These are questions I had in my mind as I sat on the train from London, travelling down through the Kent countryside.
These are questions I’ve had ever since an email about #SHE1000, an event celebrating women in the fire industry, popped into my inbox a few weeks ago.
It was a warm Thursday morning when I met with Tracy Kirk, Chair of the FIA’s Export Council at her office in Gillingham. When Tracy’s not involved in the Export Council, she is flying off to different offices across the world as part of her role as General Manager for Sales and Marketing for Hochiki Europe.
I wondered if we could learn something from her success. Maybe she could shine a light. With #SHE1000 just around the corner on 23rd June at FIREX, I wanted to talk to some women who were already in the industry.
Tracy is one of those welcoming people who emits a certain positive light. After reaching just over 11 years of being Export Council’s Chair, and a career spanning over the last 30 years, she has a wealth of experience and knowledge. I ask her what one word describes her personality best. She replies: ‘professional’. And I have to agree, Tracy really just is the embodiment of being a professional person. Warm and friendly, but still completely professional.
A job in sales and exporting
Tracy explains her current role in exporting to me in more detail, and I’m immediately intrigued by her tales of travels to other offices in Dubai, Delhi, and Athens. It seems a job in export sales is incredibly varied.
‘There really isn’t an average day,’ she says. ‘Sometimes I’m in the office in the UK. Last week I was in India, and on Monday I’m flying to Athens.’
There is no doubt that working in export is interesting and challenging. Tracy explains that there are many sides to what she does – managing her teams, checking on customers, networking, and keeping her product knowledge up-to-date.
‘So tell me,’ I say, sipping my hot beverage, intrigued by her success. ‘What motivates you?’
‘When I first started it was all about getting a sale and making sure the customer was happy,’ she replies. ‘But as I moved into managerial [sic], it’s about my team. When the team gets a sale, that keeps me motivated.’
Tracy is an inspiration in the way she talks. She clearly demonstrates her experience but there is one factor that makes her stand out in the industry.
‘‘Everybody’ in inverted commas knows who I am, mostly because I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, but also because I’m female. And that’s glaringly obvious because there isn’t many of us [i.e. women],’ explains Tracy. ‘But that has slowly built up over more recent years. Certainly in my early career, during the first ten years, because I was the only woman, that made it stand out even more,’ she explains.
And the fact is, she’s right. The fire industry has always had an imbalance towards more men in the industry than women, but that doesn’t mean that the industry can’t change and evolve.
‘There are women in the industry who are respected for who they are and what they do,’ Tracy adds thoughtfully. ‘I would encourage anybody to consider the fire industry as a profession – just because it’s full of men, doesn’t mean it’s not open to women’.
‘There is a concern that we as an industry aren’t attracting enough young people in,’ she adds, and I have to admit, this anecdotal concern is something that has been stated time and time again. The industry is desperate for fresh young minds – for innovative thinkers, for modernisation, for new skills from a wide range of backgrounds.
Kick-starting your career
‘But how does a girl get started in the industry? Everyone has to start somewhere,’ I say earnestly. I’m keen to know how she started, how her journey lead her to where she is now so that other women might do the same.
She sits forward in her chair and begins her tale:
‘Once upon a time when I was studying Applied Physics, I did a sandwich placement to get practical experience in a company that was related to my subject (at a lab called FURTO – now called BRE) at the tender age of not-quite 21. If you’d told me then that that placement was going to be the start of my career in the fire industry, I wouldn’t have believed you, because at that age the world was my oyster.’
Tracy explained how during the placement she tested different types of smoke detectors according to the prevailing British Standards were around at the time. During the placement she attended a couple of exhibitions, and picked up a catalogue with a list of the exhibitors names in it, but she didn’t think too much about it at the time.
‘After my sandwich I then decided that I was going to be an au pair for a year, so off I trotted to Paris, and after about 8 months I started thinking about what I’m going to do at the end of this year. So when I got back to England I picked up the catalogue and I picked up a pen and wrote off to all the exhibitors – bearing in mind that in those days, writing letters meant you had to actually write with a pen, on paper, include a photocopy of your CV and put a bit of a stamp on the envelope. And one of those letters fell on fertile ground […] and that’s how I started in the fire industry.’
Her story lends itself to careful thought. The idea that anyone – male or female (or anything in-between if we wish to be more inclusive) can get into the industry with a little perseverance. Search out companies you are interested in, take a look at their products, perhaps visit an exhibition (like FIM Expo or FIREX) and learn a bit about their products just like Tracy did. You never know who you might meet or what you might learn.
I marvel at this idea, taking a minute to consider her story.
The importance of confidence
I sit up in my chair. 'What advice would you give to any woman that is thinking of starting in the fire industry?’
‘Remember that you are as good as every single man that is standing in the room with you. They are not better than you. They might be self-confident, but no way are they any better than you. And this applies not just to women but to all youth – you are just as good as anybody else in the room. It took me a long time to realise that.
‘At the beginning, you’ve got to prove yourself. So don’t be disillusioned or be put off by the fact that you will have to work that bit harder than the man sat either side of you. Earn that confidence, earn that respect, because it will get you where you want to be a lot faster, because you’ll be taken seriously.
‘Have confidence in yourself. Know that you are as good or perhaps better than the people around you. Just keep going – make sure you know your product, make sure you know your subject […] because once you start talking, people will realise that you do know what you are talking about.
‘The fact is that you have to be able to facilitate – know your colleagues, know your industry.
‘Being the most knowledgeable person in the room helps. Why? Because people are busy, usually too busy to see you. They want to learn something. You can’t ramble on for half an hour. You have to bring something new to the table’.
I nod, slowly, digesting her words. Confidence is so vital, and something that is so often the key ingredient that holds us back. What Tracy is explaining is that having confidence stems from holding extensive knowledge of your products and doing that extra bit of research. It all helps you to feel more prepared.
‘How do you stay positive?’ I ask.
Again, she laughs. ‘In most of my school years, I got it into my head and thought ‘oh gosh, am I being negative?’. I have a real thing – I hate negativity. There is no time in life for negativity – negativity is looking backward. You’ve got to be positive in order to move forwards. You’ve got to move on to the positives, improve your mindset, else it’s a waste of energy’.
What recruiters are looking for
Tracy explains that when she recruits she looks for something on the applicant’s CV – perhaps their GCSE’s or further education that has a technical slant. But you don’t have to have gone to university and studied engineering, just something that shows that you will be able to understand how the product works.
‘It is not a prerequisite to have a technical background,’ Tracy explains, which is reassuring to know, ‘but when I’m recruiting, I will look for a technical slant if they are not from the industry already. Over the last 7-8 years I’ve done a lot of interviewing and recruited a fair few people and they have got to have that technical acumen. As a minimum, they have got to understand how low voltage works – because you’ve got to know that in order to move on and understand the product.’
So although Tracy herself studied a technical subject, she also informs me that to work in exporting, she would also look for language skills - something that many linguists studying at A-Level or university probably wouldn’t initially think of for a career option.
So there you have it.
There are so many opportunities to be found across the fire industry. Perhaps sales and exporting might be your calling. Or even it it isn’t, Tracy has left me with some invaluable advice that just had to be shared: be confident, trust in your own knowledge and competence, and remain professional and positive.
I have a feeling that this is just the beginning.
#SHE1000 is coming on June 23rd at the ExCel centre in London - an event celebrating women in the fire and related sectors, where you can listen to presenter Heather White, CEO of Smarter Networking, deliver a powerful presentation on improving your networking skills - which are, as Tracy tells me ‘invaluable’ to her role.
To find out more, or to register, go to: http://www.safety-health-expo.co.uk/Content/SHE1000