A Conversation with Ann Johnson
Updated: Apr 23
We spoke to Ann Johnson, co-founder of fire control and safety solutions provider, Blaze Manufacturing Solutions, which last year was named by the London Stock Exchange as one of the top 1000 UK Companies to Inspire and in January this year won the FSB Scotland family business of the year award. Ann is also committed to the local business community and in July 2017 was awarded the Elevator Entrepreneurial Supporter of the Year accolade for the time she dedicates to supporting and mentoring start-up businesses in Laurencekirk, pupils at Mearns Academy and assisting in a number of community initiatives. She supports the Prince’s Trust ‘Get into Engineering’ programme, is on the board of Young Enterprise Scotland and is Chair of Laurencekirk Business Club.
Ann has kindly agreed to answer any further questions you would like to put to her.
Please email these to firstname.lastname@example.org by 30th April. We will publish her answers by 31st May.
Q: What prompted you to get involved in setting up Blaze Manufacturing solutions and what was your career history before this?
I am originally from Manchester, with a print industry background. I moved up to Scotland with my husband Howard 29 years ago. We decided to set up Blaze in 2006 after Howard felt unchallenged working for oil and gas companies in Aberdeen. We wanted to bring innovation and new ideas to the oil and gas industry.
Blaze began life in our garden shed and took in a contract for India worth £1.1m in the first year! I moved into a role as Finance Director for Blaze some time later and we have never looked back. We have had our ups and downs, the devastating downturn in the oil and gas industry being one of our lowest points. We are however, nothing if not tenacious and we diversified and survived, and Blaze is now thriving in new markets such as renewables and mining, as well as retaining oil and gas work.
Q: Since co-founding the company, what do you consider have been the key points from a personal development perspective?
I think that I probably underestimated how quickly Blaze would consume our lives. Blaze is 24/7 and I have found it vital to learn how to ‘switch off’ when we get home. Our sons Jamie and Andrew also work with us in the business, so it would be very easy to make everything about Blaze. I do confess to instigating ‘working lunches’ however, by hiding papers in my handbag to discuss with Howard over lunch!
I have also found that I am very proficient at getting myself into things and so I have been trying to learn how to say no sometimes. There are only so many hours in the day after all.
Q: What motivates you to lead and support so many community groups and initiatives and how do you fit these commitments around your role as Finance Director at Blaze?
I am a huge supporter of local community. Blaze is located in a rural Aberdeenshire village and has a large part to play within the community. I head up the local business club, which exists to support businesses in Laurencekirk. I think it is really important in this climate that we support each other as much as is possible – we buy local and use local companies whenever we can. Within Blaze, we employ the head of the fire service and a coast guard. Both carry pagers which means that they may have to leave at any given moment, however I firmly believe that if one of my family was in trouble, they would be the people I would want to help them.
I also work with the local school to support their young people into business for the future and I sit on several industry boards in an advisory capacity.
I also regularly attend networking events, as you never know what interesting people you might meet, who you can help, or in fact, who can help you. I regularly give talks or presentations at these types of events, such as Internationalising your Business, Women Mean Business or Women into Business.
If I can spread my insight and experiences in any way I can, that might even just provide a small piece of advice to someone then it is completely worth my time.
Q: You are a supporter of the Prince’s Trust ‘Get into Engineering’ programme; does promoting gender diversity form part of this initiative? What more do you think organisations and individuals can do to promote gender diversity in the workplace?
I am really keen to nurture the next generation of engineers and designers and I work closely with schools and universities to ensure they see the new emerging energy markets as exciting and a place they want to work. We recently took on a trainee workshop technician, straight from the local secondary school as part of a scheme through the Prince’s Trust. He has been with us three years now and is a star, recently working in Belgium with our contracting team and picking up a Bright Beginning award at our annual Blaze awards.
We also regularly offer work experience places for young people to learn about all aspects of running a company like Blaze and most recently have had female students who have an interest in design and engineering, something almost unheard of a few years ago!
We are perhaps quite unusual for an engineering company in that we have a relatively high proportion of female staff. Being the co-owner of an engineering company and being female is not necessarily a common thing, however over the years I have proven that I can hold my own in any company!