For over thirty years, Julie Kenny has been an inspirational societal architect in South Yorkshire; she’s rebuilt her life on more than one occasion using the bricks other people have thrown at her, shattering various glass ceilings along the way.
While her journey to becoming a self-made successful female entrepreneur may not have ran smoothly, Julie strongly believes it is always possible to achieve your goals, and so she did.
Racking up more accolades, awards and achievements than she can count on both hands and feet, Julie was the former figurehead of multi-million pound intruder alarm specialists, Pyronix while at the same time helping regenerate the South Yorkshire region through various voluntary roles.
A beacon for women empowering each other to succeed in a man’s world, 60-year-old Julie is living proof that your past doesn’t have to define your future.
With frank honesty, Julie says she didn’t have the best start in life.
Born in Hillsborough, Julie’s parents split when she was very young, leaving her mother to raise the children on her own before moving to Stannington when Julie was ten.
From a young age, her upbringing and life experiences taught her what she wanted from life – but most importantly what she didn’t. She didn’t want to follow in her mum’s footsteps, constantly fearful of a knock at the door or struggling to make ends meet.
She studied hard to better herself and, as her birthday is in August, should have left school at 14. However, with ambition to be a secretary, she wanted to stay on another year.
“I’ve no idea now why I had my heart set on being a secretary but I’d always seen it as a very glamorous job. I asked my mum if I could stay at school an extra year and she said no – I needed to go out and earn a living to support the family.
“I said ‘what am I supposed to do though, mum?’ She suggested working in a shop, not that there’s anything wrong with that but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a secretary,” Julie says.
Determined and dedicated to her goal, a 14-year-old Julie set off on her own one day to Sheffield’s education department on Leopold Street in the city centre. Here, she asked for a grant to help her mum financially while she studied.
She also asked her father for an extra £3 a week maintenance which he eventually agreed to after a serious grilling.
Sure enough, the following year Julie gained her first job as a shorthand typist at Lodge Moor Hospital.
“Against all odds, I had achieved the job that I had strived for – if that makes you happy then you are successful. That’s the big message that I always try and push. It doesn’t matter what others think of your goals or what your past is. Always be who you want to be and don’t feel like you have to judge yourself on what others achieve.
“I could have been a singer if I believed in myself. Can I sing? Not a chance. But if you have self-belief and confidence you can make anything work.”
A fresh start in Cornwall
In 1976 aged 18, Julie packed up her things and moved to Cornwall with just £45 in her purse in search of a better life. Now, over 40 years later she admits if any of her own three children told her they were leaving she’d be devastated but says she needed to get away to change her life and make a better future for herself.
She quickly found employment as a junior secretary at a legal firm, again thanks to her true Yorkshire grit.
“I went in and said to the owner ‘if you appoint me you you’ll never regret it.’ Looking back, it was so bizarre when the job was only for £19 a week and my rent was £13 a week. But even then at 18, I’d already got my core values that have remained with me ever since: honesty, integrity and hard work – not that I knew what ‘core values’ were at that age.”
Julie says it was this risk-taking employer that taught her a lot in business. If you believe in your staff it gives them the right attitude to do wonders. Her employer noticed an aptitude in Julie for the law and provided her with informal training which started her progression to become a lawyer
Around the same time, Julie set out on her philanthropic path, becoming a voluntary associate for the probation service to help young girls get back on the straight and narrow.
“As an advisor, I was more like a friend to these girls. They were of a similar age to me but knew more about life than me already; they were living in women’s shelters or had a couple of kids.”
She also helped as a secretary at the Bodmin Toy Library and taught adult literacy in her spare time – life was very busy in those early days and not much has changed since.
After a couple of years she moved to work for the local authority at North Cornwall District Council which gave her a further opportunity to learn, starting formal legal training at night school.
In 1982, Julie was promoted to a civil litigation manager and moved to Aylesbury District Council where chance saw her meet her future husband.
“I’d always vowed I’d never come back to Sheffield but that was until I met Mr Kenny and fell in love.”
Paul Kenny was from Sheffield and so Julie packed up her life in the West Country to be with him in 1985, almost ten years since moving away from home, finding employment with a local law firm.
The couple married at Rotherham Register Office and were set for wedded bliss. Yet just five weeks later, Paul was made redundant from his job at a lighting company, with Julie fearful of what they were going to do now.
The start of Pyronix
Having always had an interest in electronics, Paul wanted to design a PIR – or Passive Infrared Sensor – an electronic device used for security. However, he had no formal education or degree behind him.
Taking a chance on the idea, Julie sold her Aylesbury house and used the £28,000 collateral to fund the business start-up. Working with an external investor who had advertised in the paper for ambitious people, Pyronix Limited was born in 1986.
“I was naïve at the time as I didn’t know then that one in every two businesses fail. But looking back, being naïve was the best thing I could be as I believed the business could and would work.”
For the first three years, from designing the product to eventual production, Julie continued working as a litigation lawyer and so ended up working two full-time jobs touching 80 hour weeks. After resolving disputes during the day, she would then go home and work for Pyronix during evenings and weekends.
During this time, Julie fell pregnant with their first child, working right up until being induced in January 1989; she spent a full day working in the office before heading to the labour ward at 6pm.
Now with a baby to think about, Julie decided juggling family life and two jobs was too much and so left her law career behind to concentrate on the business.
“I never looked back. The business was growing substantially and soon we opened a larger factory in Hellaby where we went on to employ 200 staff.”
Julie was also starting to become recognised within the industry, being appointed the first female director of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) in 1992 before going on to be their first female chair nearly 20 years later.
“I was definitely a woman in a man’s world but I never let it hold me back. I remember the first BSIA meeting I ever went to was in an exclusive gentleman’s club in London – they’d never even thought about women going.
“Often I was the only woman in a boardroom full of men and it taught me how to negotiate or how to hone my arguments strongly and be heard.”
In 1995, Julie took over from Paul as Managing Director of Pyronix Limited, while he became CEO and concentrated on the technical and product development side.
Rising from the ashes
While her exterior appeared strong, underneath the surface the cracks were starting to show. Paul left in 1997, leaving Julie to run the business they’d worked in together while raising their three kids aged eight, five and three.
“Being a working mum is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I worked before the children got up for school and once they were in bed. I needed extra help so employed two nannies so I could carry on running the company and attending meetings across the UK and globally.
“It wasn’t just my kids who were depending on me. My staff had families too so I needed to keep going. I had a brilliant team behind me and the business grew from strength to strength.”
Not one to lie down and crumble, Julie bounced back both personally and professionally; she was made the first female president of Rotherham Chamber of Commerce in 1998 following extensive involvement in the business community since becoming a member of Rotherham Training and Enterprise Council in the mid 90s.
Since then, the list of Julie’s roles has become endless – she’s done all sorts to help numerous people in the community.
From being on the board of governors at her children’s school, to offering support to other entrepreneurs through things like the Sheffield City Region local enterprise partnership and as a UK Commissioner for employment and skills; Julie was even once the branch president at NSPCC Sheffield and Hallamshire and is still a director at Sheffield Theatres and the National Coal Mining Museum.
Following the intervention during the 2014 CSE scandal, Julie was appointed by the Secretary of State as a commissioner for Rotherham Council.
“I’ve done a lot of firsts in my time and helped around 30 to 40 different organisations. But I always encourage others to get involved in other things in any way they can. All of my voluntary roles have been worthwhile and I’ve learnt things that I was able to bring back into the business.”
Business continued to flourish with Julie firmly at the helm and by 2002 she had managed to buy Paul out of the company by remortgaging their home and selling whatever she could to raise the funds – starting out again for the second time.
But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining and in the same year Julie was awarded a CBE for services to industry in Yorkshire and the Humber during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee New Year’s honours list.
When she was 50 she cashed in her pension to buy out the original investors, making her the major shareholder in Pyronix Limited, together with a co-director who had supported Julie through difficult times and had become a close colleague and good friend.
“I’ve always been a risk taker but as I’ve gotten older they have become more calculated risks. Again, I believed in what I was doing and knew it would be successful.”
And as sure as clockwork, it did.
Pyronix became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of security equipment, exporting their products across the globe to 70 countries. Pyronix’s PIRs can be found in residences and commercial properties worldwide, including Catherine’s Palace in St Petersburg, Russia where it is an integral part of the security system installed to protect the palace, particularly the infamous gold-leaf decorated Amber Room built to recreate that which disappeared in WWII.
During its 30th anniversary in 2016, Julie sold the company to Hikvision, a Chinese based video surveillance giant. At that time, Pyronix was generating a £25million annual turnover.
Clothed in courage and dignity with a humble and down-to-earth persona, Julie has become the epitome of a female boss, inspiring women in business to keep succeeding.
Testimony to this is the many awards that line her fireplace at home, most of which signify the great impact she has had on the industry, not only as a woman but as a business powerhouse.
In 2006, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University, not only for her outstanding contributions to industry through a successful business but also to the life of the region by helping many young people to achieve their potential.
In the short space of two years from 2012 to 2014, Julie won four business awards: the First Women Awards 2012, Engineering and Manufacturing category; Vitalise Businesswoman of the Year Award 2013; a lifetime achievement award from BSIA in 2013 for 25 years’ service and commitment to changing the landscape of the security industry; and the 2014 Private Business Woman Award.
This January, Julie was also given a unique and first of its kind award at the Northern Power Women Awards – the Special Recognition for Outstanding Entrepreneurship.
“The NPW judges don’t normally give lifetime achievements out as it writes you off as finished,” she laughs.
Nominated by people who she has mentored, mainly fellow women in business, Julie says she is really fortunate to be recognised by so many organisations and is happy that women have more opportunities now.
“For me, success is not about people trying to match what I’ve done. It’s a very personal thing and you always have to concentrate on whatever it is you want to achieve. I’m so proud first and foremost of my family, then of the volunteering I’ve done, and then of the business I grew.”
A new chapter at Wentworth Woodhouse
One of her proudest achievements to date was being appointed High Sheriff of South Yorkshire in 2012 which in turn led to her most recent role as chair of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.
During her time in office as High Sheriff, a friend suggested that Julie approach the Newbold family at Wentworth Woodhouse about holding her summer reception there which they fortunately agreed to.
“I was instantly in awe of the place and knew it deserved to be full of people which sadly it wasn’t. It had been excluded from the community for many years and was in clear need of work which couldn’t possibly be funded by the wealth of private individuals.
“You’re not here long on this world and I want to make a difference as much as I can – I just thought the biggest difference I can make in Rotherham is to try and preserve this glorious building and its heritage.”
Julie spoke to the Newbold family about the future plans for the house who put her in touch with Marcus Binney, president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage. SAVE already had plans in place which His Royal Highness; The Prince of Wales had shown interest in.
“They were having a meeting at Clarence House and I’d never been to our future King’s residence so thought I might tag along and find out more. About 20 people were sat around his dining table, all of whom I didn’t know and we had to introduce ourselves to Prince Charles and say why we were there.
“I thought – yikes, why am I here? Luckily I was right at the end and so had time to think. There were all these noble people, sirs, ladies, dukes and senior people from every heritage group imaginable. Yet I had the most important job at that table as I was the only one from our region and so needed to speak up and represent the people of South Yorkshire.”
From that meeting, Julie became a founding member of the board of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust and was asked to chair the trust, leading in the negotiation of the sale price and raising the funds for the acquisition and immediate emergency repairs over a rollercoaster four-year period.
Fortunately the hard work paid off and the trust acquired the house last year. Since then, they have hit all of their expenditure targets but now need to keep fundraising alongside the introduction of a master plan to keep Wentworth Woodhouse alive.
Life begins again at 60
Outside of work, Julie found personal happiness again last year after marrying her partner, Iain, in Florida followed by a blessing at her second home, Wentworth Woodhouse. They say life begins at 60 and with a newly-extended family which now numbers six children and six grandchildren, it may be time for Julie to finally put her feet up and enjoy the fruits of her labour.
“When I sold the business, Iain was ecstatic about the prospect of me only working 40 hour weeks and having the weekends off. I’ve managed to cut out the weekends to spend time with the family but I’m still negotiating the 40 hours.”