From Youth Training Scheme to managing director, HLM Architects leader Karen Mosley knows what it takes to get to the top and develop a firm that makes a real difference to people’s lives. Here she talks to unLTD editor Richard Fidler about how she wants to make an impact during her year as Sheffield Chamber of Commerce president.
Karen Mosley’s journey to the top of her industry started from a stable base, but was short on opportunity. So to hear her speak is a lesson of seizing every moment and making the very most of the chances you are given.
“When I left school, I lived with my parents in Gleadless. I had a loving family – not a lot of money, but that didn’t matter. I now realise how important that was, the safe secure loving environment, not everyone has that,” she said.
“The journey I have been on drives me today. At school I was put in for four O Levels and my mum and dad paid for me to sit more; they thought I was capable. I somehow ended up with the equivalent of ten O Levels. I didn’t know I could stay on.
“The school (Ashleigh School) didn’t really give me any advice. Rather than opening my eyes to opportunities out there, they closed doors.
“I left school and joined the Government’s Youth Training Scheme similar to apprenticeships. It was actually supported by Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, and I have a theory that everything is connected!”
Apprenticeships and skills are close to Karen’s heart – particularly in her role as Chamber President.
Now considered a ‘lifer’ at HLM Architects, her first job was actually at another of the city’s most well-known names.
She said: “My original placement was with the Royal Victoria Hotel near the Wicker, which was brilliant. They gave me loads of support and opportunities and offered me a full-time job in their hotel in Derby.
“But I’d never been outside Sheffield so I felt like they were sending me to the moon. When that came to an end, I was placed with HLM.
“This was the first time I realised University existed.
It was scary at first; all I could see were people who seemed far smarter than me.
“I thought I didn’t fit, or wasn’t clever enough to be there. But everyone was so welcoming and just wanted me to succeed. I began to realise I knew things Architects didn’t, and that I
had skills which complemented theirs. My confidence started to grow.
“They began nudging me out of my comfort zone, and it took off from there.” HLM was originally Hutchinson, Locke and Monk – the three founding partners. They were students who won a design competition in 1964. Sheffield wasn’t the original HQ as there were offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London.
However, the Sheffield office was established after winning a job at the Northern General Hospital, and the company expanded with Karen joining in 1985.
“I’m not an Architect. I joined as an administrator and soon progressed from making cups of tea to helping to survey sites.
“HLM supported me to learn to drive, and one of my daily jobs was taking drawings to be printed at Pinders on the Moor.
“One of the things I remember – because tech is the backbone of everything we do now – is that I was the first person at HLM to learn how to use a computer, long before CAD. We gradually bought more and I became word processing manager, then office manager when I was about 21.
“We had offices around the UK and I was asked by our Chair at the time, Chris Liddle, to help replicate what we were doing in Sheffield across the other offices, moving into the role as corporate administration manager. “Then our company secretary left and I was asked if I’d like to study to become a chartered secretary. I did that part time over four years. It gave me a focus because I now knew what I wanted to do, which I didn’t know at the age of 17.”
As Karen’s role at the practice began to grow, so did the firm. She takes up the story of how business can move very quickly.
“I was appointed to the board in 2002. Shortly after, we were acquired by an American business and I was involved in the transition.
“After the sale, they absorbed our brand. They had a different culture to ours. The parent company got into financial difficulty and brought down the group.
“When everything collapsed, we only had a short time to pull together an offer to the Receiver to save our UK business. There were others bidding and it’s an event that really shook and shaped me. I was part of the MBO (Management Buyout) team, and had to raise what was a big sum of money to me at the time. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – not a lot phases me now.
“All our team and clients stood by us. That was 2004.
“We hit the recession in 2008 and had to batten down the hatches, and for the next eight years work our way through tough times. But throughout, we were thinking about the shape of our future, about our next generation, about succession planning.
In December 2020 we transitioned to an Employee Ownership Trust.”
Now comfortably in the top 40 architects in the UK with studios in London, Belfast,
Cardiff and Glasgow as well as Sheffield, HLM is celebrating 40 years in the city this year. The firm has been behind local projects such as the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre (AWRC) on Sheffield’s Olympic Legacy Park, the Social Sciences Building for the University of Sheffield and is currently working on the Heart of the City redevelopment which Includes the new Radisson Blu hotel overlooking the Town Hall on Pinstone Street. Karen is passionate about increasing Sheffield’s profile nationally. She said: “We have a great opportunity. Unlike other places, we’re at the start of our journey and have the ability to adjust from the pandemic and design a city fit for the future. There are cities which have grown up around dense retail; times have changed. We’re involved with a scheme on Fargate to create a new Events Hub and a space for start-ups. We also want to see more people living in our city centre.
“We’re in a great position, we just have to keep momentum going and be joined up in our thinking.”
In her role as Chamber President, Karen wants to actively support businesses to connect and influence the shape of Sheffield.
She says improving skills sits at the heart of this: “My focus was always going to be on skills. We want Sheffield to be the best place to start, to grow and to run a business, and for that you need a skilled and adaptable talent pool.
“We have some great opportunities as a region which I’m showcasing during my year.
“The South Yorkshire Skills Accelerator programme places employers at the heart of the skills provision.
“Our region is one of eight Trailblazers developing a Local Skills Improvement Plan.The three South Yorkshire Chambers are working together with businesses and the skills sector to identify barriers in the system that prevent talent development.
“We’re delivering recommendations to Government at the end of March to drive more local autonomy.
“We also have Levelling up Futures in Sheffield, a partnership with Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield City Council, Sheffield Business Together and the Chamber, encouraging businesses to pledge their support, to deliver a range of activities for young people, going into schools and raising awareness of the career choices available in our city.”
The Chamber continues to evolve, says Karen: “My predecessor Matt Jackson encouraged us to focus on becoming the ‘Chamber of the Future’.
“I’ve really seen, first-hand, how Lou, Alexis and the team at the Chamber brought together powerful voices across our city during the pandemic. We have much stronger partnerships between public and private sector as a result now.
“I love that about Sheffield; the rich relationships, the amazing organisations, everything and everyone is connected, and together we can achieve so much more.
Shaping a city, shaping a business, Karen can be rightfully proud of the impact she has made.
Women in business
“As a female in a male dominated industry, I’ve had a positive experience. I’ve always had a lot of encouragement. I’ve had male sponsors nudging me out of my comfort zone, in the right way, seeing something in me that I didn’t, and helping me progress through my career.
“I know there are many people who haven’t had that experience, and still face barriers and discrimination. As a board, we’ve long recognised the value a diverse mix of views and opinions can bring. But if we want a diverse workforce, we need to inspire a more diverse pipeline. We need to showcase more role models that are representative of our society. I think as a business community we have a duty to help improve social mobility. It’s what I didn’t see when I was at school”.
“We need to help unlock the untapped potential in our communities. It’s never been more important than now to do this. Apprenticeships are a fantastic way to open up opportunities.
“HLM was part of the Architectural apprenticeship Trailblazer group which developed two higher degree apprenticeships at level six and level seven, taking individuals from college through to qualification.
“It’s free for the learner, and makes our profession far more accessible – not limited to those who can afford to go to university for seven years.
“It’s a brilliant pathway but in the north, no-one has been running level six. That all changes in September when Sheffield Hallam University are the first to launch. They’re true trailblazers.
“We’re going into colleges and backtracking into feeder schools to shout about it. See It Be It Sheffield is another great way to showcase role models.
“By the age of seven, children have already decided what they can’t do. We need to reach them early enough to keep their minds open.
“We work across seven sectors including Education, Healthcare, and Living and Communities.
“Our ambition is to create places and spaces that improve people’s lives. We have just finished a great project for the University of Glasgow called the James McCune Smith Learning Hub.
“It’s called a sticky campus as the aim is to encourage students to linger longer in a welcoming environment. I’m not an architect but I’ve come to appreciate good design. It’s not necessarily how it looks, its how it makes you feel. We’re not what you’d call signature architects where you say ‘that’s an HLM building’. We work with our clients to understand their challenges and give back something extra.
“We call it thoughtful design. Of course, Architects want the building to look great but it’s an inside out process, fit for the user, with wellbeing at its heart.
“We have a design forum at HLM. Anyone can join in. Projects get presented and we get some great ideas from people who aren’t architects.
“Like any mixed group, if you’re coming from a different background or perspective, you often see things in a different way.
“It’s a great collaborative process and gives everyone a chance to have their voices heard with better outcomes.”