Dame Julie Kenny CBE DL is the 383rd Master Cutler in the history of The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire – but she is also only the second Lady Master Cutler in that same 400-year period. unLTD’s Brogan Maguire spoke to her about her role, her drive for inclusivity and the challenges she has faced being a woman in STEM.
When I found out my interview with Dame Julie and Hallamshire Mistress Rachel Abbott would be at Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield, I was beyond excited.
Sitting opposite the Cathedral, it’s a building I often pass on my daily commute, and I have always been curious about what it’s like inside.
It’s safe to say I was not disappointed.
When I stepped through the unassuming doorway, I felt like I had walked through the wardrobe into Narnia or opened the door to the Tardis – the building is so grand that it almost took my breath away.
After picking up my jaw from the floor and spending a good five minutes staring in awe at the beautifully crafted cutlery lining the walls, I met Julie and Rachel for tea in the Mistress’ lounge – a sentence I never imagined myself writing.
With such big titles and so much grandeur around me, I was expecting quite a formal meeting, but what struck me quickly was how down-to-earth and kind these women were.
Their passion for their sector was evident from the get-go and the enthusiasm they both possess for their positions was palpable.
When Julie asked me how much I already knew about The Company of Cutlers, my answer was ‘start at the beginning’, which is exactly what she did.
“Well, back in the 1600s people in Sheffield who made cutlery were called Little Mesters,” she told me. “They wanted to make sure they protected the trade, so they petitioned the King to put something in place to ensure the standards of these items and those making them were upheld.”
In 1624, an Act of Parliament incorporated The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, to maintain the standards and quality of Sheffield-manufactured cutlery and the careers of its apprentices, while promoting the name of Sheffield.
Over the years, the Act was updated to cover other trades and in 1860 it expanded to steelmakers. In the same year, the Company was given the right to veto any proposed name of a limited company anywhere in the UK which contains the word ‘Sheffield’.
The Company is made up of members known as freemen, of which there are now around 375 – and Julie is hoping this will rise to 400 in time to celebrate the Company’s 400th year.
To become a freeman, you must be a director or senior manager at a South Yorkshire-based manufacturing company and one of these is elected each year as the Master Cutler.
It’s no wonder this position means so much to Julie, as she represents the Company on a local, national and international basis.
“This is a huge honour and one I hold in the highest regard,” she said. “Being a woman in a STEM career is not always easy and I want to be a catalyst for change for that, as well as a good role model for other women who want to excel in the industry. I want them to look at me and realise there are no barriers and they can achieve whatever they want.” That comment sparked something in me, so I asked Julie to expand a little bit more on her career and the challenges she’s faced.
She said: “I’ve not had the most traditional route into my career, but I’ve always seen that as a good thing because it means I have experience in lots of different areas. I started out as a secretary and studied part time to qualify as a lawyer.
“Then, in 1986 I raised £28,000 from the sale of my house and decided to start a business which designed and manufactured security products – quite different from where I originally started out.
“Pyronix Ltd was born in Hellaby in Rotherham and by 1988 we were only the third security company in the world to begin using surface mount technology. Using such unique technology gave us a huge advantage.
“I always said I wanted us to be the number one security manufacturer in the country and that received quite a lot of laughs at the time. Well, I can tell you, they’re not laughing now!”
Pyronix, which Julie sold in 2016 as part of a multi-million-pound deal, has received plenty of impressive accolades over the years, from Manufacturer of the Year to Best International Achievement and Innovation of the Year.
But it’s not just the business which has some amazing titles under its belt.
If Julie wasn’t busy enough with her role as Master Cutler, she is also Deputy Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, chair of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust and has previously served as High Sheriff of South Yorkshire – not to mention her Honours from the Queen.
The most impressive thing for me, however, is that none of these roles or titles have gone to Julie’s head. Instead, she sees them as a way to have a positive influence on the lives of others and make change wherever she can.
She added: “If there is one message to take away from my story it’s that you can do anything you put your mind to. I had no previous technology training or experience, just a big dream and a lot of determination.
“I had the ideas, but I made sure to surround myself with people who had the technical know-how to bring these to life. Had I wanted to retrain as an engineer then I definitely could have, but that wasn’t the path I chose.
“Not every role is for every person and success looks different to everyone. The most important thing is to do whatever makes you happy and remember that your goals are always achievable, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.”
Speaking of goals, Julie told me how when she attended her first Cutlers’ Feast in 1998 and saw only a handful of women in the room, she aspired to one day sit on the top table. Now, as she makes good on her promise 24 years later, she is committed to using her role to help others in a similar position.
“Every year the Master Cutler has a theme, a cause they want to raise awareness of and take action around, and mine is diversity,” Julie said. “I personally know how hard it is to be a woman in STEM – how uncomfortable it can be walking into a male-dominated room, with the ‘are you the secretary?’ comments and the lack of respect for your position. In almost 400 years I am only the second female Master Cutler – that’s something I’m dedicated to changing and I am very pleased to say that in the next 12 years there will be four more.
“But it’s not just women who face these challenges, it’s people from all different backgrounds, and we need to ensure the STEM landscape is more inclusive as a whole.”
That’s why the Better Learners Better Workers programme, headed up by Sarah Ward, exists – to reach out to pupils across South Yorkshire and help them gain the understanding and experience they need to pursue their chosen career.
Through this scheme, schoolchildren are given the chance to learn about different jobs, meet people from different companies and attend different workplaces.
Julie added: “Education is one of our biggest tools and it’s important to work with children from them being very young so they grow up aware of all the possibilities and opportunities available to them.”
The Master Cutler also has a chosen charity each year, and Julie’s is one very close to her heart – the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.
Charity is one of the core pillars of the work done by the Company of Cutlers, and each year hundreds of thousands of pounds are raised.
Continuing with her theme of inclusivity and diversity, the money raised is to be used towards a number of targeted programmes at Wentworth Woodhouse including educational projects, community engagement activities, wellbeing programmes and cultural experiences. These will be particularly focused on groups whose need is greatest but who are often not presented with the same opportunities as others, including disabled, low income households, the socially and economically disadvantaged and ethnic groups.
“I’m a council house girl made good, so I understand how difficult it can be to have very little,” Julie said. “I want to make sure everyone has access to the rich historical and cultural resources that teach us so much about who we are.”
While Julie knows she may not be able to change the world within a year, she is determined to do as much as she can and is committed to championing the work of South Yorkshire’s amazing manufacturing businesses.
She said: “The diversity of careers in our sector and the diversity of opportunities in our region is incredible – we have companies doing ground-breaking work and products going all over the world. A great example is the fact more than 90 per cent of playing cards in Las Vegas are made at Rollem in Barnsley.“Throughout the year, I am going to work as hard as I can to raise awareness of all this wonderful work, to bring in more people from all different backgrounds and to represent our businesses on the global stage.”
Rachel Abbott – Hallamshire Mistress Cutler
This year, Rachel Abbott takes on the role of Hallamshire Mistress Cutler, meaning there are two women sitting in the top spots.
Like Julie, Rachel is passionate about equality for women in STEM and promoting opportunities for all.
Rachel is the managing director of Cobra Sport, specialist manufacturers of stainless-steel automotive exhausts.
She’s no stranger to adversity in business, whether it be the challenges brought about by the pandemic, the difficulties in recruiting the right staff or the assumptions made about females who work in the manufacturing industry.
But what Rachel is passionate about is working hard to solve problems and bring about positive change.
She said: “I’ve always felt the best way to deal with these kinds of problems is to identify what would help and then set the wheels in motion yourself, instead of waiting for other people to make the first move – which let’s face it, doesn’t always happen!
“One of my biggest passions is training and when I realised we were experiencing a skills gap when trying to recruit, I took matters into my own hands.
“I have recently worked with The Sheffield College to bring back their level two day release fabrication and welding apprenticeship, as nowhere in the region was running this course anymore and it’s a skill we desperately need. I’m really proud to say that course will be back up and running in January.
“I also think we need to be investing more into traineeships as there are people leaving school without any ideas on what to do next who could make a real positive difference to businesses in the region. As part of my role, I am hoping to continue championing this as much as I can.”
Outside of her role at the Company of Cutlers, Rachel has been busy working on the creation of Cobra Manufacturing, which provides precision metalwork engineering solutions for amongst others, the commercial, leisure, automotive and food and drink industries.