Jan Ward: How I made a mint in specialist metals

Jan Ward has always been a risk taker. And it has paid off, as the company she started with £3,000 savings, Corrotherm International, now turns over £14m a year.

No one is more surprised at how far she has got in life than Jan Ward herself. "I thought I'd be dead by now, to be honest, because I'm always doing stupid things," says the 53-year-old founder of Corrotherm International. "I can't tell you the number of times I was in plaster when I was a kid. I fell off the roof, fell down the stairs, fell out of a tree, got run over twice by the same bloke. I'm even sat here now with a broken arm."

Born in Southampton, where her father was a steel erector, Ward was 15 when she became pregnant and was expelled from school. "You know, stupid girl." She took on a number of jobs, studying at night and taking correspondence courses until she qualified as a mechanical engineer in 1984. "I was always interested in metal work, in taking things to bits and getting the screwdriver to things." She started work for a company that sold stainless steel tubes to oil firms. When she decided to set up on her own in 1992, she managed to poach some of its clients.

With just £3,000 in savings, she decided to start selling specialist metals to firms in the oil, gas and desalination markets, where high-grade material was needed to withstand corrosion and heat. Occupying a derelict building in Southampton, she brought in three colleagues from her old firm. After that, "all I was doing was re-recruiting my own customers back to my own company. And in the first week, I had an order."

Worth £85,000, the contract was to supply a firm in Turkey with metal tubes for making soda crystals, "a very corrosive process". The metal "the Heinz beans of nickel alloy" was supplied by an American firm. Persuading them to let her sell it on was "one of the biggest hurdles". But by focusing on the Middle East, Ward quickly won business and by 1993 the firm was turning over £1m. This grew to £5m by 2000.

Now, "competition from China is one of our biggest troubles. As much as the Chinese profess to be able to make this material, they can't. But they've convinced customers who have taken the chance. And when the materials have been delivered, they've failed in testing. So we go through cycles of losing business to people who say they can make this material but can't." Still, with turnover of £14m last year, she can't complain too much.

However, Ward stresses that money is not the driving factor behind the business. "I know this sounds bizarre, but I wasn't really motivated by money because, to be quite frank with you, I could be earning an awful lot more than I do now if I went and worked for someone else. But I want to be responsible for my own destiny. I've always wanted to be in control of what happens to me. And that's probably as good a reason as any for going it alone."

As for being a woman in a male-dominated profession, "I've never felt that there is a barrier, that there isn't anything I can't do if I want to. I've always believed that whatever happens, I'll get there in the end. As long as you are good to the customer, they will remember you."

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