Production Admin to Head of Operations – A Career with Boxshop

08 Mar 2019

As the call for more females to choose the manufacturing sector as a career continues, we caught up with Alison Milligan, Head of Operations at Boxshop, who has carved a successful career in packaging instead of employment law!

How did you start you career in packaging?

Packaging really found me. I started in a temporary position in Boxshop at the beginning of 1992 when the company was still in the very early stages with a turnover of around £2m. I had just returned to civilian life, we had two small boys and I was in the midst of completing a HND in Business Studies. Life was busy and I wasn’t looking for anything permanent at that time as my aim was to have a career in employment law.

What path has your career taken with Boxshop?

After leaving school I completed a HNC in Secretarial Studies and Business Administration and then started my first full time job as a production administration assistant at a company that designed and manufactured timber framed homes. During that time I met my husband and when we were married moved to Germany with his job in the Armed Forces. Six years and two children later we were posted to Fort George in Inverness where I helped to set up a not for profit café for the soldiers. Two years after that we returned to civilian life.

This is where Boxshop first played a part in my life. Returning to a role in production administration I look back now and smile fondly. It’s not that many years ago but we had one computer that didn’t really add anything so everything was had written including purchase orders and work tickets! Imagine doing that now!

The original owners, Douglas Lamb and David Protheroe had started the business in their early twenties and I was 28 – we were a similar age with a similar outlook. They created an environment of encouraging exploration and creativity, allowing me to develop improvement initiatives without fear of failure. We didn’t get it right every time but it was an exciting time when some fundamental roots of the business were laid down to allow growth in the future.

I loved the challenge and fast pace of the production environment, particularly in packaging where challenges were, and still are, frequent. As my role grew, I found that my need for learning and self- development was being fulfilled and my position evolved into a permanent one.

To support the continuing success and growth of the company, and for self-development, I identified external courses which would improve and develop my skill level and knowledge regarding Operations, Leadership and People Management. There was no hesitation from Douglas or David in supporting my development in both cost and time. I completed a Post Graduate Diploma in HR Management, a Diploma in Coaching and Mentoring and other Leadership, Management and Operational Courses. Being an independent Company and not having the resource of a group at that time I worked alongside SMAS (Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service) on improvement interventions based around lean manufacturing, short interval control and production performance measurement.

Through the years, particularly the early years, I was involved in almost all areas of the business other than Sales, and in 2001 I was made General Manager.

Through time, and as part of a restructuring branding and re-organising campaign to better reflect roles both internally and externally, the Senior Manager titles were changed to “Heads of” functions. It was advised that General Manager was a dated title and since a targeted focus was required on Operations and HR, my title changed to Head of Operations & HR.

I have always taken the time and effort to learn the skills and spend time doing the jobs in the areas that I manage. This has been a key feature in my ability to successfully manage the complexities and daily issues that present themselves. As a rule, I would not ask anyone to do a job that I haven’t had first-hand experience of myself.

It sounds like you have a real passion for packaging but what’s the best thing about your job?

Helping to grow the company has been an enjoyable challenge. I love the variety that working in Operations provides. There are a great number of constantly new and stimulating challenges. I also enjoy passing on my knowledge, seeing others develop and I am continually looking at ways to improve. There always a better and faster way to do things.

What are your top three tips for anyone considering a career in packaging?

There is a disappointing image that the packaging industry is full of predictable, unskilled roles yet in my experience it is far from that particularly in technical management roles. As science begins to play a bigger part in system, print and manufacturing a more technical approach and skillset will be required from future employees.

My three top tips would be:

* Don’t assume you are constrained by what you immediately inherit.

* To be successful you need to have, or create, a collaborative environment. We don’t have a  long product development cycle compared to other industries and team decisions have to be made quickly because there are large volumes of highly variable product moving through the factory and no time for slow interdepartmental communications.

* It is also easier to change roles in the packaging industry compared to some others as there is a greater interaction between departments and a greater overlap of roles. So, careers in packaging don’t often see a person in the same role for the entirety of their career.

There’s a big drive to encourage women into packaging as a career. What are your thoughts on this?

Manufacturing and packaging has been seen as a traditionally male dominated industry with regard to senior positions and Operational roles and seeing women in senior roles in still quite unusual.

I was fortunate as I grew with the company and gained credibility through ability. As with any role if you are competent and fair you generally earn and garner respect but I would still say it is challenging for women to enter a senior role. Careers advice given in school is critical to steering women towards non-traditional roles such as engineering and manufacturing and I think women need to have more confidence and belief in themselves and their own ability. I don’t see why a woman couldn’t do any job depending on their abilities of course, however it is important that others in the workplace accept this.

Being a woman in a senior operational role I believe has helped create a more open culture and honest relationships between us all.

So, what would be the top skills to acquire for a Senior Level Career

A high level of emotional intelligence is definitely a plus for a senior level career.

Experience is also critical – there are too many people in senior positions who manage by assumption rather than hands on experience and goods skill appreciation from working in a wide variety of different roles.

Achieving the highest possible academic qualification is an obvious benefit because it creates more than an understanding of the topic you are studying; it gives you self-reliance to meet deadlines, a structured approach to tasks and exposes you to a wide range of concepts.

Be prepared to put the hours in and don’t manage sitting behind a desk.

What does the future of corrugated look like in the UK?

The UK Plastics Pact is looking at the entire plastics packaging chain which will result in reducing, re-using and recycling all plastic by 2025. However, at the moment, plastic packaging is bad press and we are working hard to promote and highlight the environmental benefits of corrugated and its possibilities.

Interestingly, I recently took a boat trip around the coast of Mull with a research crew from Glasgow University who were taking samples of plankton from the coastal waters. The samples were then taken to a microscope on the boat and magnified. It was alarming to see that these tiny sea creatures, that would enter the food chain, already had plastic micro beads in their body.

By contrast, cardboard waste does find its way into our food chain in a very positive way. Cardboard is also fully recyclable, low cost, can be branded with high quality print which can be changed quickly and inexpensively. The future is sure to see further innovations in lighter weight, performance based cardboard packaging for this safe sustainable product.

How has the industry evolved during your career?

When I first started we had very basic converting machinery and the only standard we had was the BS5750 quality standard. Now we have ISO 9000, IS0 14001, and ISO 18001 together with the BRC technical standard and FSC.

The market is now much more competitive and reducing cost of materials and processing throughout the entire supply chain has been a necessity.

Print colour control has also evolved significantly. Many prints that would once only have been possible on a litho-lam carton are now being requested as flexo-prints by the customer. This is a particular challenge with shelf ready packaging which requires colour consistency on the shelf. This drives the need for colour control on conversion using a spectrophotometer which would have seemed light years away when I first started. In general, print register now is much tighter with greater print complexity.

Legislation has also changed significantly through the years particularly Employment, Health and Safety and Environmental Law. These have all been for the better.

We have also seen a continual upward drive on the machine skill level to provide the quality of product and timely delivery of goods that the customer now demands.

And away from Boxshop and packaging, what does ‘me time’ involve?

I enjoy golf, although I don’t get a chance to play as much as I would like. I enjoy skiing and read a lot as well as keeping fit and going to the gym whenever I can.

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