Nikki King: From trucks to all boys’ school - succeeding in a man’s world
From kick-starting her career at the age of forty to taking on the Japanese business world to becoming a grandmother, Nikki shares how she succeeded in a male-dominated world and is now changing the fortunes of students as Chair of an Academy Trust.
Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today - how is it that you came to be the first female CEO of a truck manufacturer?
Well, it didn’t happen overnight – after attending grammar school, where I had a spectacularly unsuccessful academic record, I did what all good girls did in the 60’s – I took a good secretarial course.
It was two weeks before my 40th birthday when my ex-husband left and I needed to secure my first job as an admin manager with a Ford/Iveco ford dealership. It was here that I fell in love – with trucks!
And the rest is history?
Not quite - I started to help out when the salesmen were busy and within six years I was group fleet director and MD of their Sevenoaks operation. I was subsequently headhunted by the Lex group and later found myself in Japan as part of Lex’s reconnaissance team. Here I fell in love with the product, the country and the people.
In March 2002, I asked Andy Harrison (then CEO of Lex/ RAC) if I could buy the company. He said yes and the dynamics changed when I found myself managing a team of shareholders.
You then spent over twelve years as CEO…
Yes, I was CEO of Isuzu until 2 years ago, when my daughter announced her pregnancy. I was determined not to be an absentee grandmother and made my decision to retire. However, Isuzu wouldn’t hear of it – so I am now honorary chairman and still on the payroll. Jokingly, I say honorary chairman means fat old lady we don’t know what to do with! Deep down I know this is a huge honour and demonstrates their love and respect for me and I am deeply touched by their kindness.
Looking back on your career, what are some of the key things you learned about succeeding in male-dominated environments?
First, don’t think you have no experience – experience is earned in many ways – look carefully at your attributes and be proud of them.
Second, have confidence in your abilities. If I offer a man a promotion he will say “When do I start”. A woman will say “Do you think I am ready – Can I do this?” Embrace additional responsibility and let everyone know you can do it.
Finally, if you are ambitious, tell someone – modesty is a disaster in the business world. How will your boss know you have ambitions if you don’t say so? Your male colleagues will be shouting it loud and clear.
Across industry there are too few women at board level – why do you think this is?
Women need to be proud, confident, ambitious – they need to be ready to push themselves forward as men do and we need to make it easier for them to succeed.
A non-executive board position is a great way for women to demonstrate their leadership. And the right role can fit round career and family. As you know, one of the great ways I have been able to add a board appointment to my CV is through becoming chair of an Academy Trust in Kent – another role which involves managing men as Greenacre is an all-boys school!
Yes – tell us about this. How are you finding the Academy Trust role?
A new academy trust is, in effect, a start-up business. It is so exciting to be a part of a new initiative and the knowledge that we are improving the life of so many young people is just so exhilarating.
Honestly, this is one of the most rewarding roles I have ever had. It takes up about 2 days a month and it is fantastic to put something back into the community. I would recommend it to anyone as it hones your management skills and looks great on your CV.
Can you explain a little about how you’ve been able to use your skills?
I think what I bring to the party is to help the trust, as a start-up business, to structure itself so that when it grows it will have the right basic infrastructure.
I am very lucky that I have a CEO who is head of our trust who is one of the best educationalists I’ve ever met in my life. The education side of this business is absolutely down to him - where I can help is actually structuring the business and making sure it runs financially well.
It sounds as though you have a good relationship with the CEO…
It’s very important that a business person in a trust and the head really like each other. If they don’t it’ll be an absolute disaster. You have to have a very good understanding of what one another’s strengths are and what you don’t interfere with. Andrew and I hit it off immediately.
Do you feel you have put your stamp onto the role?
One of the main things I’ve been able to help with is Greenacre’s “Skills for Life” initiative which aims to close the gap between education and business.
We began this strategy with the belief that education is not for children but for the adults they will become, so we first looked at how we wanted our young adults to be in ten years’ time.
What motivated you to start “Skills for Life”?
Like many of us who run businesses, I felt strongly that today’s school leavers were generally unemployable. They were extremely bad at interview and generally took around 2 years to become useful members of the team.
So, after many years complaining about this situation I decided to do something about it. Similarly, I feel strongly that those of us who have had so much from life should put something back.
And how does “Skills for Life” work?
The big picture is that our teaching, extracurricular activities and educational offer will have a focus on life skills and life after education.
We have a gardening and a cookery club and are extending our DT Department to include NVQ 2 qualifications such as plumbing and carpentry. The younger year groups attend fortnightly careers assemblies with different industries. And then at Year 9 students are assigned a mentor from their chosen profession to work with them one to one until they leave School.
This is a work in progress but the staff, governors and parents are really bubbling with enthusiasm!
Moving forwards, how do you see your role evolving?
My involvement with Greenacre – which I hope will go on a long time – is to try and encourage more and more businesses to get involved with education. I’m recommending that all of the Isuzu senior managers are encouraged to join the boards of academies. I think it will be the best training for them in the future.
Our boys will leave school and we will absolutely be able to prove that we have produced great people, great human beings, great parents and great, very employable staff.