Angela Yeoman, OBE

Doctor of Laws Angela Yeoman

Friday 13 July 2012 at 4.45 pm - Orator: Denis Burn

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

Angela Yeoman is an entrepreneur, a risk-taker, a woman of strong convictions, with clear values and driven by a sense of purpose.

Angela’s achievements centre on an extraordinary family business which she and her husband, John, developed from their base near Bristol, among the Mendip hills.  Aged 20, John took over the small quarrying business, Foster Yeoman, following the death of his father.  At this time the business had worn out plant, out-dated working methods, no money for investment, a large overdraft and serious issues with planning permission to extend the quarry’s life.  These are not ideal conditions for an unproven and untrained young man.  I say untrained but in fact John had, the year before, joined the Engineering Faculty of the University of Bristol to study for a degree in Civil Engineering.  In his own words: ‘I was thrown out after one year for incompetence’.

Three years later, in 1952, John married Angela Newell, who was living with her uncle and aunt near Bath and working in a chemist shop.  That same year John’s quarrying business made its first profit for four years - £211, hardly a significant fund for reinvestment.

Having nowhere to live, John and Angela bought a touring caravan and parked it in the quarry.  Alongside it they built a simple lean-to bathroom and lived ‘above the shop’ for four years together with their first child, Sally.  Angela immediately threw her energies into the business, starting with a job on the weighbridge. 

Even from these earliest days she demonstrated a deep regard for the welfare of their employees – a characteristic that remained with her throughout her time with the business.  One employee, Len Heal, recalls that: ‘I remember the two of them walking up to the fitting shop with an electric kettle and biscuit tin around 4 o’clock every morning to serve us men making the tarmac a hot cup of tea and biscuits.’  He added:  ‘Not many newly-weds would have cared about their staff enough to have done this.’

The business began to grow.  Profit was reinvested and loans were taken from the bank.  In due course they needed more space to live in and built a bungalow nearby where their family grew to two daughters and then two sons.

John and Angela committed all their energies to the business.  They were ambitious, they were prepared to take risks and, above all, they brought innovative solutions to complex problems.  They felt that the future of quarrying lay in high levels of mechanisation, in large quarries and in rail transport and sea freight.  They developed their plans and started to implement them when, tragically, John died suddenly from an aneurysm in 1987, aged 58.

Angela showed remarkable strength at this difficult time, immediately becoming Chairman of the company and was at the helm, with a strong and dedicated team, during a period of remarkable innovation and growth.

In the early 1980s the business bought a site on the west coast of Scotland for a granite quarry with the potential for direct loading onto ocean-going ships.  Great sensitivity was required in obtaining planning permission and in winning the lasting support of local people, which they achieved with considerable success.  After years of heavy investment the first consignment was sent by ship in 1987.

Meanwhile the Somerset quarry was developed into the largest in Europe.  The potential impact on local roads would be extreme, so Foster Yeoman removed their traffic from the roads by becoming the first business to run private trains on British Rail track, although not without overcoming considerable opposition.  By 1987 they had five private locomotives.  Always pushing at the boundaries of what is possible they broke the record for the heaviest train to be moved on European track.  In 1991 they were allowed to experiment with a train containing 115 wagons of quarried stone and two locomotives: in all it was over a mile long and weighed nearly 12,000 tonnes. Things started well but ended less well when the couplings failed and part of the train was derailed.  It wasn’t attempted again.

By the late 80s the business became increasingly concerned with the cost of shipping stone from Scotland and, ambitiously, contracted to lease, for 30 years, three large new ships – the largest size that would fit through the Panama Canal.  However, soon thereafter a recession hit the economy, demand for stone fell away and the business was confronted by major challenges.

To its great credit, led by Angela, the business weathered this storm and was well positioned with its own ships to supply stone to projects that developed following German reunification. They even converted one of their locomotives to run on German railways.  Some years later they moved beyond the idea of leasing ships and procured their own ships.

This is a remarkable story for any business.  The Yeoman family had come a long way from a small caravan in rural Somerset.  Only a privately owned, family business could really make this transition.  Public companies need to show growth each quarter, to pay dividends, to contain their levels of risk.  Foster Yeoman, however, paid no dividends for decades and reinvested continuously.  It was up to them how much risk they should take, and they bet the business on several occasions.  Angela recalls that she and John would say with a shrug on these occasions: ‘We can only go bust.’

Quarrying, of course, is not a pretty operation.  It is hardly unobtrusive and mobilises considerable opposition.  Foster Yeoman tried, with considerable success, to be a good neighbour.  They were never going to convince everyone but their use of rail and sea transport has kept thousands of lorries off the road.  Angela’s love of the natural environment and conservation encouraged her to plant thousands of trees around the Somerset quarry and minimise the quarry’s impact in Scotland.

However, no matter how many trees are planted, a quarry is hard to disguise.  It is a legacy of our demand for roads, car parks, concrete and cement as well as the less obvious uses of stone such as in the manufacture of steel, plastics, pharmaceuticals, chicken feed, adhesives and paints and even an important role to play in sewage treatment. 

I mentioned in my opening words that Angela was a woman driven by a sense of purpose.  The family business has been that purpose - building something of substance, a tangible and significant contribution for future generations and, importantly, for the workforce whose livelihoods and families were dependant on the business.

This sense of purpose became particularly apparent in 2006 after Angela had stood down from her role on the Board and, for the first time, there was no family member in the central management position.  As sometimes happens with multi-generational family businesses, the shareholding structure had become complex and pressure from various quarters led to a sale of the business. 

Angela was strongly opposed to this idea, to the extent that she launched her own bid to buy the business.  She assembled a highly credible offer but in the event it fell just short of a competing bid.  Although bitterly disappointed, Angela wanted to join the Board of Aggregate Industries following the acquisition and from that position she has continued to take particular interest in the well-being of the staff of Foster Yeoman.  She remains a non-executive director.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, as a self-confessed workaholic, Angela has done more: she was the first chair of the Somerset Community Fund and, for the second time in her life, is the key organiser for the local pony club, which can be a thankless task but which delivers immense enjoyment and learning for young people.  Over recent years Angela became High Sheriff of Somerset, a Deputy Lieutenant and was awarded an OBE in 1992.

This is the story of a formidable and high-achieving woman.  She has demonstrated an entrepreneurial capability that we at the University of Bristol can admire.

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Angela Yeoman as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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