Interview with Kirsty Davies-Chinnock of Professional Polishing Services
Managing Director of Professional Polishing Services (PPS), Kirsty Davies-Chinnock, shares insight on being a woman in the manufacturing sector, the importance of marketing, and her love of roller derby in an interview for our Leaders in STEM podcast. Discover her passion for increasing diversity in mechanical industry and advice for increasing interest in STEM industries in young people put-off by manufacturing’s perception.
At first glance, metal polishing—something which appears to be quite a niche market—touches virtually everyone daily, doesn’t it?
Yes, we estimate everyone in the UK meets our finishes about 30 times a day. Everything from your coffee machine or your kettle at home, taking your daily vitamin that’s been made in polished stainless steel pharmaceutical tanks all the way through to transport, infrastructure, architecture—to three o’clock in the morning, when you come out of the nightclub and get that kebab from a kebab van with the beautiful circle polish-finished counter.
We’ve done a bit of a professional sort of introduction there, but it’d be great to learn a bit more about you as a person when you’re not running the team. What do you do with any spare time that you might have?
I think, like a lot of people post-Covid, with Zoom or Teams as we are today, you can expand your day. So, I probably have a couple of evenings a week, with meetings for CRCs and charities I’m involved with, and I’m a trustee of our sports league. I also really enjoy eating out at nice restaurants. My husband and I have accidentally made friends with most of the Michelin star chefs in Birmingham. And not by design, but by default, because we practically moved into some other restaurants when they’re first about, like Carters of Moseley. So yeah, good food, good wine, and roller derby. We’ve also got two Labradors, so it’s great taking them out to the fields and watching them run about being idiots, that’s great.
Yes, I no longer play but I’m a trustee of our league. Over Covid, two Birmingham leagues—Birmingham Blitz Dames and Central City Roller Derby—merged. That was quite a labour of love. But yes, it’s a great sport to watch, great sport to participate in; it’s incredibly inclusive, which is what we love—particularly for the LGBTQ+ community. It’s great.
You previously mentioned the ubiquitous presence of polished metal in our daily lives, but what does that actually entail?
So, we’re a polishing company, we don’t buy and sell metal. All the metal we polish belongs to our customers and we polish about 25,000 tonnes a year. Not a small amount, and we don’t polish small things. The largest plates we produce are about 15 metres long by two metres wide and two tonnes in weight, and it’s all flat. Whether it’s square, tube, a flat bar, or even a coil—because that has a flat surface. The finishes are there for two reasons: (1) for it to look pretty, and (2) for it to do a job, like in a pharmaceutical tank or a professional kitchen.
The wonderful thing about stainless steel is we don’t have an end of life on it yet with the right finish, right grade, and right environment. Stainless steel is coming up on 120 years old; you’ve got polished stainless steel on the top of the Chrysler Building that’s 90-odd years old and is no longer tested for corrosion because it didn’t corrode, and they stopped testing it after about 40 years. If it’s looked after, and that might be a clean down once a year, there is no end of life. So, in architecture, you’re saying this building will last a hundred years, then it’ll be dismantled, and everything needs to be recyclable—stainless steel is ideal for that, and aluminium too, of course.
Looking at what PPS is posting on social media, there was a picture of a piece of art—it was dome shaped. What’s that all about?
Oh, that’s the Discovery Globe; it’s in downtown Dallas and it’s owned by AT&T, who are one of the biggest companies in America. It’s actually an interactive globe, so when you walk into it music plays, the lights change, and it’s part of their “discovery area”. The really sad thing is that it was meant to be launched summer 2020, and I believe Taylor Swift was going to perform in it. I was going to go!
I put a video up of it just to try and get the sense of scale: it’s huge. That was five metres long by 1,500 wide, really quite thick plates that we polished to our ultramarine finish. So, it’s very shiny. It was manufactured into the dome in Telford in the West Midlands and then to Dallas.
We’re keen photographers, and it’s a photographer’s dream, all these abstract shapes. Some of the things you produce for industry are very aesthetically beautiful within themselves, aren’t they?
Well, we think so, but we’re biased. The majority of what we do are TUM packs of stainless steel in standard sizes, and they go in and out of the machine and all look the same. The whole point is they should all look the same. When you get something a bit different, whether it’s very big or whether it’s some laser cut profiles for polishing afterwards, that are quite intricate, it’s a bit of a treat for us because a lot of the time we don’t know where this material goes or what it’s made into. So, when we do, we’re all over it like a rush.
You’re in the metal polishing industry, which is male dominated—is being a woman in the industry getting better with time or do you still come up against the same prejudices you faced 20-30 years ago?
It’s definitely getting better, and there are two reasons for that. Within our industry, that metal stockholding industry, because I’ve been doing it for so long, I’m known. But it is getting better generally. I talked to recruitment companies and, in our sector, it’s fairly standard now for companies to say when you send applicants through it must be a 50/50 gender split.
I think over the years there were definitely challenges, but there were ways you could make being the only woman in the room an opportunity because everybody knew who you were. Our industry isn’t particularly diverse either, so you could have 100 people in a room and 85-90% of them would be middle-aged white men in grey suits and half of those would be called Dave.
Later this year I’m running the first conference for women in the natural industries called Women with Metal, so a lot of the largest stockholders and mills are keen for their female members of staff to attend that.
You’ve been building on your personal brand over the past 10 or 20 years, how important is that not only as a woman in the industry, but as a business person within the metal industry?
I have not shied away from promoting PPS and promoting myself. We’re quite unusual in what we do in that we had websites early on. Our new website that’s being developed at the moment is, I think, going to be our sixth website. I’ve always spoken at conferences, I’ve always done Vox Pops on regional and national news, so that’s always been quite useful. With the advent of social media, I’ve been able to look at personal branding in a much more strategic way. I actually worked with Dr Tru Powell earlier in the year to put in much more of a strategy on it, to digitalise it better, and to be able to use that to not only promote PPS, but to promote me as a thought leader in the stainless steel and metals world.
From winning awards in industry, to becoming a member of the judging panel, how’s it been going from one side of the fence to the other?
PPS went through a stage, as part of our branding, to enter for awards. Soon we stopped doing them because we were being asked to enter them again or being nominated for them again. It was like, “well we won this four years ago, I don’t really want to do it again.” You can see that trophy cabinet behind me, we actually filled it pretty much and it was like, “have we really got space for another trophy cabinet?”
I was nominated for the Birmingham Awards a couple of years ago, and I won it. It was their inaugural event when they started the Awards, so I said, “please don’t put me forward,” and they said, “well, come and be a judge.” It was absolutely fascinating, just being involved on that side. I really do enjoy judging; I did something a few years ago with Birmingham City Council, who set up a Dragon’s Den type event for people who wanted to set up their own business who are on Job Seeker’s Allowance. They could win sort of like £500 towards that, and that was great, getting to see people trying to start a business and putting their business plans together.
If you do get the opportunity to be on a judging panel, do it. You meet fascinating people.
Manufacturing isn’t necessarily attractive to younger people entering the workforce, who are developing their educations and careers right now. What would you say to younger people who are considering a career in manufacturing and engineering?
We all suffer from a general perception, which comes from the idea of a dirty factory at the end of the road. But now they’ve moved into a really nice newbuild out of town, and nobody ever sees it. Engineering and manufacturing are all about designing things and making things better. If we can make sure that young people understand that and say to them that, “OK, you’ve got an iPhone, you’ve got a Samsung, which do you prefer? What would you change?” If you’re talking to a young woman who goes cycling a lot, “OK, what’s the main issue with your bike? Is it really designed for a woman’s frame? How can we change that?”
It's taking all the aspects we all use in everyday life and making them better, asking young people for their ideas, asking them to collaborate. If we can get more manufacturers going into schools and talking to people, like, “we’re currently working on this, it’s going to be for headphones,” they’re cordless and connect wirelessly via Bluetooth, well that was unheard of 10 years ago. These advances are all being made. If we consider the future of manufacturing engineers, we should ask, “what would you do next? Where would you take Air Pods next?” I think that’s absolutely fantastic.
If you were to describe the ideal young person that you would employ, in terms of attributes, in three words, what would they be?
Curious. Questioning. Open-minded.
Putting a marketing hat on, what would you say is your favourite marketing tool that you’ve used or encountered over the years?
Video. I love video. I’m not that advanced or prolific at doing vlogs, or the little ones to pop on LinkedIn. I do the odd one, but I don’t do a lot. We’ve had professional videos done over the years, and they’re on our YouTube channel; when they’re done properly, edited properly, they’re a fantastic marketing tool.
Someone will e-mail us with an inquiry, and they’ll go, “well what’s the difference between a bright polish and a dull polish?” for example. We will then say, “well a bright polish is reflective, produces with mops and compounds. A dull polish is produced with an abrasive and has a uniform grain in it. Here’s a video showing how they’re produced.” You’re getting something visual in front of your customer and their customer immediately. We have a lot of sample cards and things like that but showing them how it’s done is really useful.
Turning then to marketing and marketing strategy, what does marketing mean to you and PPS?
We tend to put marketing hand-in-hand with sales because the more you’re getting your service in front of people, the more they’re hearing about you, the more they’re likely to give you an inquiry. Then you develop a relationship, they’ll give you another inquiry and that’ll turn into an order, and then hopefully they’ll become a repeat customer with repeat customers of their own. Marketing is a way to remind them that you’re there, you’re doing new things, you’re trying new things. For me, in particular, it’s more of a “we’re still here if you need us” rather than an aggressive sell, sell, sell. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to ignore the customers, but they’re selling to their own customers. They will come to you when they need you, and you don’t want to be taking their time away from doing the job to ring them up and go, “have you got any polishing for me?” It’s a fine line to balance and it varies between individuals.
Having that marketing in the background—whether it’s changing your email signature very few weeks to give them more news, or posting on LinkedIn, sending them an email to say, “we’re at this exhibition, come see us!”—all those things are consistent. They’re the heartbeat to the relationship.
Where can we, or others, find out more about you, Kirsty, and perhaps listen to your podcasts?
I have my own website now. On there, there’s a contact form and information on both the Women with Metal conference and the podcast.
The podcast also has its own website now. You can listen to it there, and there’s some of our amazing guests on there too. And any women in the industrial sector who would like to feature, please do get in touch.
Want to feature on the Leaders in STEM podcast? Get in touch here.