She was a woman in a man’s world but the Suffolk girl in the office got there in the end
With almost 30 years’ business experience in Suffolk, Trudi Nicholls comes across as a strong, confident businesswoman.
You can’t imagine anyone not giving her the respect her impressive company director’s CV clearly warrants. But, in fact, when she started out in the plant hire business in the late 80s, things were a little bit different, as she tells Gina Long.
Trudi, who is one of the directors of Fork Rent and Trucks ‘R’ Us, came into the industry, guided by her father Percy who started the business from the ground up, and her brother Guy. But she recalls that, back then, there were people who, perhaps secretly, questioned the role of a woman in such a male-dominated world.
She says: “In the very early days, when the business was much smaller, people did talk to me differently than if I had been a man.
“I think there were some people who visited our premises and thought I would be a good person to make the coffee, and not a lot else.
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“Sometimes I would answer the phone and they would definitely treat me like the girl in the office who knew nothing, which was somewhat frustrating....
“Life was very different 27 years ago and especially in business. There have been a lot of successful women in business since then, which has certainly changed people’s perceptions.”
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The fact that Trudi points to the impact of other women in business is probably underselling her own achievements.
Building on her father’s success and working with her brother Guy, (who Trudi credits as being ‘the brilliant driving force behind the business today’), Trudi has helped Fork Rent become the market leader and perhaps one of Suffolk’s best kept secrets.
The plant hire industry is in stark contrast to the world Trudi started out in careerwise.
She returned to Suffolk from London, having worked in fabric and interior design and latterly painting children’s furniture for renowned London nursery design company Dragons of Walton Street, which lists the nurseries of princes William and Harry among its achievements.
While admitting she was on a steep learning curve from day one at Fork Rent, Trudi says: “My father wanted me involved in the business and I took the plunge. I thought I would come back for a month and see how it went and I am still here.
“As I became more and more involved in the business, I gained more respect from our customers and suppliers alike.
“My knowledge and abilities grew, and then people tended to offer me more respect. I feel I am now accepted in this industry; it came somewhere along the way without me even realising. It has been a challenge at times and other days very exciting, no two days are ever the same.”
The seeds for such success were sown by her father Percy. Trudi explains: “My father was an amazing man. He was a hard task-master but a very good person to show you what is important in business.
“He cared about employees and always stressed the importance of looking after our customers.
“He wouldn’t recognise the business now but I hope he would be proud of us. In fact I’m sure he would have been.”
Working so closely with her brother Guy – the pair are also neighbours – could be challenging. But Trudi says: “Looking back over the years, it has been surprisingly good. We both have lively personalities to say the least, so it could have thrown up a lot more challenges than it did.
“Somewhere along the line, we made our own areas of responsibility and mine tends to be, in Guy’s words, coming along and tidying up, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.
“I think as the business has developed, we have learnt to appreciate each other’s importance.”
If the family links are important to Trudi, so is the fact that the business has retained its Suffolk roots as it has grown across the country.
This was cemented when Trudi made her first foray into country life – buying a derelict barn on the outskirts of Ipswich – after admitting she has always been a ‘townie’.
She says: “I purchased it several years ago and it was completely stripped down to the barebones, but it has all been worthwhile.
“I found a fantastic local builder and I tried, where possible, to use local suppliers as we have some fantastic local craftsman in this area.
“When I moved into the barn, I then went to work creating my garden.
“This is another of my loves. I have spent many an enjoyable Sunday afternoon with my mother Shirley, who I am exceptionally close to, visiting local nurseries.
“When I came back to Suffolk, it was a bit of a culture shock – even though I used to return home from London frequently, as we have always been a close family.
“As youngsters, we might moan and think the bright lights are the best thing ever, but actually coming back to Suffolk, with the beautiful countryside we have around here, more than compensates, doesn’t it?”