5 mins read

#DNBusinessTalks – Karen Beardsley (MD Unipart Rail – Retired)

Working in a mans world


This is a series of stories told by leaders in the Doncaster area (City of). These stories have been curated by me (Kurt Ewald Lindley) as part of a collaboration between Doncaster CouncilDoncaster Chamber of Commerce and other Team Doncaster members to showcase, not just the best of Doncaster, but to inform the development of Doncaster’s Economic Strategy and

“make it the best place to do business.”

Capturing this story has been a year in the making, maybe even longer. I’ve watched Karen Beardsley (MD Unipart Rail) land great messages and speak authentically on a number of occasions through Doncaster Chamber Events. I guess it’s this characteristic about her which drew me to ask that we find an hour (or so) to talk all things leadership, life journeys, economy and business development.

A little less than a year ago I caught Karen off guard at an awards dinner to put the request in, and she said yes. We did have to wait until Karen had finished a stint in Australia, working for Unipart Rail and a holiday trip or two as she eased into retirement, but it was worth the wait. If nothing more than to feel the energy she brings to a room. Her smile and innate joy for what she does can be seen the moment she speaks… perhaps even before.

The Journey – work hard and keep practicing

Karen entered the workplace straight from school, taking up a role at the National Coal Board (the statutory corporation created to run the nationalised coal mining industry in the UK). I’d say it may have been the time spent here that helped craft Karen’s journey through many ‘male’ dominated working environments. Ones she seemed to thrive in, perhaps because of her straight talking and her belief (instilled into her by her father) that being a woman should never hold you back.

Its Karen’s recent roles at Unipart Rail that most interested me, but how she got there had its fair share of twists and turns. There’s been a stint at Motorola, Dixons after care, JI Case, a life changing moment in her 30’s, following Rugby League to Australia and a year in Abu Dhabi. And a stint in Lancashire with Sykes Pickavant

Along the way Karen was met with a variety of challenging interview questions, one such question apparently went something like…

“why should I give a woman a job, you will only stay until you find yourself a man to support you”

I can only hope this outdated view held by the interviewer is less prevalent now. But at this time perhaps this was more commonplace. Karen’s response, which I believe she shared with the interviewer:

“why wouldn’t you want to hire a woman, who has always supported herself”

Karen was told, it was this approach that sealed the job for her. But it wasn’t long before the draw to come back to Doncaster became too strong. In 1997 Karen joined Unipart Rail as an Inventory Manager and there she stayed for 25 years. She progressed into the role of Unipart Way Manager then Director of Expert Practices. Karen had some time as a Supply Chain Director and later the Managing Director for Supply Chain Solutions, before taking on the more senior roles of Managing Director Rail Operations, Director of Business Transformation (which sounds an awesome role) and finally Managing Director for Australia and Asia (retiring in 2022).

The early years saw Unipart Rail as a place which, “pushed people” to be better and “you knew where you stood”. Karen mentioned a boss who would question everything, from Karen’s view this was becoming demotivating and knocking her confidence. When she asked “why do you always question me”, the response surprised her – “I want to know if you think you are doing it right”. This became a growth opportunity. Karen adopted a simple principle in work

“work hard, keep learning and practicing, you will get better and people will see”

Much of Karen’s later time at Unipart Rail was informed by this, the joy of learning on the job and honest feedback. She shared that, at one time her Fridays included a reflection session where team members would ‘call out’ poor practice/performance. She was keen to note that this wasn’t personal it was about the project in hand and was done to aid “getting better faster”.

Challenges in Business – the end of the monopoly

In 1997 the team could see, it was “the end of the monopoly” for things like the Rail industry. Their answer – “focus on relationships, then focus on performance”. With strong relationships in place the team were able to hold on to key clients and the business flourished.

Complacency, the fact that previously there had been a one-sided monopoly led people to become comfortable in thinking “everything was ok”. There was a risk of – “not being quick enough to move to the next level (of performance)”. Karen saw this coming and started to focus her teams time on ‘efficiency’, not ‘numbers’, but effectiveness and solid Lean principles.

A current challenge nagging at Karen is –

“What will the rail industry look like post covid, where will we get a new model for business to meet the challenges and drive the changes required for the industry.”

Karen spoke of ‘solution partners’ rather than suppliers and urged the business to think about changing to meet the challenges at speed. Taking the right people with you and asking “is it time for others to move on? ”

Lessons for others – be challenged

Karen gave me 3 simple quotes that offer a depth of thought:

“Surround yourself with people who will challenge you”

“The tier below should push you up” 

“don’t make it easy by picking YES people” 

Oh and Karen shared “don’t let accountants make all the decisions” – she feels that when times are difficult it is too easy just to focus on the numbers. Her view was, use your reserves if you need to, but in crisis “find efficiencies first and always keep focus on the customer and their needs, the numbers will come.”

Advice to a younger you (and the ones who didn’t choose so well)

Karen referenced that she wish she’d mixed her personal nature with her business approach sooner. After watching her sister in the workplace she realised the value of letting people know who you are, and the value of knowing who people are beyond what they do. Be approachable and share your world.

The Legacy – you are more able

“people wanted to work with us (Unipart Rail) because we gave people an opportunity”

The legacy Karen leaves and hopes her team continues to, is the ability to attract ‘talent’ and nurture them to believe they are capable of more than they expected.

The Call to Action – Support your City and its people 

When I asked Karen what she might request of the business community, she shared the importance of

“Supporting Doncaster, supporting causes, advocating for things like the city status bid, national headquarters for the Great British railway, and now the airport. To recruit and develop Doncaster people and use suppliers from Doncaster”

Keeping the economy connected locally.

Your one ask of ‘Team Doncaster’

“to improve the image of Doncaster to attract good people to stay, work and live in here”

The town centre needs to be seen as a safe and vibrant place to be, shop and socialise – “we need to capitalise on the ‘City’ status”.

In closing

I must say I loved this conversation, straight talking and honest. Karen’s curiosity and desire to learn/find out, has fuelled an eventful career spanning multiple roles, continents and a 25 year loyalty to one organisation (Unipart Rail). It’s not often we see people stay in one place for this period of time, perhaps it was the fit between Karen and the organisation, or the opportunity for progression. What I know is she still has much to offer, her insight and wisdom should not be lost from our economy.

Karen is one of the many people who have been making Doncaster the best place to do business. And it’s from this story and the stories of others that ‘Team Doncaster’ hope to create a robust, prosperous Economic Strategy for our City.

Do you have a story or know of a Doncaster Leader with a story to share for #DNBusinessTalks? Get in touch here.