Shropshire Star

Women in business - a changing landscape

Increasingly, business is a domain in which women are thriving.

Hollie Whittles and Helen Leathers speak to business women as part of the WiRE network, based at Harper Adams University

While historically in the UK only about a quarter of self-employed people were female, over the last decade that has started to change significantly.

Women In Business group Prowess says that since the economic downturn of 2008, about 58 per cent of people starting their own business have been female, suggesting that women are embracing entrepreneurialism in increasing numbers.

That is certainly the case here in Shropshire, where the business landscape provides fantastic opportunities for enterprising business women. Below we celebrate eight of them.

There are many vibrant networking groups across Shropshire for women including; Network With Style, Ladies In Business, the Network of Women and WiRE (Women in Rural Enterprise).

WiRE is based at Harper Adams University and works to foster and encourage links with local and national organisations to enhance the range of business services available to women in business.

Across Shropshire, there are local WiRE networking groups in Telford, Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Newport and North Shropshire.

The Telford and Wrekin WiRE networking group is run voluntarily by Hollie Whittles and Helen Leathers every third Thursday of the month at the Telford Marches Growth Hub.

Hollie and Helen welcome anyone who wishes to attend and actively encourage support, relationships and connecting business women from all different types of business together for inspiration.

Through these friendly networks, Shropshire business women have successfully grown their businesses through networking. The network leaders draw on their personal networking skills and business connections to support attendees by introducing local companies who they believe will be able to establish positive working relationships.

They also use their own networks to attract high-profile expert speakers to Telford WiRE meetings to help strengthen the business knowledge of network attendees. To find out more, visit

One of the most high-profile women in business in Shropshire is Mandy Thorn, who is chairman of directors and the largest shareholder of Marches Care Ltd, which operates the award-winning Uplands care home in Shrewsbury.

She is also president of Shropshire Chamber of Commerce, chair of Lingen Davies Cancer Trust and has held numerous non-executive director posts across a range of sectors.

“Becoming president of Shropshire Chamber of Commerce this year has in many ways completed a professional circle for me,” she said.

“Deciding to expand our family business and develop a new care complex in Bicton Heath in the early 2000s I faced many challenges; from accessing funding – only 15 years ago a female entrepreneur asking for a sizeable bank loan was rather unusual – to learning how to develop systems to enable us to quadruple the size of our business.

“The advice and guidance I received from the chamber enabled me to develop a cogent business plan and succeed in building our business to what it is today.

“I have been incredibly fortunate that our family business is based in Shropshire, a wonderful entrepreneurial county blessed with a strong support network led by the chamber of commerce and a business community that is supportive and collaborative.

“Above all, as any business owner or leader will confirm, an organisation is only as good as the people they employ, and Marches Care is no different.

“I have been hugely fortunate that we have built an amazing skilled and loyal staff team working within the care home and day centre.

“The professionalism and dedication which they have demonstrated since we launched the care home in 2007 has been extraordinary, and I am incredibly proud of the amazing work they do and the support they provide.

“Being able to hand over the baton of managing director to a long standing, female, colleague last year was an incredibly proud moment as we celebrated her achievements within our company.

Celebrating Shropshire's businesswomen

Ruth Martin

Ruth Martin - Martin & Jones Marketing

After years of working within business and industry, 2019 saw Ruth Martin starting up a marketing consultancy firm with former journalist and university lecturer, Janet Jones.

Offering small and medium sized businesses across the county strategic marketing direction, planning and delivery, the Martin & Jones Marketing Consultancy keeps one thing at its heart – authenticity.

“When starting up the business I wanted to be as genuine and true to myself as possible and to push innovation in the way companies view their customers, their business and the community around them. I’m always keen to encourage open discussion about equality without anyone feeling marginalised or undermined,” said Ruth Martin.

But she believes it is still harder for women to push themselves forward and shout about their skills and achievements.

“Although things are moving in a really positive direction, there are more expectations around appearance and age for women than there are with my male counter parts. That can only change with open debate at all levels of company hierarchy,” she said.

Hollie Whittles

Hollie Whittles - FraggleWorks

Hollie Whittles is director of two successful Shropshire companies, Purple Frog Systems – a global business intelligence consultancy – and FraggleWorks for which she is more known locally.

Hollie founded FraggleWorks in 2008 to provide training workshops in all aspects of running a business. Hollie has a business studies degree and certificates in professional development, leadership and management and social media.

Her ultimate goal is to empower business owners to feel confident about growing their businesses through strategic planning and digital marketing.

She established strong partnerships with other local businesses, local councils, Shropshire Chamber of Commerce and was recently appointed as a growth hub guru for the Marches Growth Hub.

In 2018, Hollie was awarded a certificate of recognition from the British Computer Society for her work in the UK digital industry and in 2019 was a Woman’s Who award nominee.

Hollie has previously been voted one of the Top 50 Women in Tech by PCR Online.

Thea Roberts

Thea Roberts - executive coach and mentor

Thea Roberts is an executive coach and mentor with 27 years-experience in commercial leadership positions to MD level, at businesses such as Mark & Spencer, Mars and Essity.

“Launching my consultancy in 2018 was an easy decision,” recalls Thea, who is based near Shrewsbury and now counts football’s Premier League and a range of Shropshire and UK companies among her clients.

“Throughout my career, developing individuals and teams to unlock their full potential or solve commercial challenges was an enormous source of enjoyment.

“Whether male or female, I’m driven by enabling great people to be more effective and successful in achieving both personal and commercial aspirations.”

Support for her start-up came from the Marches Growth hub and her network of Shropshire-based female entrepreneurs.

“I’ve found Shropshire to be a hotbed of female talent, ready to share experience, guidance and insights. Female role models and mentors have not always been that easy to find, and I often found myself the only female in a team as I progressed through my career,” she comments.

Helen Columb

Helen Columb - Columb & Gosling Accountants

Helen Columb has been running a successful accountancy practice based in Telford for the last six years and boosts a strong female workforce. Working with clients across the country, assisting with all their accountancy needs including VAT, full company accounts, bookkeeping and payroll, the practice has built up a strong reputation for supporting and empowering their client base.

“As a busy businesswomen, I truly understand the difficulties that come from running a business, managing a team of six and raising a family. It enables me to understand some of the stresses and strains that my clients face and so I hope that I create a culture that’s as flexible as possible making it easier for my clients and staff to fit work around their hectic lifestyles.

“Flexible working hours and an understanding that ‘life happens’ has really allowed my company to thrive, attracting the best team regardless of their home commitments. Sometimes there is a real pressure to be able to do it all and I wanted to create a culture for both my staff and clients where we take the pressure off and support each other. We may not all be Superwoman, but we are all pretty super!”

Kay Pritchett

Kay Pritchett - Shropshire Homes

"At 40 years old I was looking for a new career challenge and joined Shropshire Homes Limited (SHL) as assistant quantity surveyor in September 2006 with minimal construction knowledge," says Kay.

"I had established a sound commercial background during my 24 years of employment in distribution and engineering but this was a non-traditional entry to the industry. Initially at SHL I looked after the utilities, section agreements, specialist subcontractors and variations and generally anything else needed.

"Shropshire Homes provided sponsorship to complete a foundation degree in construction-quantity surveying at Shrewsbury College on a day release basis.

"The three-year course, which initially seemed a long time when I was already 40, flew by and I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process, enhanced by my day to day working experiences at SHL.

"In 2009 I was awarded a foundation degree in construction with distinction at the Shrewsbury College annual technology awards ceremony and received the John Thomas Award for quantity surveying as a mark of outstanding achievement.

"With a thirst for knowledge and the encouragement and the full support of SHL I enrolled on a three-year BSc construction management degree course at Wolverhampton University.

"The degree course, as expected, was a massive step up in time commitment compared to the foundation degree. My role at SHL was also developing and was offered more opportunities to acquire further knowledge of the industry.

"I began assisting with feasibility and performing elemental take-offs then began to look after individual sites and subcontractors leaning towards a more formal quantity surveying function.

"In 2011/2 I was awarded a first class honours degree in construction management and again enjoyed the whole experience.

"Following my degree I was promoted to quantity surveyor and then as SHL progressed my career shadowed its success.

"In 2015 I was promoted to project QS looking after our St Georges and Woodcote Way sites and again with the full support of SHL enjoyed the challenges presented whilst managing one assistant QS. After a restructuring of the QS department in July 2017 I was promoted to quantity surveying manager and am now responsible for a project QS, two QS’s and two trainee QS’s.

"Not only did I find the whole learning experience extremely invigorating but consider the working opportunities presented by SHL as the critical part of my success.

"The continuous support and positive approach provided by the directors of Shropshire Homes and my colleagues has provided the opportunity to thrive.

"Following my own positive career path with SHL, I recently employed two trainee quantity surveyors."

Christine Hewitt

Christine Hewitt - Busch (UK) Ltd

"My name is Christine Hewitt. I am employed at Busch (UK) Limited in the position of mechanical design engineer.

"Busch (UK) Limited are part of a family-owned, global business based in Germany, with over 3,500 employees worldwide.

"In the UK, our Telford-based business designs, manufactures and services industrial vacuum and low-pressure systems and skid packages for industries including food, chemical, oil & gas and energy, to name just a few.

"In my role of mechanical design engineer, I have been lucky enough to have worked on a variety of projects and in exciting industries such as the space industry.

"I am enjoying the challenges that each project provides, and every day is different to the last.

"I am the first female design engineer to work at Busch UK, but I will not be the last.

"Busch (UK) Limited, in conjunction with the Shropshire Star and local schools have been actively involved in the STEM Project (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths).

"This is an initiative which is intended to encourage and inspire the next generation of young people into these core subjects, helping creating the next generation of skilled engineers in the UK.

"I am the appointed STEM Ambassador and am incredibly proud to have led the project on behalf of Busch (UK) Limited.

"I was inspired to become an engineer thanks to the hours I spent working with my grandad in the garage when I was young, building bird houses and other such things over the summers.

"I have a drive and passion for engineering which has made me undeterred by the gender stereotypes which often surround the industry.

"I personally have found the industry to be inclusive of everyone and would recommend a career in engineering to anyone regardless of gender.

"Looking back to my school days, I never thought that I would ever be where I am today. I have had the privilege to have worked in a variety of industries on diverse products.

"Before joining Busch (UK) Limited almost two years ago, I designed stables, pest control solutions, and window wipers for trains.

"I have co-managed engineering/design offices and became rail technical project manager, which provided opportunities to visit extremely large train building factories in Europe to liaise with customers.

"I am now on my next journey with Busch where I am training to become an engineering manager.

"It just shows that with hard work and the right encouragement that anything is possible."

Steff Henson

Steff Henson - Six Ticks

Steff Henson is well known in the Shropshire business community - but you may well have seen her face outside of networking events too.

A keen runner, Steff is a regular Parkrunner and, as a company director for Shrewsbury based website and CRM developers Six Ticks, is one of the supporters who have come together to launch a new Parkrun at Haughmond Hill.

A 2018 experiment from West Michigan University showed that running quickly for half an hour improves the “cortical flicker frequency” threshold – which is associated with the ability to better process information.

That is definitely a trait Steff needs because the business is all about processing information from clients and turning it into something their customers can better understand and work with - through websites, apps and CRM systems.

Named as one of the final eight in the LinkedIn UK Real Faces of Sales Awards 2019, Steff stood alongside the business application lead at Microsoft in London’s Sushi Samba – but the next day was putting all of her energy into a new project with Shropshire’s Hawkestone Park’s owners Interesting Hotels Group.

Niamh Kelly

Niamh Kelly - HR Department

Despite some movement on reducing the gender pay gap, award-winning HR expert Niamh Kelly says there is still much to be done on addressing workforce imbalance to achieve the goal of men and women being treated equally.

Ms Kelly has an impressive CV, having worked for a number of high-profile organisations and launched her own company, HR Dept Shropshire, after successfully leading HR operations over an eight-year period at the Universities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

“It’s incredible to think that in 2019 we are still talking about gender inequality in pay, career prospects and women holding top posts within companies. Things have improved but there is still some way to go,” she said.

“I don’t believe I’m treated any differently as a woman with my own business to a male business owner and attitudes are changing - albeit slowly!

“But there are still undoubtedly areas where people are discriminated against because of gender.

“We must continue working to address these issues and ensure women always retain the belief that they can follow their dreams and operate on an equal career and pay footing with male colleagues.”