BDD (Before Dad Died) Penny was primarily a housewife. Her roles in the family business – Horncastle were more on the fringes, she was involved in organising the annual ‘Firm Dance,’ she did big shops at the Cash & Carry for the staff canteen, and she helped organise events for the social club. This was not a 9-5pm position which meant she was a stay-at-home mum with a busy social calendar, and she loved to entertain and make travel plans.
In those days I remember her wearing long skirts and flat riding boots. When I was quite small, I would hold on to her leg and hide under her skirt when I felt shy. She wore warm friendly knitted jumpers with sheep on, she was always smart and put together, but in a more mumsy way. Her nails were painted red, to match her lipstick and her weekly blow dry took place at the local salon, ‘Sally Anne’s.’ I would sit and wait in the hairdressers and get her little ‘Biscoff’ biscuit that sat on the side of her coffee. I still love that flavour now.
Then life changed. I have no idea exactly how long it was after our Dad died, that Mummy / Penny made the decision to take on a full- time role at the Dealership as Chairman. These are the details I would be so intrigued to talk to her about now.
April 20th 1990, Penny was widowed aged 44. I was 9 and my sister Polly was 16 and Lisa was 18.
I wonder what her motivations were for stepping into this man’s world and taking a full-time position? I think ultimately, she could have remained as a housewife and been given a salary from the family business. But our mother was a doer and before marriage and three children, she was busy with her career as a cookery teacher and her stint as an air stewardess and I know she enjoyed her financial independence.
Thinking about this more from my perspective and looking at her letters from Canada and the focus she had in her early career, our mother was ambitious. Penny could continue to play on the side lines of the business as she had been doing, or she could utilise this opportunity to shake off those flat boots and floaty skirts and try on a new look, the business lady look. After 20 years as the dutiful housewife, despite the devastating circumstances of the sudden death of her husband, I think Penny was ready for a new challenge!
The dealership had just completed a huge expansion, the showroom and office had recently doubled in size, the business was at its peak, maybe she also felt a responsibility to stand in to support of her father who had founded the business and who she saw build it through her childhood. This very business had given her an education and opportunities just like it had my father and then us, the grandchildren.
Our mother was a thoughtful and loyal person, maybe she wanted to nurture that business, the way it had nurtured us.
Suddenly my domestic life changed overnight. Each day after school I would be dropped off at Horncastle and would have to sit and wait until mummy finished work. My routine was walking to her office, putting my things down and opening the top drawer of her desk and getting a pound coin to take downstairs to the petrol station shop. I would walk in, browse the shelves, buy an ice-cream and a chocolate bar and have a little chat with the men working in the forecourt. Depending on my mood Cadbury’s Tasters were a firm favourite, (why were these ever discontinued?!) maybe some Buttons paired with a Cornetto or a Twister.
I would then walk back through the showroom and into Grandpa’s office where I was meant to sit and do my homework. I would sit in his big comfy leather chair with wheels on and I would spin around and around. The desk was huge, there was no clutter, no computers then, just a telephone with the little square buttons and I would use it to call my mum’s extension and ask, ‘can we go home yet?’
Grandpa also had his very own personal bathroom en-suite. A small shower and his own toilet, clever man my Grandpa. No embarrassing toilet interludes for him with employees!
With her new role as Chairman, Penny’s wardrobe became professional and business like. She wore a lot of knee length pencil skirts, silk blouses and jackets. I remember so distinctly when she bought a pin stripe trouser suit and these high heel ankle lace up boots. I think I remember the trouser suit was a controversial choice that my she was questioning, will this be a step too far? Woman emulating man in man’s role and now man’s clothing?!
Deciding to take up the helm of the business must have been confronting and controversial. Like I said, this business was a man’s world. It was the beginning of the 90’s and there were not so many women in major leadership roles of sizeable companies back then. I have no doubt that some people were less than happy about her decision and mocked her for stepping up. I can just imagine the back handed comments, ‘she should stay at home, where she belongs!’ or ‘she has no idea what she’s doing’ ‘it’s all downhill from here’
Last summer I had the pleasure of talking to Jenny Clark. Jenny had been employed to be my fathers secretary and she had come from a major competitor Dealership called, ‘Zenith.’ She told me when she first started, she honestly felt like taking the job at Horncastle felt like a step in the wrong direction because it was so male dominated. And then by a twist of fate, after 3 months of starting, she was suddenly working for my mother, who in Jenny’s own words said, ‘she added vitality to a dusty dealership!’
Jenny and Penny had a mutual appreciation for one another, and she said at first mummy asked for her help, after all Jenny had years more experience in this man’s world than my mum had. Jenny told me that Penny was always wanting to learn things and that she enjoyed meeting people. She said that she was interested in everyone’s families, she was a compassionate listener and there was always an open-door policy for employees to come in and tell her their problems.
Penny started to put her feminine touchers on to the dealership. Jenny remembers she instructed for hanging baskets with pretty flowers to be hung outside of the building and some of the employees were laughing and rolling their eyes. My mothers reasoning was to make the building stand out and to attract more female customers. Then she decided that more women should be selling car’s because actually women like talking to women.
Wow, I thought, my mum is spot on! For example, I will always prefer to work with female lawyers or accountants.
Penny implemented ‘Women’s Workshops’ which were evenings to educate women how to maintain their car, how to change a tyre or the oil. I can imagine my mum thinking, no need to rely on men to do anything, we can do it all ourselves, if we are taught!
Earlier this year, I received a letter from another employee and family friend called Ginette. She was recalling these workshops and saying how much fun they were and how the technicians enjoyed being surrounded by all the women! It made me laugh because she also remembers how our German Grandmother aka ‘Nanny Nash’, also attended a few of these evenings and how she looked immaculate as ever and taking notes and participating. My German Grandmother never drove or owned a car but Penny was constantly pushing her to get back into the driving seat and have her independence.
Yes, Penny – our mother was persistent and as much as she was very compassionate and caring, she could be fierce and very determined!
This letter also described how every morning, Penny would walk through reception, up to sales and then onto accounts just as our father had done and she would make a point of chatting to everyone. One day she walked in with a huge brick of a phone in her hand and said “this is the future” how right she was, albeit our phones are much smaller these days.
Ginette remembers at one point while working at the dealership she thought she my might lose her house and she had confided in Penny about this. Shortly afterwards she was called to Jenny’s office and told that our solicitor would look into the situation for her. Ginette told me, it wasn’t needed but that kindness was above and beyond her position. “She was so kind and was a strong character bringing women as equals, pretty amazing. Be proud “
Last week I was just listening to a conversation on ‘Clubhouse’ social media app about ‘Love in Leadership’ and it encapsulated many of the ways I think my mother was a leader. She took a genuine interest in her employees and their wellbeing. Now looking back, I see how she was a true trailblazer, a woman before her time!
After our father died, there was feelings from some people that the business was nothing without him, but with the freshness of having a female leader, there was no way you could compare. It was a new time, a big change and it was easier for some people adapt than others.