Ask the Expert: Julie Hilliard, Production Manager

We spoke to Julie Hilliard, Production Manager for our Finishing, Conversion and Distribution departments, about her time working at AW Hainsworth.

How did you get started at AW Hainsworth?

I started working here in 1995. At the time I had been working very long hours in shipping and exporting for a company in Yeadon with a two-bus commute, and I wanted a change. I saw an advertisement for a sales coordinator job in the Narrow Fabrics division at AW Hainsworth in the newspaper – this was in the olden days! – and the rest is history.

As sales coordinator I was responsible for taking orders from the customer and then going down to the mill to help plan them through. I ended up working for 15 years in sales for the technical felt side of the business, then moved to working on John Atkinson blankets and the interiors market. Eventually I began managing the customer service department, which encompassed the warehouse.

When customer service was restructured in 2015 I stepped away from sales but kept managing the warehouse, and my role expanded into running the conversion and dry finishing teams as well.

Did it help to have that prior experience of working in sales when you started managing production?

I think so. Because I had the commercial awareness of where our products were going, it helped me understand what the customer wants and the importance of lead times. Having actually been to piano factories and garment makers to see how our fabrics are used, I can talk to my teams more knowledgeably about where the product is going and its commercial value. My background in shipping and exports is also useful in running the warehouse. I think bringing the knowledge of both these worlds into the mill has helped everything gel together.

What does a typical day at AW Hainsworth look like?

Honestly 2 days are never the same here! Planning really is key. Every Monday I write a plan for each of the areas so that they know what’s coming down the pipeline, but I also have to be prepared to factor in any extra challenges or requests that may arise. Though it can be unpredictable, my approach is that if I’m prepared and the teams are prepared then we can aim to handle any extra work that comes our way.

Ultimately my job is to be a problem solver. I’m not very hands-on when it comes to the practical tasks – I can pack a blanket but that’s about it – but if there’s a crisis that needs solving, then it’s my job to pick it up and make sure my teams can keep carrying out their work successfully. I try to make sure that everyone is doing what they’re meant to be doing, that all the parts are there and that it’s running smoothly.

Is there any advice you would give someone who wanted to go into managing production and distribution?

You’ve got to be very focused and very driven. The work is quite relentless sometimes, but you can’t give up. As a manager you always have to be forward thinking. You can’t just be looking at the day-to-day – you need to look holistically at everything in your department and making sure the cogs are turning at all times. If there’s a little wobble over here, then you can’t let the whole thing fall down, you have to figure out how it can be fixed to get the orders out of the door on time.  You need to be thorough with the processes and pay close attention to the details.

Getting people to feel comfortable talking to you and involving you is also really important. Over the years I’ve learned to become quite perceptive when people are struggling. Sometimes their problem might be as simple as a piece of tape not sticking to a box properly, but it’s still something that’s stopping them from being able to do their job. Even if someone gets upset or angry, if you get down to the root cause of it its usually because they’re frustrated about something that you can help them to solve.

I don’t ever want anyone to think they can’t come to me to ask a question or help with a problem, no matter how daft they might think it is.  People have to trust you – if they do then we all do a better job.

And you have to be a bit selfless as well. Even if you’re having a bad day you have to help the other person, because at the end of the day that person is important to the whole team’s success. Like I say, I’m not very practical – if I need a box building up at the last minute, I need my team to help me send that box out just as much as they need me. It’s an exchange of skills, and it’s all about respecting each other and working together as a team.

What’s your favourite product to work with?

I really like the technical products, particularly the piano felt, and the ceremonial cloth worn by the Queen’s Guards. One of my favourite things in the mill is seeing a Doeskin coming over a perch – if the light catches it in the right way it shimmers, and it takes your breath away.

What do you like about working at AW Hainsworth?

I think the reason I’ve been here 27 years is because there’s always something different, I’m always learning new things. Everybody here has taught me something about how we make our different products and how these are used by our customers. There’s no such thing as a daft question, no one ever patronises you here.

I also love being part of the heritage of the company, I feel very proud to work here. No matter how many years I’ve been at AW Hainsworth, I still see something like the Trooping of the Colour on TV and think, wow! We all got that fabric through our mill!

Finally: what interests you outside of work?

I really love learning – I’ve done quite a few management courses. I got my BTEC and my HNC, and then in 2016 I started my BSc in Business Management and Leadership at the University of Leeds. I’d always wanted to go to university, and I passed with a first-class honours the month of my 50th birthday.

But now, I’m a bit studied out!  At the weekends my husband and I like to walk in the countryside or at the coast with our basset hound. My boys and their partners come round for a Sunday roast most weekends, so we have quite a full house!