Liz Fothergill - Derbyshire’s new High Sheriff

PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 May 2016

High Sheriff Liz Fothergill CBE

High Sheriff Liz Fothergill CBE

andrew eyley

Pat Ashworth talks to Liz Fothergill who was sworn in as High Sheriff on 7th April 2016

LIZ Fothergill still marvels that something as everyday as a dropped ball of wool was responsible for changing the fortunes and direction of the Shaw family. She describes her father, Ivor Shaw, with great affection as ‘something of an engineer, a man who always had some sort of business – in cars or engineering or anything he thought he could make money out of.’

His mother, who lived in Belper, was crippled with arthritis and found solace in knitting, but when the wool fell on the floor, she was unable to pick it up. ‘Dad developed a walking stick with three prongs that she just had to twist – and being Dad, thought, “If this is good for her, I’m sure I could sell it,” she says with a broad smile. Ivor put an advert in the paper – ‘send seven and six and get this robot…’ – and Liz earned pocket money boxing up the orders.

The product somehow ended up in a journal for people with disabilities, at a time when medical devices were making the transition from glass, stainless steel and rubber into plastic and PVC. Medical disposables were being born, developed by the Danes and cautiously entering the UK market, and a London-based distributor trying to sell these to hospitals came across Ivor Shaw’s advert. ‘For some obscure reason, he rang Dad and asked if he would like to make a plastic infant mucous extractor. He had no idea what any of these things were, but being a true entrepreneur, of course said yes…’

And that was the origin of Pennine Healthcare. A business that started as Ivor Shaw Ltd in shabby premises behind a garage in Abbey Street now employs 380 people at its state-of-the-art manufacturing base on London Road and produces in excess of 200,000 products each day, 70 per cent of which are exported to 70 countries worldwide. Liz was chief executive and remains the company chairman. The story of how her own career developed is as surprising and delightful as that of her father, who died in 1995.

High Sheriff Liz Fothergill CBEHigh Sheriff Liz Fothergill CBE

Educated at Homelands Grammar School for Girls in Normanton, she was drawn by a love of books to Loughborough University to gain an Honours degree in Librarianship and Information Science. The university was young, many of the students were engineers – ‘It was about one girl to every 14 guys, which was very nice…’ – and the university was noted for social sciences and librarianship. She met her first husband Peter there, graduated in 1974, married and took up her first job as children’s librarian in Ilkeston. The budget was substantial and it was a great time for children’s literature, she recalls: she remained at Ilkeston for two years before becoming area librarian for some of Nottingham’s more challenging areas.

The couple were about to move to London in 1977, where she had accepted a new job as librarian to King’s College and was working out her notice. But plans changed: he had a better job offered in Leicester and they decided to stay. Over the summer, with time on her hands, she helped her father out. ‘He said one day, “Why don’t you stay permanently?” And it seemed such an exciting thing to be in manufacturing,’ she remembers, describing the 37 years she subsequently spent in the business as ‘the world’s longest holiday job.’

There have been tough times: the couple’s two children, Rachel and Toby, were just five and six when Peter died at the age of 39 from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Work and looking after the children gave her little time for anything else as Pennine developed its product range and took its first steps into exporting, an enterprise led by Liz as director. ‘I’m passionate about exporting. I talk a lot about it,’ she says. ‘It’s what made Pennine, because where, in those days, a little company could sell quite easily to the NHS, it was a very different thing to sell in Germany. You really had to have world class standards in everything from presentation to packaging. We were learning those lessons, and by 1982, we had a range fit for purpose worldwide.’

She is a member of Catalyst UK, a global network working with UK Trade and Investment to promote UK excellence nationally. She still prizes one of the sticks her father made in those very early days, and she still encourages entrepreneurs, especially through her close involvement with the Chamber of Commerce: she was Inspirational Woman of the Year for the East Midlands Chamber in 2014 and served as President in 2015, the year she was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to industry.

Taking time out of a busy schedule to read her favourite authorTaking time out of a busy schedule to read her favourite author

Her close relationship with many of Derby’s institutions began in the early 1990s when she was asked to join the University Court of Derby, going on to become a Council member.

‘They were amazing times, with the university an unknown quantity – you know, “Do you mean the tech college on Kedleston Road?”’ she says with a smile. ‘I was proud and privileged to be part of its growth.’ She was appointed Vice-Chairman in 2009 and retired from the Council in 2013 after serving with distinction for 14 years. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2014.

Her relationships with community and business organisations are extensive, ranging from chairmanship of Derwent Stepping Stones, a neighbourhood nursery with five settings in Derby, to her support for homeless young people through the YMCA – mentoring, fundraising and trying to galvanise the power of local business to get involved. ‘The YMCA is on London Road, as is our factory, and they invited me round. I couldn’t believe how much they had to offer and the challenges they had, and still have,’ she says with respect.

‘The young people come from the most absolutely desperate situations, and the charity works to get them through this chaotic stage and reassess their lives. I felt very passionate about helping them become more stable and work towards being able to contribute back to society.’ She was first a board member and now sees herself as a business ambassador for the YMCA. Fundraising in her shrieval year will be going to the charity, whose motto is ‘The safe front door’. She has done a sleep-out, and says of the experience, ‘You never walk past homeless people in the same way again.’

Liz and Richard in the entrance hall of their home near AshbourneLiz and Richard in the entrance hall of their home near Ashbourne

In 2012 she was appointed as HRH The Prince of Wales Ambassador for the East Midlands through his patronage of Business in the Community. The same year, she was on Bishop Alistair Redfern’s Commission, looking at issues affecting the quality of community life in the city. ‘I think it has had significant outcomes of organisations working together in partnership,’ she reflects. ‘Derby is an amazing place. It is small enough as a city to be very collegiate and companies are really willing to get engaged. People really want to make a difference.’

Chairing the Derby Book Festival, held for the first time last year, is a huge pleasure for her, a very satisfying connection with her roots as a librarian. The event, an outstanding success and fine example of partnership and co-operation between city organisations, saw 64 events and activities over eight days and attracted some very high-profile authors: this year’s festival, from 3rd-11th June, is even bigger. Liz recalls with joy and awe the reception that 500 schoolchildren gave to Michael Morpurgo – ‘He had them spellbound,’ she says. ‘He is just the most amazing man.’ She promises that this year’s festival will be even more exciting and inclusive with 84 events being held in the city of Derby between 3rd and 11th June.

Two years ago she appointed a chief executive at Pennine, ‘so that I could do other things. I’d reached my sell-by date really. The company has continued to grow and thrive and I’m enormously proud of what they’ve achieved and the way they’re going forward.’

Focusing on work for so many years was something she loved, but what you don’t see, she reflects, are the number of people ‘out there doing things behind the scenes, giving up their time in small charities and organisations. That’s how our quality of life is so enhanced. I’m really hoping that in the shrieval role, we can celebrate that a lot more.’ She is looking forward to the year ‘with a little trepidation… We have had some very inspirational High Sheriffs in Derbyshire.’

Liz will be only the seventh woman out of 1,000 holders of the office in Derbyshire, though five of the six holders in the East Midlands shrieval group are women this year. She will be greatly supported by her husband, Richard, a former art teacher, whom she met in 1994 when picking up her daughter, Rachel, at the school gates. They married and their daughter, Alicia, ‘the baby of the family’, is now a student at the University of Cardiff. ‘I’ve had a very lucky life this last 20 years,’ she says. ‘It’s such a privilege to meet so many people and to get involved in things where you can be part of the process of making a difference.’

Pictured in the spring sunshine and daffodils at their lovely home in Ednaston, where Richard’s paintings have pride of place on the walls, she looks stunning in the regalia, which she had made in London – ‘Women are luckier than the men – you can have your own choice,’ she observes. And she won’t have to carry a sword.

Of her hopes for the year, she reflects, ‘It’s a year with some very big public events, like the Queen’s 90th birthday and the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. We’ll give it our very best go. I suppose I’m most looking forward to the opportunity to mix people up and see what the spin-offs are. When I’ve been involved with things in the past and seen what can be done when you introduce a charity to a business or put someone on a board or provide a mentor, I just love that idea of mixing people and hoping there are long-term-benefits for someone. And of course meeting new people is one of the great joys of life.’

Holidays will have to go but she’ll find time for some reading, of course: still an avid buyer of books, she converted a bedroom into a library when her son left home. ‘All my books together! It’s lovely,’ she says with satisfaction, noting the coincidence that the National School Library Association is holding its annual meeting in Derbyshire for the first time this year. ‘I’ll be opening that,’ she says happily. ‘Isn’t that a real bonus?’

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