Derbyshire’s High Sheriff - Annie Hall
- Credit: Archant
Pat Ashworth talks to Annie Hall who was sworn in as High Sheriff on 6th April
SPRING is arriving in Ashford-in-the-Water and the view from Annie Hall’s living-room window is of a rural idyll, as English as they come. The house, built into a former quarry, stands high above the road and the windows look out beyond the meadows and winding river to the green and gentle slopes beyond.
It’s a little like sitting in an observatory, but there’s not going to be a great deal of time for that in the coming year. Not that Annie has done much sitting around in her life so far, to be honest: born and brought up near Wincanton on the Somerset-Dorset border, where her parents were both involved in the family business. She went to local Catholic schools from the age of five and diplomatically describes her secondary school, St Antony’s Leweston, as a place where scholastic excellence was not important.
‘I remember going back some years later and saying to one of my former teachers, “You know, I don’t think the education was really that good.” And she said, “No, my dear. Leweston aimed to turn out charming young ladies who married well.” I don’t think anyone ever told my parents that. But it was a nice education and a beautiful setting.’
She embarked on training to be a psychiatric nurse at Herrison Hospital near Dorchester. ‘It had originally been the county asylum and still retained many of its features including its own farm,’ she reflects. ‘A number of patients had been there for years, mostly for illnesses that nowadays do not require hospitalisation. Thankfully it has long closed but working there gave me an insight and a lifelong interest into mental illness.’
Marriage and a subsequent move to Bedfordshire meant she didn’t complete her training, although it has informed much of what she has been involved with in latter years. The newly married couple decided to start their own business. ‘My husband had an entrepreneurial boss, what used to be called a self-made man,’ she remembers. ‘With all the arrogance of a 21-year-old, I looked at the large house his family lived in set in several acres with the Bentley and the Jensen on the drive and not a book in the house, and thought making money couldn’t be that difficult.’
They came to Derbyshire, ‘with no money, no business qualifications and frankly, no plan. But I had married someone who was an entrepreneur and I always say my role was the sweeper. He would have the idea and I would look at it to see if it would work – it couldn’t be a leap into the unknown.’
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Their complementary skills proved fruitful. Without quite knowing what they were going to do, they grandly announced a new company, Northern Industrial and Marine Services Company Limited (which later became the NIM Group). Annie’s husband had in a previous job sold a French range of winches: when he left, there was still demand for the product in the UK and nobody had stepped into the void. ‘We went to France and said, can we be your agent? And to our surprise, they said yes. And that’s how it started,’ Annie says.
Annie was involved in every aspect of the business which grew to sell and hire winches and lifting equipment, and repair, test and then design and manufacture them. The company operated in the fields of mining, tunnelling, construction and the offshore oil industry and gradually went on to acquire other winch manufacturers.
‘Our first premises were in Swanwick – ‘the old Co-op shop, so instead of baked beans in the window, we had block and tackles…’ – and then in Alfreton, finishing up with depots in Aberdeen, Glasgow, London and Haydock and a factory in Newcastle for manufacturing the winches.
The business ran for 20 years before they sold it to a competitor in 1994 and formed Pickup Holdings Ltd. ‘When I look back, we were really quite innovative,’ she reflects. ‘And it was fun! Now there are so many restrictions on everything that I really wouldn’t want to be starting out now.’
Since that time, she has been chairman of the company, whose interests include a marina and a plastics coating business, and has also been involved in various other industries over the years, including the manufacture of luxury narrowboats and industrial access equipment.
Annie’s son and daughter, David and Joanna, now run Pickup Holdings and she pays them the warmest tribute. ‘David has a degree in business and Jo combines running the marina with family life,’ she observes. ‘But they both grew up as I did, knowing work is not 9 to 5 but as the job demands. I’m very proud of the fact that they have come in and taken over. It’s brilliant.’
She has the distinction of having been the first female president of the Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce, a landmark appointment in its 129-year history, and thus finds it very fitting that her first public duty following her installation as High Sheriff on 6th April will be to open the new Chamber building in Chesterfield. She was a founder member of the Training Enterprise Council and variously a non-executive director and vice-chairman of Derbyshire Mental Health Trust – ‘which in terms of going back to where I started and seeing how things had changed and how they work now, was also fascinating,’ she says.
She is also a trustee of Foundation Derbyshire, which raises endowments and distributes funds to local organisations and charities within the county. She describes the organisation, of which her second husband, Michael, was chair for 12 years, as very dear to her heart. ‘Grants are typically up to £1,000, which may not seem a great deal to some but can make a huge difference to small groups,’ she says warmly. ‘This is very much in line with my view that one of the roles of the High Sheriff is to raise the profile of smaller and more local organisations.’
She is also passionate about her work as chair of Umbrella, which supports learning and physically disabled children and young adults up to the age of 30. ‘It has a really good reputation in Derby and does tremendous work. The cases are getting more and more difficult for all kinds of reasons and funding cuts are inevitable but we keep going and managing to attract wonderful staff and volunteers – something Derbyshire does so well,’ she says. As the grandparent of a beloved child with a very rare chromosome malfunction, she understands as well as anybody that when support is needed, it embraces the surrounding family as well as the child itself.
Annie is also chairman of Matlock Luncheon Club, which has over 100 members and meets monthly at Matlock Golf Club, and is on the Derby Barnardo’s Committee.
Becoming High Sheriff was not something she ever envisaged and she considers it a tremendous honour, if a little daunting. There’s been plenty of advice from previous holders of the ancient office, the best of which, she says, is ‘simply to be yourself and do it your own way.’ She looks every inch the part as she stands in the beautifully tailored suit she has had made by Henry Poole and Co. in London. On her first visit, accompanied to the fitting by an old schoolfriend, the TV cameras were present ‘and I joked that they must have heard I was coming… but they were there because the first woman tailor had set up on Savile Row!’
Male holders of the office must wear court dress: it is less prescriptive for the growing number of women who take office. ‘It is after all uniform and I was told that anything veering towards pantomime dame would not be allowed!’ Annie says.
As a woman who has never encountered the glass ceiling, she hopes to do something to promote the interests of the county’s ‘incredible’ women in particular, along with promoting Derbyshire and the people in it who are doing great things.
Michael, a well-known figure himself in Derbyshire business and charity, will be at her side throughout. ‘In that way, it’s going to be quite fun and he’s looking forward to it as much as I am,’ she says. ‘When I told my children, they are so proud of me and that’s wonderful. I think, gosh, I’ll make the most of that one.’ The couple have four children between them and five grandchildren, two of whom are in Australia. Enjoyable leisure time is spent with the ones who are local – ‘and when they’re tired and grumpy, I can hand them back to their parents.’
And in what spare time she does have in the coming months, she’ll be very happy to spend walking in and around Ashford – ‘I don’t have far to go to enjoy the beautiful Derbyshire scenery’ – visiting interesting places, meeting friends, reading etc. ‘In fact,’ she concludes, ‘anything that doesn’t involve gardening.’