Changing Careers: Vicki Smith, Production Manager at Fentimans

We recently sat down with Vicki Smith, Production Manager (now Technical Lead) at Fentimans to dig a little deeper into how Vicki found herself in her current role and the career change that came with that – and it’s an interesting read!

Fentimans is a botanical drinks maker based in the North East and since its beginnings in 1905, the company has been handed down through the Fentimans family, still proudly using natural ingredients sourced from specialist suppliers.

Vicki shares her insight into the business, her non-conventional career path that led her to Fentimans, and what advice she’d give to those unsure – or disillusioned – about pursuing a career in the manufacturing sector.

Tell us about your background?

I’ll give you a very brief history of my past. I was pretty naughty at school. I was from a reasonably middle-class background and I was rebelling. Generally, I was just underachieving. I was good at math and science, but I came from a family that were good at languages and English, so I was very different from everybody else. I ended up not going to University and going straight down to London. I worked in the Department of Transport and then transferred back up to the North East within the Civil Service. Shortly after that, I chose to have children and didn’t want to travel into Newcastle every day, so I got a part-time job in the Careers Service where I was writing CVs.

I had my children and then one day – which is probably where the science connection starts – the school was doing a ‘keeping safe’ trip for my son’s year group. I was asked to go along just as parent supervision. But the night before, another parent dropped out and the school rang me and asked me to help run a session. When I got there, it was something completely different for me, so I had to throw myself in and do it. A teacher came to me at the end and asked if I’d ever thought about teaching.

When did you re-train to become a teacher?

I’m currently fifty-one. It was 2004 when I re-trained out of the careers service and into teaching.

I had no qualifications beyond O-Levels so I decided to do what was called an HLTA qualification to become a higher-level teaching assistant and ended up being in the science department where I taught up to GCSE level.

Following that, I transitioned to teaching Applied Science to sixth form. The course looked at science in the workplace and we had to pick three companies to engage with, at least two of them had to be local, and the students were to look into what health and safety procedures they used and what science they applied etc. –  and we just happened to pick Egger, Greggs and Fentimans.

From there, how did you get into the manufacturing industry?

Between myself and two members of the Fentimans staff, we organised a workshop for the students and they came into the school with a range of different flavours and we had to identify them. I happened to identify nine out of the 10 flavours.

About a year later the school was making redundancies. I went to Fentimans and said I could be looking for something. In terms of official qualifications, I really had nothing, because I don’t even think I got an O-Level equivalent in my A-Level physics. However, I did have a distinction in biology which I had achieved years after leaving school.

I started as a Flavour Production Coordinator in March 2015 and quickly learned the basics of how to make the flavour, which was basically cooking.

Now, as a Production Manager, I’m working more on the reformulation. We create the new drinks in our department, so we look at balancing flavours and how they interact with each other. There’s a bit of chemistry, there’s a bit of biology and there’s a degree of physics in it too.

What does a typical day look like?

Every day is different! I get the production run that comes from operations and I put it all together into our planning sheet. I look at what flavours I need to produce and what my timings are in terms of shelf life and raw materials. I have to schedule the Flavour Production Assistants to make those in time, get them to the production sites, and then we also support the bottling sites.

We’ve got a very small team that works very efficiently. We taste everything that comes in to check the quality – carbonation levels for example, as we may need to decide whether the specs need to go up or down. There are challenges to using natural ingredients that you don’t get with artificial ingredients – colours are very tricky and we spend a lot of time getting them right.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I’ve always been very definite about not regretting anything because you can’t change it. Why regret? Just do something about it. You don’t have to be naturally good. You don’t have to be drawn to it from an early age. You don’t have to necessarily find it straight away or come away with the right qualification – sometimes things find you – so don’t disregard anything and don’t assume you can’t do it. There is always something different, there is always something exciting and you can learn as you go. I have found my role in production to be really interesting. Don’t rule it out because you think it’s geeky or boring. It is actually pretty exciting.

What advice would you give someone thinking of a career in the manufacturing sector?

I would say there’s all sorts of things out there. If you’re in food production, what you’re doing comes with a lot of responsibility. You’re feeding the nation. You’re providing something that everybody needs. You’ve got people around you all the time, so you’ve got a lively atmosphere. You’ve got all sorts of areas that you can step in and out of so there’s invariably lots of opportunities for change. If you’re good, and if you put your mind to it, there are always opportunities to move up.

What do you think we need to do as an industry to attract women to manufacturing roles?

We need to move away from the image of women in white coats with flat shoes and glasses. I think we need to represent people of all ages, people like me who haven’t had qualifications. You can work around your children. You can have flexible working hours. You can have shift patterns. And a lot of the know-how is related to bog-standard everyday stuff. It’s not overly clever. You can learn it, so don’t rule science out as being geeky and unnecessary.

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Since this interview, Vicki has been promoted to Technical Lead after four years with Fentimans.

If you’re a candidate interested in manufacturing and looking to take the next step in your career, NRG’s Manufacturing division can help.

Make a start and register with NRG today.