Featured in Feast, issue 41 – November 2019 – Big Interview Feature
She may now be the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of Adnams, but, if truth be told, Karen Hester preferred it when she was known as GOD (Group Operations Director)!
‘I loved that title,’ laughs Karen, sitting in her corner office at the brewer’s very environmentally friendly distribution centre, just outside Southwold.
She started out as a former office cleaner for the company, and although it may lead to neat headlines such as ‘From Mop to Top’, it doesn’t really tell the whole story of Karen’s rise.
Rather, hers is a remarkable story that illustrates how determination and hard work really can lead to great things.
Born and bred in Reydon, she joined the Army at 16, was named best recruit, was promoted to lance corporal and became the youngest woman in the UK to hold an HGV licence when she passed her test. However, getting married and subsequently falling pregnant left her facing a stark choice of getting an abortion or getting out of the Army.
To cut a long story short, she became one of the first women to take the Ministry of Defence to court for sexual discrimination. It was a long-fought battle, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Karen has gone on to become Chair of the Bench at Ipswich Magistrates’ Court: ‘That six year fight – and it was a fight – made me hate injustice.’
It was a game changer, or rather a law changer. ‘People always ask ‘what’s your proudest moment?’ and it’s actually not about work, it’s about helping to change the law.’
In the middle of all this, and with two young children, Karen joined Adnams in 1988 as a part-time cleaner. However, with her background in Army logistics and transport, it wasn’t long before her expertise in operational management was spotted.
Having progressed in logistics, procurement and transport, Karen became Operations Director in 2007. The following year Karen won the title of East of England Business Woman of the Year and then in 2013 she (and the company at large) won the Business of the Year in the First Women Awards, in recognition of Adnams’ success in supporting women employees to reach their full potential. ‘I am exceptionally proud when I get an award,’ says Karen, although she adds: ‘I don’t see myself as exceptional compared to anyone else.’
In 2015, she joined the Main Board, becoming the first female executive director, and later that year was awarded an honorary doctorate by University Campus Suffolk in the same cohort as Ed Sheeran.
These days, Karen, 57, has responsibility for the operations of the Adnams brewery, distillery, hotels, pubs and shops – managing a multi-million pound budget and hundreds of employees. ‘I’m local so it’s important to me that this community thrives. I like to employ local people. It’s not about doing the right things, it’s about doing things right.’
She loves the diversity of her job. ‘There’s always something, so whether it’s the manufacturing side in the brewery, the Swan Hotel in Southwold or a vehicle broken down on the A12, or whatever, it’s just a really diverse role. I do love it because there’s never a dull day.’
Plus, she says: ‘I like the culture, I like the brand and I like that we are a very forward thinking company but we still hold family values.’
As for her personal preferences when it comes to drink? ‘If I did drink beer the only beer I really like is Dry Hopped Lager – I’m a Pink Gin girl.’ Although she adds: ‘The Lemon and Tamarind Gin is stunning – the only trouble is you don’t feel like you’re drinking alcohol.’
The drinks market has obviously opened up since she first started at Adnams, and she likes the fact that the range at Adnams now includes spirits and wines.
That, and the variety of places to eat and drink under the Adnams umbrella. ‘We have everything from pubs to top class hotels,’ says Karen, ‘so you can go to one of our managed inns or one of our tenanted pubs for really good pub grub or go a bit bistro, or you could really treat yourself and go to The Swan in Southwold.’
Is that her favourite? Sounds like it, although she adds: ‘I love the Bell Inn at Walberswick – I’m a regular there – and then I love The White Horse at Blakeney.’ She adds: ‘If I had to pick one out of the three I’d struggle.’
Any future plans? ‘I’m writing a book, with a ghost writer – it might be out next year or the year after.’
So what does she want her legacy to be? ‘I want to walk down the street when I’m retired (in however many years time) and people go ‘Morning Karen’, not throw tomatoes at me!
‘You want to leave a legacy for your family and you want them to have a better life than you had,’ says Karen, before adding: ‘I didn’t have a good childhood’. She separated from her husband in 1995 and her children (Emma and Andrew) are now 36 and 33, respectively. She also has three grandchildren. ‘I love my grandkids – family time is important. My granddaughter is five minutes up the road and the grandsons are eight miles away.’
She describes herself as ordinary, even though her life story is anything but. ‘I guess when you have a tough childhood, marriage or anything, you can sink or swim. And I swam for my life.’