Kath’s curiosity for chemistry began on a Cheshire farm and led her to a career in the food and beverage industry.
The importance of education
Kath grew up on a Cheshire farm, without any scientific influences, but her curiosity about new things sparked a natural interest in chemistry. Kath’s mother realised a good education was important and with this in mind, pushed her into the best grammar school in the region. After achieving ten good O-levels, Kath’s enthusiasm for chemistry lead her into employment as a lab technician in a veterinary products company.
Kath’s drive and self-motivation came from her role model, she reflects, “my mother was an inspiration, managing most of the farm’s commercial activities.” Soon realising that jumping straight into a job after her O-levels was the wrong decision for her, she continued with her education by taking day release study. With full support from her employer, she completed her Licentiate of the Royal Society of Chemistry (LRSC) qualification at Staffordshire University.
“I became a good analyst and my role expanded to developing new methods of analysis, new products and manufacturing supervision. I was one of only two females but I really didn’t consider myself a minority.”
Moving on to work in the food industry, Kath became a manager, overseeing quality and product development, working closely with major retailers and brands. “There is no better feeling than seeing a product that you have helped to develop, being sold in stores and bought by consumers.” Kath’s biggest challenge was being a young female manager in a male-dominated manufacturing environment. Always pushing herself, Kath took on a new role in extrusion technology for cereal products, where, using physics and chemistry, her team developed new textures, shapes and tastes.
Shaping her own future
“I developed commercial skills so that I could move up the managerial ladder. My employers, Co-operative Wholesale Society and McCormick, supported me through day release so that I could gain my marketing Diploma and a Master of Business Administration, MBA”.
Progressing through the company, Kath became a commercial manager with McCormick. She was responsible for managing sales and marketing, as well as research and development. Kath looked to her supervisor for guidance, “Nigel Garrow became a great mentor with an entrepreneurial approach to business.”
Wanting a change, in 1995, Kathryn took a secondment to run a newly acquired business in Hungary. “I recall our CEO saying how hard it must be as a woman, but it was quite the reverse in Eastern Europe at the time. I overcame most issues once I could speak Hungarian; not an easy language to learn!”
After returning to the UK to run a small flavour business, Kath’s chemical knowledge became critical. “I was immediately able to support and challenge the flavourists to develop new technologies. Developing new graduates and teams across technical and commercial disciplines was probably the most rewarding part of my career.”
Diversity is key
For the last 21 years, Kath has worked for the Kerry Group - a world leader in the global food ingredients market. With her unconventional route to a career in chemistry, Kath’s determination and hard work has been key to her achievement. “I have seen the food and beverage industry change dramatically over the last ten years, with more females and international teams; having a good balance is vital.”
“I have enjoyed 20 years at Kerry Food Group, of constantly evolving roles in the food and beverage and flavours and fragrance sectors. I have been lucky to work with good scientists from around the world, linking with teams and customers on an international basis. The key to success is engagement and knowledge.”
Recently changing her career path, Kath has taken a new opportunity to work closely with an independent business consultancy. “I am hoping to become more active with the Royal Society of Chemistry, to encourage stronger links with industry and schools, and develop the next generation of chemists. Chemistry is fundamental to many industries and the demand for chemists will continue to grow and outstrip the supply. This should lead to greater career opportunities for chemists.”
With an emphasis on the importance of education and learning, Kath advises “the hardest part of studying whilst working part-time is that something has to suffer; normally your social life. If you are determined, it is manageable and I am so glad that I continued my education. It has given me the foundation and confidence to have a fulfilling and adventurous career. I plan to continue to learn and develop for years to come.”
Words by Jenny Lovell and Kath Whittaker
Images © What the F4 Photography / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published May 2015