Special Feature: Women in our industry

In celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2024, Jan Raycroft talks to a range of women across the textile care industry about their careers and thoughts about the industry today

Some 22 years ago Jack Fowler, the founder of Laundry & Cleaning Today, took a gamble on me, a freelance journalist with a track record in tabloid newspapers, believing I could get my head around an industry I knew nothing about.

Jack dropped me in the deep end as my first assignment was a packed TSA lunch in London. Fast shorthand meant I took down every speech while having little idea what the speakers were talking about. Perk? Oh perc… and why were these laundries full of calendars they didn’t pin to walls? Something else I remember is that virtually all the other females present were ‘lady wives’ of industry ‘magnates’. Women made up a very small percentage of those present.

Fast forward to 2010 and Jack retired, announcing that his daughter, Tina Gleed, was taking over our publication. Tina steered the magazine to new levels, launched sister publication Housekeeping Today, and with her husband Mark developed the prestigious LADA Awards and the industry’s flagship event, CleanEx, the only UK exhibition dedicated to the laundry, drycleaning, and textile care industry. See you there in April!

All this came back to me at a recent TSA gathering. How things had changed. The delegates included many women there because of their executive roles and others rapidly climbing career ladders. This was reflected in the event speakers. We even had a session on dealing with the effects of the menopause – whether employees or their partners.

It was a talking point back at the magazine’s office. With 8 March being International Women’s Day, we decided it was high time to start recording the achievements and working lives of women in our industry. It’s a subject we’ll return to as there are many stories worth telling. But we’ll start with this selection.

Jan Raycroft reports

Helen Wood

Managing Director, Johnsons Hotel Linen

How did your career start?

In 1991 I was the PA to Dennis Churchill, then operations director for Sunlight Workwear and based at Wednesbury, West Midlands. While working I attended night school to improve my secretarial qualifications. Dennis recommended I undertake a business course as “I had something more about me”. I undertook a two-year night school HNC Business and Finance course, then completing a BA in Business Administration at Staffordshire University. While studying, I moved to the roles of service manager, Sunlight Hotel Division and then to general manager of the Wednesbury Hotel factory at the age of 27.

What previous roles have you held in the sector?

Many since that first job as a personal assistant. Through promotions within Sunlight Hotel Division, I became regional director at 31, and was operations director for Sunlight Healthcare Division. Next step was commercial director within healthcare and then Sunlight Clinical Solutions. Operations director and then managing director for Johnsons Workwear followed.

Take us on a tour of your work life.

There is never a typical working day or week within the laundry industry! I travel around our plants to meet people, provide support and guidance where required, focussing on specific projects. Most satisfying is meeting our people, talking to them, gaining feedback and making the right decisions for consistency of service and business performance. I lead by example and work with my senior team to develop and achieve our strategic objectives, utilising independent survey feedback as some of our reference points. I have regular meetings to build strategic relationships with our customers, leading innovation in service and operations and developing USP to the benefit of both Johnsons and the customer.

Most challenging is managing the seasonal aspect of our business, made more difficult post- Covid due to changing habits of our customers. Proactive business planning and ensuring everyone has the support and investment to meet these challenges needs to be provided. I’m extremely proud of everyone within our business. Their success is my success and strong teamwork with an excellent work ethic is evident throughout. Empowering and enabling our people are extremely important at all levels. Supporting people to be the best they can and progress within the business is extremely rewarding.

Do you have any family or social commitments which must be juggled alongside work?

My son was only 18 months old when I became a regional director. It was tough juggling both a personal and work life balance. Sometimes I compromised family commitments for work but may not have achieved what I have if I hadn’t made those decisions. I’ve enjoyed supporting my son in his sports interests, especially horse riding and competitions. It’s quite therapeutic preparing them for shows, but a lot of hard work. The full support of my husband and family has been a significant benefit and enabled me to pursue a career in a demanding but rewarding industry.

It’s your turn to wave a magic wand for our industry. What would you change?

I’d like the hard work and commitment undertaken by everyone in our industry to be more appreciated and respected by government and hospitality leaders.

What advice would you give to any young woman entering our industry?

The opportunities within our industry are wide, take every opportunity to develop yourself and be the best you can. In my own experience hard work, determination, teamwork and succeeding in the face of adversity lead to success.

I’d like the hard work and commitment undertaken by everyone in our industry to be more appreciated and respected by government and hospitality leaders

Gerda Jank

Director, corporate alignment at Jensen Group

How long have you been with Jensen Group?

I joined in 2010 and have led the marketing department for more than 13 years. In my latest role I’m responsible for strategic HR and communication related to our digital transformation process.

Tell us about your career path.

Marketing and communications have been the central theme in my professional life, primarily in globally active B2B industries. The international character of my employers is very important to me, as I enjoy learning new languages. I began my career with a large corporation specialising in process technology for the food industry. I’ve spent many years in packaging and printing, and in 2010 transitioned to the laundry industry when I joined Jensen. Having had chocolate and printing ink running through my veins, I made the switch to washing detergents! I’m fortunate to live in Switzerland, where the laundry industry is well known within society. Although I had not heard of Jensen before, I quickly realised this company would provide me with a great opportunity and the trust to develop marketing activities independently, while working with a fantastic team. I had not worked in the laundry industry before, but now I love it. It has become my longest companion so far, and I hope to be able to stick around for the next 10 years.

Tell us about a typical working day and the challenges you face.

Jensen employs more than 1,700 staff and has customers around the world. Each day, members of our community reach out to me to collaborate on campaigns, communication plans, or resolve issues. Every day is different, there is never a dull moment. A typical workday begins with checking emails and our corporate social media channels, followed by meetings with internal or external stakeholders. Some days are more packed than others, and on lighter days I find time to work on concepts. I also organise internal training, in which I always participate. These sessions are beneficial. Firstly, I see that learning targets are met, and secondly, discussions with colleagues provide valuable insights into the company.

Do you have any family or social commitments which must be juggled alongside work?

My social engagement is focused on supporting local political campaigns in my hometown and mentoring two young women on the verge of entering professional life. These tasks can be easily planned and timed during evenings or weekends. I do not have family commitments, aside from co-managing with my husband our household where there are no kids or pets to look after. Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed doing housework. My mother taught me that ironing is an exercise in mindfulness, and I share that perspective. On a side note, I firmly believe that you cannot change situations or people; you can only change your own attitude towards them. This approach also helps me deal with difficult situations at work with a certain composure. And ironing becomes easier too.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about our industry, what would it be?

I would like to see society become more aware and appreciative of our industry and the people who make a significant contribution to the circular economy of textiles. While the industry is sustainable and systemically relevant, this fact is known mainly to insiders. The entire industry is now being elevated to a new level, with the integration of new technologies and approaches. It’s an incredibly exciting phase of development. When I discuss our industry in my private circles and mention implementation of robotics and AI in the laundry process, the significant progress towards achieving ESG goals, and the diversified requirements, friends and family look at me in awe. It is important for all of us to spread that message.

What advice would you give to any young woman entering our industry?

It’s crucial to build a network and embrace continuous learning, especially given the rapid pace of technological development. Staying ahead of the most recent developments is essential. Learning can happen at home by reading magazines such as Laundry & Cleaning Today or visiting websites of associations and key industry players. Additionally, encourage your manager to allow you to take part in live educational programmes. Education is the key to progress and job satisfaction. When applying for a position, ensure your future employer is not engaged in ‘diversity washing’ — displaying glossy pictures of teams with smiling people of various genders and ethnic backgrounds without genuine commitment to diversity. Diversity goes beyond obvious showcasing; it requires personal verification during meetings with the company and future colleagues. Challenge managers to understand the company’s true commitment to diversity. I’m fortunate to work for a genuinely diverse company, and many of my female colleagues express feeling valued and appreciated. At Jensen, it’s your performance that counts, not your nationality, gender, or personal views. While I have been asked about the steps we take to ensure this, it is challenging to pinpoint. It is in our DNA, an integral part of our company spirit and values, even though the word ‘diversity’ is not explicitly mentioned. In essence, keep both eyes and ears open, and seek sincere and honest diversity.

Have you ever encountered ‘mansplaining’?

Yes. There were moments when I was left speechless, and those who know me are aware this doesn’t happen often. Surprisingly, most of these situations occurred during discussions with suppliers or service providers! Fortunately, I’m equipped with a set of tools and practices acquired through courses, books, or conversations within my network. I can say with hand on heart that, in my 13 years at Jensen, I have never experienced mansplaining there. My biggest ambition for the future is that many other women will be as fascinated by our industry and our company, and that we can grow the percentage of women working for Jensen.

would like to see society become more aware and appreciative of our industry and the people who make a significant contribution to the circular economy of textiles. While the industry is sustainable and systemically relevant, this fact is known mainly to insiders.

MERCÈ GIRBAU

Chair & CEO of Girbau Group

What was your route into our industry?

I studied business administration in ESADE Business School and started my career in banking where I worked for 13 years, in Barcelona and then in Madrid. In 2002 my father persuaded me to join our family business, offering very good conditions to conciliate work with family. I started working four hours a day, and my involvement grew fast! In 2008 my cousin Pere and I assumed leadership of the company. I’m the chair and share the CEO role with Pere. Girbau and the laundry industry has been part of my family conversations since childhood. I’ve also been a member of the board of directors of Girbau for many years.

Tell us about a typical working day.

What I like is that every day is different. I usually have several meetings with the company’s management teams to follow up key projects and discuss strategy. I enjoy travelling to visit our subsidiaries, partners, and customers. It’s important to understand market trends, think about the future and what our business will look like. That’s why I am leading innovation and sustainability initiatives with a strong and committed team. I also represent the company in institutions and associations, which allows me to share experiences and point of views with people from other industries. Part of my role is to keep the official contact among Girbau family members from three generations.

Do you have any family or social commitments which must be juggled alongside work?

I’m married with two children: a girl of 24 who is already independent and a son, 21, who is still studying. When they were young it was quite hard to combine work with family. I must thank my father’s proposal that helped me to balance work-family. Now my children are grown up I feel more free to travel.

We’re handing you our magic wand! If you could change one thing about our industry, what would it be?

I would like to transform laundries to regenerative plants. We are conscious of the high level of carbon emissions and water use of laundries and working to reduce these consumptions. But this is not enough, and the ambition is to create regenerative laundries that have a net positive impact on the planet and on people.

What advice would you give to any young woman entering our industry?

That they should be themselves and find their way in an industry that is mainly masculine. With their point of view, they can enrich the organisations to better serve the customers. The limits we sometimes see are only in our minds.

The limits we sometimes see are only in our minds

RIMA PADHARIA

General manager, Little Bill Laundry, London

You’ve been with Little Bill for some time, haven’t you?

Yes, I became general manager in 2023 but have worked in the sector for 17 years. Little Bill Laundry is a sister company of Imperial London Hotels. We’re able to produce half a million pieces a week, supplying rental RFID linen for five-star hotels in Central London.

Take us back to the early days.

After completing my BSc degree in Chemistry in India, I moved to London to join my husband. Working at Imperial London Hotels’ Sinclairs Laundry in Edmonton was my first job, having no experience in laundry and English wasn’t my first language. It was a shock, with lots to learn in terms of work and culture. I was an outsider but consider myself fortunate to have had some very experienced and knowledgeable mentors who equally match my passion to learn new skills. Being a laundry hand is where I gained valuable and practical experience of the linen process from washing and ironing, through to packaging and dispatching, rising to become supervisor and team leader.

What came next?

I was promoted to laundry office administrator in 2016, responsible for tasks such as payroll for 65 plus staff, handling customer queries, planning and liaising linen deliveries and collection to and from hotels. In 2019, I was promoted to laundry assistant manager as a link between the laundry and hotels, managing vital projects. I was designing and implementing new linen store procedures in hotels and providing training to housekeeping staff. At the same time, I was assisting the laundry operations manager with setting up a new laundry – Little Bill in 2020.

What’s your working life like now?

Every day comes with new challenges and opportunity, which I see as a beauty of this industry. I’ve seen our laundry become standstill, both washing lines lost, and apparently with no hope of any quick recovery. However, we still managed to deliver next day to all our customers without failure! Realising that your whole team is with you, and you are not alone, gives you satisfaction. There are brilliant days where you get phone calls not only from customers, hotel GMs and housekeeping managers, but also your competitors saying how amazing the quality of your work is. Our COO and directors never miss an opportunity to praise us by saying; “Without laundry we are not able to sell rooms”. The working environment is hectic, demanding and at the same time very rewarding.

What makes you feel proud?

I’m proud to work for a family business that take care of their employees. When I receive positive feedback from internal and external people I feel proud of myself and the Little Bill team. Any negative feedback is seen as an opportunity to pause, learn and deliver better service.

How do you balance such a busy role with family and outside interests?

I’m a mother of two. My son is 15 years and keen to make a career in cricket; my daughter is 10 and loves dance and swimming. It’s always a challenge to keep both work and family at pace. Luckily, I have a very understanding family, and this gives me freedom to carry out work commitments. Likewise, we have a board of directors who understand the importance of family life. Imperial London Hotels has been a family-run business for over 185 years, and I feel deeply fortunate to be a small part of this.

What advice would you give to any young woman entering our industry?

Come with an open mind, ready to learn and adopt changes. I can say from my own working life that having no experience in laundry or hospitality means every new learning curve is also a new opportunity. It is challenging to step up on that ladder in an industry which was male-dominated, but if you are passionate about your work then no one can stop you. Gender does not matter because your action speaks louder than your female voice.

Every day comes with new challenges and opportunity, which I see as a beauty of this industry

POOJA SHARMA

Operations manager, Royal Jersey Laundry, Dagenham

Tell about your early days at Royal Jersey.

I came to England as a qualified teacher and that was where I was expecting my career to go. The laundry was my first job, in 2002, which I got through a friend who worked here. My intention was to do this job just until I secured a position in a school or nursery. Working in the laundry, as a standard operator, I seemed to quickly progress to packer, which was unheard of at Royal Jersey at the time. The packers were generally staff that had worked for Royal Jersey for a long time and me, only just starting, put some backs up. I faced some dislike, which only drove me to work harder and do better. Faith was put in me by the management, and this made me feel good. I was hooked on laundry! Hated, adored, but never ignored. I was told this and it really stuck with me.

How did you progress at the laundry?

Having begun as an operator and then moved to packing, I started doing a bit of customer service via the phones, then it was managing rewash, taking on quality control. Then, when one of the production managers was absent, I was asked to run production. I did so well that the higher management asked me to cover production every time any production manager was absent. When I ran the shift, performance was noticeably better! Eventually I was asked to train the production managers and was then put in charge as operations manager. Tell us about your working day. I oversee production from all aspects and have supervisors and production managers who ensure they’re getting the best efficiency while maintaining the quality expectations of our customers. I still oversee rewash, from communicating with the customer to ensuring it’s processed and returned present and correct. Another task is managing new linen and I also oversee the RFID manager and ensure customers using this technology are benefiting from it.

Do you have any family or social commitments which must be juggled alongside work?

Yes, I have family and a home life which I enjoy. With our industry it’s not always easy to switch off. However, I do find time to enjoy my family life while still maintaining high standards of work. Our customers operate 24/7 and I try to help them even when home.

Where would your ‘magic wand’ be waved for our industry?

To make everyone have the same passion for work as me. If everyone did, the job would be very easy for us all.

What advice would you give to any young woman entering our industry?

To take the job very seriously. This is your source of income and somewhere that you may spend a lot of your day, If you work hard and progress you will enjoy it more and more. Some people only work hard when management are watching. For me, I always work as if they’re watching. Even if no one is. Hard work does get noticed, even if you don’t get the feedback straight away. If you look after the laundry, then the laundry will look after you.

Are there people who helped push you in your career?

Yes, I owe a lot to the management and owners who had the confidence in me to take on each new challenge. I really like being challenged. But mostly the team below me, so a huge ‘thank you’ goes to the whole team at Royal Jersey Laundry

Hard work does get noticed, even if you don’t get the feedback straight away. If you look after the laundry, then the laundry will look after you

VITALIJA AGARWAL

Head of customer service at Aeroserve, Slough

How did you join our industry?

I’ve been with Aeroserve, who provide leisure and hospitality laundry services, for over a year. However, I`ve been in the hospitality sector (hotels and then commercial laundries) for much longer. Some 15 years ago I left my homeland of Lithuania and embarked on a new path in the UK. Fresh out of university, brimming with ambition, and perhaps a touch of naivety, I believed that my Bachelor’s diploma would swing open every door, and that the path ahead would be a smooth and rosy one.

Reality was a bit more purple than rosy, I must say! I joined Whitbread as a receptionist in Bournemouth Central Premier Inn. Seizing every opportunity for development and career growth soon found me in my first management position as housekeeping manager of Reading Central Premier Inn. This taught me a great deal about housekeeping and its tricks of the trade. Everything in my household revolved around operations and hotel management, as my husband also runs hotels. I decided to leave Premier Inns for something (I thought) more balanced, young family-friendly. I joined Afonwen Reading as a customer service manager. I soon realised there was a significant lack of collaboration between housekeeping teams and laundries. My passion grew in finding ways to bridge this gap.

What roles have you held in the sector?

I’ve taken on various roles (housekeeping manager, operations manager, customer service manager and head of customer services) which have provided me with a well-rounded understanding of the industry, its challenges, and the dynamics involved in ensuring customer satisfaction.

What’s your working day like?

I’m actively involved in managing customer relations, ensuring smooth service delivery, and addressing issues that may arise. Job satisfaction comes from seeing happy customers and overcoming challenges to meet their needs. Like any industry, there are both rewarding and challenging aspects, and I find value in learning from both. My greatest joy comes from sharing experiences with housekeeping and hotel management teams, educating, watching them evolve and moving away from an “It’s the laundry`s fault” culture.

How do you juggle family or social commitments alongside work?

Balancing work with family and social commitments is a crucial aspect of life. I am a mum of two, aged seven and 11. It`s not always easy to juggle work and family commitments, therefore I am extremely grateful to my husband who understands and is supportive. You now have our magic wand. Change one thing about our industry. Great question. Although not so easy to answer. I would build a more collaborative, inclusive, and supportive hospitality industry. Housekeeping and commercial laundries must work together. We are not there just yet. Champion technology and innovation. Stay informed about new solutions that can improve efficiency and sustainability.

What advice would you give to young woman entering our industry?

Embrace learning opportunities, be confident in your abilities, and build a network of supportive colleagues. I’ve learned that continuous learning and adapting to industry changes are key to success. As Steven Bartlett said in one of his books – ‘the only way to grow is to step out of your comfort zone’. Take risks and push your boundaries. As a woman in a predominantly male-dominated industry, your journey won`t be without its share of challenges. But I`ve learnt that every crease in life can be ironed out with the right attitude and a little bit of courage.

What as women in our industry could we do better?

There are several areas we could focus on to contribute to personal and collective success. Especially mentoring programmes: engage in or establish such programmes to support the professional growth of other women. Sharing experiences and providing guidance can be invaluable. Educational outreach, actively seeking out opportunities for leadership development and taking on responsibilities that help build leadership skills. Moreover, support and promote fellow women in the industry. Acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of women at all levels. I would love to explore collaborations with women in related industries. Cross-sector collaborations can bring fresh perspectives and innovative ideas.

I would build a more collaborative, inclusive, and supportive hospitality industry. Housekeeping and commercial laundries must work together. We are not there just yet

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