She's been likened to the Iron Lady on a business trip in Japan and has had to wear full Islamic dress in Iran. But no matter what the challenge, she's a woman whose humour never seems to fail her. Claire Veares reports….

If she is not careful, people may begin to think that Beverley Webster is obsessed with men's underwear. When she was in Zimbabwe on a business trip, miners who had stripped because of the heat were issued with new underpants before she was allowed down into the mine. And now she has suggested that competitors in the forthcoming Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge, who also wear as little as possible, could be given codpieces sponsored by her firm.

Webster is managing director of Leeds-based Ward Evans Direct, the newest arm of Yorkshire insurance brokers Ward Evans. She joined the company in June last year as a group director and was made managing director in September.

As she had no background in insurance, she admits she was a bit surprised when Ward Evans' chief executive Mike Kenney suggested she came and worked for the company.

The appeal of an outsider
But Kenney, who Webster has known for more than 20 years, said the company would value someone coming in from outside the insurance industry and taking an objective view of things.

Webster's background is, in fact, in mining engineering. She spent 25 years at her father's firm Webster Machine Company, working her way up to managing director. As the company's traditional market of the British coal industry disappeared, the company diversified and, in 1995, it formed a strategic alliance with the German construction equipment company Karl Schaeff.

But working for the family firm wasn't a planned career move either. Webster had a place lined up to study psychology at Birmingham University, but wanted to spend some time in France first. She needed some money to fund her trip and working for her father seemed like an ideal plan. At first her father didn't agree. Webster says: “He told me I could bugger off.” He wanted her to work for the firm properly or not at all.

Here Webster remembers she did have another money-making option open to her at the time. She had an interview for a sales executive job with an insurance company but says that after all this time she can't remember who it was with, only that the interview was in the Grosvenor Hotel in Sheffield. Obviously, the pull of insurance wasn't strong enough, and she began work for the family firm.

Over the years, Webster has got used to working in male dominated environments – high flying woman are even rarer in mining than insurance. She says her being a woman did have its benefits, such as getting to use the mine manager's shower. “People are intrigued as much as anything. But in time my reputation preceded me.” She cautions, however, that the novelty value alone does not take you very far: “If you don't know what you are talking about, you are shown the door.”

And, for Webster, knowing what you are talking about doesn't just apply to talking in English. She had learnt Spanish at night school after being frustrated by not being able to chat to the locals on holiday in Spain. Years later, it came in useful in a way she probably hadn't anticipated. She was able to bid successfully in Spanish for a contract in Chile, proving the Germans she was competing against wrong in their estimation of the language skills of the English. “I had to learn words like hydraulic circuit in Spanish,” she says.

Looking the part
One place Webster anticipated difficulty was in Japan. She had a meeting with Mitsubishi and says that halfway through the meeting a Japanese woman came in and gave her a presentation for being the first businesswoman to attend a meeting in the building. Webster's reputation had preceded her, but not in a way she really appreciated. She says the Japanese office had been briefed on her by their colleagues in London and told: “Madam Webster like Thatcher.” Webster doesn't think there is any resemblance between her and the Iron Lady. “I certainly don't backcomb my hair,” she says.

Webster concedes, though, that looking the part is important and says it is surprising how much wearing the right clothes can affect how you feel. In Iran she had to negotiate deals wearing full Islamic dress, including a yashmak. She says: “It was quite remarkable how it changed my personality. It was like wearing your gardening clothes when visiting your bank manager.”

But overall, it is clear that Webster enjoyed her time in the mining industry. She says it

was always interesting because everyone works hard and plays hard. “I have seen all the different parts of the world and seen them in a completely different way to a tourist.”

Working with the family firm was not the only connection Webster had with the mining industry, however. She was the youngest president of the Association of British Mining Companies (ABMEC), a position she held for six years. In her time at ABMEC she led trade missions to Russia, India, Iran, Poland, Vietnam and Australia. And for three years she was chairman of the Indo-British Coal forum, promoting trade between the two countries.

For all this work, Webster was awarded an OBE for her services to the coal industry three years ago. She says the award was tinged with sadness that her father, who died eight years ago, was not alive to see her receive it.

The leap from mining to insurance does not immediately suggest transferable skills. Webster admits the pace of the two industries is completely different. She says in insurance things can be instant, whereas in mining there could be a two-year gestation period before securing a contract.

“The first thing you do in mining is build up personal relationships and mutual trust.” She says this process often involves following local customs: “I had to drink a lot of vodka for breakfast.” But she adds that certain aspects of business remain the same. “You've really got to care about your product, your company, your service.”

Young and innovative
Webster won't be drawn much on her view of the insurance industry in general. But she says: “Ward Evans stands out as very innovative, very ambitious and very forward thinking.”

The company is also a youthful one. The average age of the company's 168 employees is 31, with most of the directors in their mid 30s. Webster, who is 43, says: “I have probably brought the average up.” But she is happy in the knowledge that she is still a couple of years younger than Kenney.

Kenney hails from Holbeck in Yorkshire, the same place as Webster's father. But Webster does not think she and Kenney are alike. “We complement each other,” she says.

Kenney apparently believes that Webster is “slow and methodical” but Webster counters: “To take the Leeds office from 40 to 60 staff in five months is not what I call slow.”