Dispelling the myth of a man’s world
Business Bulletin – June 2011
The journey to success has not been without its steep inclines for Jeanette Forbes, CEO and founder of PCL Group. She is justifiably proud of her achievement in becoming a leading woman in oil and gas in what has been regarded as predominantly a man’s world, having built a successful information technology service company.
She launched PCL from her dining room with just £100 after being made redundant and just as it started to flourish she was hit by a massive bad debt. She ignored her banker’s advice to throw in the towel before the effort to survive killed her and now counts blue chip companies among the growing number of clients PCL serves.
Born in Yorkshire, she moved to Aberdeen with her children almost 30 years ago and regards the Granite City as home.
“I adopted Aberdeen and I would like to think that the people of Aberdeen have adopted me,” she said.
Her father was in the army and her early working life was spent in communications with the Royal Signals. On leaving army life, she returned to civvie Street and a job in the communications centre at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
Her military training helped her during the traumatic night of July 6, 1988, when she was on duty and the few injured survivors of the Piper Alpha tragedy were brought ashore.
“I landed the helicopters,” she said. “It was extremely sad and emotional. The first two calls we received were not from the police advising us of a major incident but from two wives in Glasgow whose husbands were on the platform and they were hysterical. The third call was the police and the rest is history.”
Jeanette saw her future in oil and gas after a spell at Pentex Oil and moved to work for PSL, now Qserv. As a youngster she always had a passion for taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they worked and she decided that IT was the route to turn her passion into a profession.
She embarked on a degree but with two young children and a mortgage she could not afford to stop working or buy a computer so went to PSL at 4am to do her course work. “The security guard at PSL used to have the kettle on so I had a cup of tea waiting for me when I went in and I am pretty sure he didn’t know that under my track suit, I had on my pyjamas.
“As Tommy Dreelan (the boss) was going into work at 6am I used to pass him on my way out going home to get a shower, get changed, get the children to school and come back to start my day job.”
After leaving PSL and being head hunted by a number of blue-chip organisations she was made redundant in 2000 with the downturn in the oil and gas sector. After careful research she launched PCL Group.
“I did two years working out of my dining room and we used to have computers and cabling going up the stairs and equipment stored in the garage, it was just horrendous in the end.”
The company finally moved to an office and workshop in Portlethen and, after two years, the glory days appeared to have arrived when they won a £250,000 job. She still vividly remembers the purchase order coming through the fax machine but remembers even more vividly how, eight weeks later, the man who commissioned the work told her he had run out of money leaving the company with £179,000 of bad debt on its books.
She took him to court, won after a three year battle, but still made a huge loss: “I owed three suppliers in Aberdeen £90,000 so my credibility was at stake. They could have closed me down at any time but I went to them cap in hand and explained what had happened and asked them to stick by us. I said I would make them a goodwill payment every month and if we won the case I would pay them off and that’s what I did.”
However it was a tremendous struggle to keep afloat and the stress was a major factor in the ending of her 31 year marriage. And, as her former husband worked at PCL and did all the financials, she had to learn how to manage the payroll and finances associated with running the business on her own.
“We were treading water for three years, no pay rises, unable to take any work scope on above £10k due to cash flow, even the tea and coffee was running out! The bank’s business relationship manager came to see me one Friday night and said ‘Go out of here tonight, lock the door and push the keys through the letterbox because you are going to kill yourself trying to get out of this.’ But I am still here. We eventually traded out of it and continue to grow the business which now services four main industry sectors: offshore, marine, commercial and industrial.”
Over the years she’s picked up a number of accolades including Prowess Woman in SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) for the UK in 2008 and Enterprising Woman in SET for the UK in 2009. She was also made an honorary member of the Nautical Institute and in December 2010 was accepted as a Burgess of the City of Aberdeen.
Her daughter Joanne worked with the company before moving to a bigger challenge with Balmoral Group. Her son Chris is lead systems engineer with PCL and will shortly be promoted to operations manager to allow Jeanette to devote her energy to growing the business, so succession is already in place. A Singapore base is planned before the end of the year.
But she is still very hands on at PCL and it is not unusual to see her on a vessel late at night or on a weekend callout helping her team resolve a problem.
She said that as one of the first female engineers to travel to oil installations there were barriers to break down and they have now crumbled.
“I was given an opportunity and I have been trying to do it to the best of my ability. There is not a day goes by when I wake up and do not want to go to work. You have to go through an apprenticeship in order to get your stripes and I feel I have done that. Breaking down the barriers was challenging in the early days but now it’s a privilege to be working with some of the best engineers and technicians in the world.
“You must respect that you are working in a male domain and you have to accommodate for that. Being prepared to use their toilets and drink from a dirty cup and not look for a china cup and saucer is relevant and a lot of what I do is about perception of the conditions.”
School of thought gains support
Having successfully set up her own business, Jeanette Forbes is now working hard behind the scenes to realise her vision of a Marine & Renewable Academy in Aberdeen. The academy would become a Centre of Excellence and complement the existing Oil & Gas Academy, which is the oil and gas industry’s global focal point for skills, learning and workforce development.
Two things prompted the idea which has won considerable backing and support in the early discussions she has had. Jeanette speaks to masters and chief engineers on a daily basis and several have expressed concern about who will follow in their footsteps as they approach retirement. She also recently visited Banff and Buchan Collage, which offers a range of nautical courses, and spoke to a number of the students.
“I was enthused by the fact there were some girls on these courses,” she said. “I wholly support trying to get females into these engineering skill sets which are predominantly male – it’s about becoming a first class woman and not a second class man.”
But she also found some of the students faced considerable daily travelling, giving them a long day followed by an evening of studying.
“I thought it would be wonderful if we could have a Marine & Renewable Academy in Aberdeen which might accommodate weekly boarders. We could have classrooms and training suites to conduct the various courses and retain the expertise of our own people as well as exporting these skills worldwide.
“It could also have offices in which we could locate organisations like AREG, the MCA and the Seamen’s Mission. Everything to do with the sea and renewable energy could be located in one building.
“Ideally it has to be quayside to accommodate the Sea Cadets and others requiring a launch and it would complement the fact we have a world class port in the heart of the city.
“The response so far has been very positive towards this initiative, now I need input from those who know how to deliver a project of this enormity and turn this dream into reality for the people and the future of the North-east.”
The future of the North-east and Aberdeen in particular is very close to Jeanette’s heart and she devotes significant time and effort to help the city she is part of. She is a member of both the ACSEF management team and a core committee set up by the Lord Provost to look at ways of improving the city.
“I live and work in the city so it is up to people like me to contribute to shaping the city for future generations. Citizens should be proud to be Aberdonian and proud of the City and Shire and that positive message should be shouted from the rooftops.
The Lord Provost along with representatives from industry and commerce has taken the initiative to make changes and this is being supported by people who can make a positive contribution and put an end to the negativity.”