Sharon Chalkley, Managing Director for Transport Division Midlands and North, talks to Commercial Motor’s Christopher Walton
This interview appeared in the August 2016 edition of Commercial Motor.
Counting the number of women in senior management positions who have had a career spanning two decades in road transport can be a disheartening exercise, particularly if you are a young woman starting out at the bottom of the ladder. This industry is male, pale and often stale in its attitude to gender equality.
Thankfully there are some women who have smashed their own personal glass ceilings, challenged stereotypes and broken down barriers. Sharon Chalkley, transport MD at Close Brothers Asset Finance, is one of them.
Tractors and trailers
Close Brothers Asset Finance is part of the Close Brothers Group and has been providing funding options such as hire purchase, leasing and refinancing to small and medium-sized businesses for more than a century.
Chalkley heads up Asset Finances’ specialist transport and logistics division having joined the company on a temporary contract 20 years ago.
As her career evolved, Chalkley says it felt natural to specialise in transport, despite it being a predominantly male sector, as she followed in the footsteps of a previous MD at the division. “I enjoy dealing with the different types of tractors and trailers in this space,” she says, “and I enjoy working with the customers.
"I did have a lot of resistance at first because I am female and people thought I would not have a clue. People would say to me ‘I run a fleet of Globetrotters’ and point to it. I gained their trust by talking to them about what interests them. That breaks down barriers.
“People don’t mean to be offensive but they don’t know any different,” she says of her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated sector. “I’m not offended by it. Attitudes have changed. I would be lying if I said that they hadn’t but attitudes have changed a lot. My customers are used to dealing with me. But some businesses are not used to talking about an MD as a her or a she. In this game that is a surprise,” Chalkley explains.
One thing that struck CM was Chalkley’s insistence that because of her gender she feels that when she first meets some customers she has to over-prove herself to some degree. “You have got to have a voice because if you are not a strong person you will not get heard.”
She agrees that there is a paucity of role models for younger women joining the road transport industry. “People see the likes of Hilary Devey and look up to her. You look at the company she created, she would have had to work hard. It is still not perfect for women but it is a lot better than it used to be.
“You have got to shine, show people what you can do and what you are about. That is definitely what I have done in my career. I needed to prove it to myself because I knew I could do it. I always wanted the top job.”
As for recent initiatives to recruit more women into road transport Chalkley contends that the industry is not for everyone. “Not a lot of women will find it attractive working around a filthy transport yard full of diesel and potholes. A lot of women see that side of the industry. A lot of women put themselves out of the industry.”
As for campaigns to make road transport a more attractive employer of women Chalkley argues: “I am not so sure that they actually work to get women into transport. We are trying to get men and women working more closely together. When it is a campaign for just women you are saying it is us and them. At the end of the day, we all do the same job.”
However, her job and career is not solely defined by her gender. For Chalkley the job is about her customers: building relationships with those customers and helping them do business every day. “We are very much a relationship business. We deal with money, which is what other funders do. We are very hands-on with our customers. I get out there and see the customers and speak to them. They are not dealing with a call centre – they are dealing with real people.”
Chalkley says her customers call her for advice because the strength of the relationship between the operator and Close Brothers is that the operator sees the finance firm “a valuable tool in their business”.
“A customer recently contacted me to ask if they had our support for new assets as part of a tender for a contract. The customer went into that meeting and got the contract. We do not promise the customer something that we can’t deliver,” she says. “People buy from people – people who are there in good times and bad. That is the most important part of our job, building that relationship. I deal with customers that I dealt with 20 years ago, that had been with us before I joined.”
What does the future hold? Since 1996 the economic cycles have had peaks and troughs. In finance, much as in transport, the scars of the recession of the late 2000s are still visible, if a little less raw. “In late 2008 and early 2009 everybody was concerned, but at Close Brothers we didn’t change any of our lending criteria. A lot of companies went through hard times.”
Today, Brexit has spooked the markets. Politicians are talking up the British economy as the UK prepares to leave the EU, but some investors and businesses have been alarmed by the uncertainty over the future of the British economy. Interviewing Chalkley on the same day as Theresa May became prime minister, she says: “It is harder now than at the beginning of 2009. People are a bit nervous. They were nervous in May and the first half of June was the same. There is still the uncertainty. People are not 100%. People tend to sweat their assets a bit more.
“We have a new prime minister for a start, but what’s going to happen? Are there going to be changes? You cannot call it at the moment,” she adds.
What will change for Chalkley is the attitudes towards women working in road transport. “We’ve got a female prime minister. It’s the way the country is going,” she says.
Close Brothers is supporting the Commercial Motor Dealer Awards.