond by gender so I had to rise above that but I think I have cracked it now.  My father has sold welders for 50 years and still can’t weld so I don’t need to know that technical part of the job. Apart from my Accountant Group which is 90% female, virtually every other company I deal with are mainly run by men.  

On the recent events and the referendum, I see a stormy ride to start now. MPs are panicking over a decision that they ultimately led us to. I am embarrassed to think of the world is looking in at us and seeing the chaos this has caused.  To stop them laughing, we need to unite immediately and show the world why the majority were confident Britain could go it alone. We are a strong nation, clever, honest and fair.  That is what the UK’s reputation is based on and I am proud of that. After all, haven’t we been one of the forerunners for centuries travelling the globe, trading with the world with great negotiation skills. We need to make sure that we remind other countries that the decision to leave was not against them, but against an establishment.

Whilst the pound is weak and the uncertainty of the future is still around us, then we will, I am sure, continue to take even more orders from Europe.  After all business is business. In the week immediately after the referendum, new clients from Singapore made a visit to us and placed a large order for machinery.  They were not concerned by the events of last week.  We need to carry on doing what we do best.  Selling around the world. We will worry about the duties, taxes and documents as and when we need to.  They may never happen.

I hope that at the next General Election the public realise that their vote for Prime Minister will be even more important than the Leave or Remain vote was. As now it is not down to Europe to lead us into a stable economy but a British party with a strong, stable leader.

But back to business: I believe more girls should consider going into engineering, certainly the welding industry require more girls and women. For some reason, female welders report it is harder to work in the sector here in the UK but in the US, they seem to be accepted more and relish the challenge.  It is a physically demanding job and you may have to accept at the beginning that you are working in a “man’s” world.  STEM is becoming a huge part in the national curriculum and that is an encouraging thing I suppose.  

I am very proud to be a woman working in the welding engineering industry and also a member of the Women’s Engineering Society, supporting and promoting women in our field.  There are certainly some very talented and intelligent ladies in our sector.  

Claire Spillane, Westermans International, www.westermans.com