Lead Interview: Jenny Butler

Liner Director, Cory Brothers

Our lead interview in the INCLUSIVITY issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Jenny Butler, Liner Director at Cory Brothers

Published in Suffolk Director Magazine Autumn|Winter 2022

Inclusivity: Open, Fair and Just

“I believe I could be a great example of how anyone, from any walk of life, can achieve success even having faced significant adversity. There are no restrictions or stereotypes on who can carry emotional baggage. In fact many of us carry it daily and still push through to achieve happiness, satisfaction, and a good quality of work life balance.” 

Interview:  Sue Wilcock Pictures: Warren Page

Jenny Butler talks to Suffolk Director

You only have to spend a few moments with Jenny Butler, who is Liner Director at Cory Brothers, to be aware that she doesn’t hail from these here parts. She was born and grew up in California in the USA.

Yet before you start conjuring up pre-conceived images of Jenny’s idyllic childhood living in the sunshine state, her formative years up to the age of 17 were anything but that.

“My parents divorced when I was four, and for the first 10 years after, my kid sister Susan and I lived with Dad in Rancho Cordova, California. Then when I was 14, we both went to live with Mom in Bakersfield, California (hometown of the heavy metal band Korn).

“By any stretch of imagination, my childhood was tough. There wasn’t a lot of spare money to do things, but when we were with Dad, there were always lots of people around, as his side of the family was pretty large, and when everyone got together, there were always gatherings with around 30 to 40 people.

“I enjoyed school, always had top grades and even then, I was getting involved in things that were male-dominated. For instance, I was the first female in my high school’s history to make the advanced drill team in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps programme. It was an alternative to PE and was run by a retired Gunnery Sergeant from the United States Marine Corps (USMC). I went to exhibitions and marched with an inactive M16 rifle; I can sing the USMC anthem to this day.

“Also, as my paternal grandfather was a fire chief, I wanted to be a firefighter and spent some time in the Explorer Programme for the Kern County Fire Department, working active shifts alongside full-time employed firefighters, who were all male. They welcomed me on my merit, and my time on the programme included physical training, touring schools for education, and attending live call outs.

“The American education system runs in a similar way to the UK; in that you stay in high school until you are 17-18. But by the time I was 15, finances were tight at Mom’s with so little income, that I had to leave school and get a job. However, I also moved into adult education to complete my schooling part-time.

“It was awful, but it was more pressing for me to earn money, so I could put food on the table and keep the power on at home. Throughout those years, my only thought was providing for my kid sister. It was me and her against the world and keeping her safe and fed was the only thing that mattered.”

“My way of escaping my life was to read. It didn’t matter what it was, or who it was by, as long as it captured my attention and enabled me to shut myself off from the real world, transferring me to another place away from my reality.”

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Yet, a turning point in Jenny and her sister’s lives was when they left their mother and went to live with their paternal grandmother, Kay, back in Rancho Cordova.

“Grandma Kay is my role model and has been the Mother I needed for over 30 years. Her unconditional love helped keep me going during dark times. She is wise, patient and kind, and encouraged me to be who I wanted to be.

“I was 17 and I finally felt I could move forward with my life. After years of adversity, I was feeling safer and more secure, and the pressure had lifted. I was intending to go to college, so I was working in a couple of part-time jobs to start saving the money I needed to pay for it. But then I met the reason I came to England.”

A modern Cinderella fairy tale

It was less than a year after Jenny moved in with her grandmother, that her life was upended by the arrival of Prince Charming, or to be more exact, a handsome young guy from Ipswich, Suffolk called James Butler.

“I had first met James online via an instant chat programme when I was 14 and we sparked up a virtual friendship. We lost contact when I was at Mom’s, but I dropped him a line when I moved in with Grandma Kay, and things just exploded. We spoke extensively and the relationship became more romantic, with the result that in his gap year in May 2003, he flew over to visit me to see whether we matched up to our online ‘expectations’.

“It was the first time we had met face to face. I had only seen a photo of him that he had sent me two days before he arrived, which was of him holding his plane ticket. But I didn’t feel that I had anything to lose.

“I remember telling him that if he didn’t look like his photo, I would leave him at the airport!

“That’s just me; I am articulate and direct, and have always been a bit brusque, which some see as confrontational; but I do care a great deal, and I am empathetic. I am not emotionally reactive, my feelings run deep. A lot of people say I take after my paternal grandfather in my nature, which I think is a good thing. He was a huge part of my life, and he passed away in 2000.

 “I met James at the airport in May 2003 and took him home. My family loved him immediately. They were flattered and appreciated the gamble he had taken to come halfway round the world to meet me, although Dad did threaten to break his legs if he ever hurt me!

“We got on like a house on fire and after three weeks together he went home, but we had already started making plans for me to visit him in England. I got my first passport and in the September, I flew to Heathrow on a 10-hour flight on my own. It was pretty intimidating as it was the first time I had ever been on an airplane or travelled outside of North America.

“I was welcomed by James’ family with open arms, and in what was a complete surprise to me, but with his mum and dad’s blessing, he proposed to me in a restaurant, over a bottle of wine and some pizza; I said yes. Apparently, he’d been planning it since he got back from seeing me in May and had saved up to buy an engagement ring. He went down on one knee, giving me the ring, while the other diners in the restaurant applauded.

“He was 20 and I was 18, but I knew it was the right thing, and we were madly in love. I returned home and there were lots of tears when we parted at the airport, but we promised to start making plans for the wedding as soon as I got home.

“On my return, my sister was happy for me but nervous at the prospect of losing me. Grandma Kay was happy and supportive, and Dad repeated his threat to break James’ legs if he hurt me.”

So, for Jenny, the college plans were shelved as it was more important that things were put in place, to enable the couple to financially support themselves.

“James was studying for his degree at the University of Essex, and although we were getting married in California, the intention was to set up home in Ipswich. So, a condition of the marriage visa was that I needed a job, or a job offer at least, to work and live in the UK.

“James’ uncle was working as a contractor at Ipswich Hospital and through his contacts, he was able to get me a guaranteed interview as a hospital cleaner. That, together with James’ dad standing as guarantor, saying he would support us financially if needed, was enough to get the OK for me to move to the UK.”

Seven months from first meeting face to face, Jenny and James got married in a ‘fairy tale’ Christmas  wedding in December 2003; an event that was choreographed by her auntie, which took place at her childhood church with 250 guests looking on and photographed by one of her uncles. Their ‘honeymoon’ was then spent in Los Angeles at the British Embassy getting her entry visa sorted out.

“It was approved, and I can remember the lady who handed me my visa saying ‘Congratulations, it’s now legal for you to drink’. On the 7th January 2004, we were both on a flight to England to start our new life; I still have my United Airlines flight stub.”

“I had my life packed up in three suitcases and two duffle bags, one which was filled with books.”

Putting down roots in Ipswich

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Adapting to living in England wasn’t easy; despite English being a shared language, the culture wasn’t similar at all. Being ‘very American’ and only 18 years old when she first arrived, Jenny felt isolated and for a time, struggled to adapt to the cultural differences.

One of the first impressions of Jenny that hasn’t changed over the years, is that wherever she goes, she has music on at top volume. With her favourite band being the Beach Boys, Jenny has grown up around a vast variety of music types, from classic rock to oldies and country to rap. She also includes opera and classical music amongst her playlists.

“My reputation as a formidable female developed quickly, however, I always looked out for the safety and well-being of others. Sharing some intimidating experiences of my younger days created an image of a young woman who had lived a very tough, adversarial lifestyle, that didn’t follow norms or rules. In fact, during a house party just a few years after moving to England, discussions around personal theme tunes cropped up.

“ I picked the song ‘California Girls’ by the Beach Boys, which was met with much hilarity from other attendees, who likened my persona far more to the perception of individuals from the song ‘Smoking in the Boys Room’ by Motley Crue, and that’s stuck.”

Arriving in England, Jenny started a job as a cleaner at Ipswich Hospital. It was there she met her first friend in the UK. She was a Portuguese lady, who was also a cleaner, and Jenny helped her with her English.

Wanting more, after three months, Jenny got a job as a Retail Assistant at Debenhams in Ipswich. Then over the next four years, she moved on to other retail positions in other stores in the town and in Woodbridge.

“It took me some time, but I realised I wasn’t suited to retail, and I wanted something office-based and more permanent.”

“I realised that I wanted a job where I could help and influence people, where I could be a leader and a role model. I wanted to be thought of as good, honest and keeping true to my moral standards, which followed in the footsteps of how my grandfather treated others.”

“By this time I was 22. I had attended around 25 interviews before I was lucky enough to go for a job at Fred. Olsen Freight. They took me on as Liner Commercial Assistant based at White House Road in Ipswich.”

That was in 2007, and by the end of that year, the business had been taken over by Cory Brothers. Jenny spent the next nine years at Cory, working her way up to Assistant Liner Manager.

“The job entailed me representing shipping lines and doing most of the practical duties around that. At the same time as working full-time, I studied for a BA in Business  Management and International Trade. Additionally motivated and financed by Cory Brothers, it was a three-year course. My life was pretty much taken up with working during the day, going home, eating, and then studying before going to bed and starting all over again. It was hard, but I had a chip on my shoulder about not having a college education.”

So, no one was more chuffed than Jenny, when she was the first person in her family to get a degree.

“Getting my BA took all my knowledge and experience and honed it into a skill. As well as developing my critical thinking abilities, I also learnt to investigate everything; to not take things at face value, but to substantiate things through qualitative data.

“I was then offered an opportunity with a global shipping line, to focus on a specific aspect of the industry – abnormal and specialist cargo. It was something I was interested in and had wanted to learn about, so I decided to give it a try.”

Jenny started her new job in January 2016. As Break Bulk and Project Cargo Manager, she travelled all over the UK and Europe visiting clients, sites, as well as attending conferences and meetings.

“James and I were both working full-time. We were happy and the best of friends, and when we did have rows, it was normally around the domestic chores in the house. It was never over work; he has always been incredibly supportive of what I do. Our spare time would be spent together, reading, playing video games, mountain biking and taking long hikes, preferably in the sunshine. He is simply my best friend in the world!”

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“Yet working in the shipping industry was challenging, as there were so few women doing what I did. Although the company I worked for was supportive, customers and suppliers found it difficult to accept that I had the skills and experience.

“I overcame this by blinding them with my knowledge. I would take their problem, find a solution and then move on. Once I started talking, they shut up pretty quickly. I would go on site visits and loadouts, – where cargo is transferred on and off ships – and I had to become one of the guys. I had to be very assertive, even more so than I am naturally, just so I could gain acceptance and respect.

“It wasn’t an incredibly difficult thing for me to do, but I did need to realise my environment and make the effort.”

“I can quickly adapt myself to fit in with where I am and the people I am with, as I believe I can read others fairly well. I also have a superpower in that I can scan read, whilst retaining all the detail and information. This means I am able to prepare quickly for most work situations and meetings; I can also read a 700-page book over a weekend!”

Returning to Cory

After five years, Peter Wilson, the MD of Cory Brothers approached Jenny and asked her to come back to work for the company, in a more senior role as Liner Director.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for me to expand my horizons and push myself out of my comfort zone.

“Yet, I lost a lot of sleep before accepting the job, asking myself: ‘is it the right decision for me?’; ‘can I make a difference?’; and ‘will I be able to do the job to a high standard?’ Then when I accepted, I had more sleepless nights analysing: ‘will I be any good?’; ‘will I be able to make my own mark?’; and ‘how can I take previous successes and make it even better?’; the latter being probably the most important question of all.

“I needn’t have worried. The working environment at Cory is incredibly inclusive – it is the individual merit that makes the person, not their gender.

“Today, I now sit on the senior leadership team, taking part in meetings where we discuss strategy and business growth, and I am able to implement change.

“Day-to-day I fulfil a directorial role, but I can do just about any of the jobs in my team, so I have an intrinsic understanding of their roles, and their challenges. Showing leadership is vitally important; I am engaged and understand the future aspirations of the business and its people. I am included in the decision-making, and I know that my opinions and views count and are valued.

“The most challenging aspect of my life is ‘juggling’ my work and home life. My fantastic team is a healthy mix of experience and new talent, and it’s important to me that I can react quickly to assist when we’re up against it. And as the business operates internationally, that moment can come at any time, day or night.

“Sometimes I have to be politely reminded by James that work isn’t everything, and I need to be a wife, friend and a great family member too.

“Ironically, my drive for perfection is something that I can control at work. I love what I do, and when I am at work I am ultra-organised, efficient, knowledgeable and have fantastic recall. But at home, I can forget and be a more relaxed me; in fact, I am at my happiest when I am with James, or tucked up in bed or on the sofa, with a good book to read.

“James and I have also been incredibly blessed to have found our first ever home in Felixstowe, by the sea. Whilst I know that it is our hard work and determination that made it possible for us to buy this home, it came along at the perfect time in our lives and the housing market at that point.

“When I watch the sun come up over the water in the morning, I still pinch myself at my good fortune and remember what I’ve endured to end up right where I am.”

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It turns out that being able to watch a sunrise is also incredibly therapeutic, especially when in January 2017, Jenny unexpectedly faced the loss of her mother.

“I was on my way out for some client visits, stuck in some of the usual traffic on the A14 near Cambridge when my phone started ringing; I had to pull into the services to take the phone call no one wants, Mom had passed away just 20 minutes before.

“I remember vividly that I couldn’t react too much at the time, because it was in such a crowded public area. Yet, it brought me to my knees emotionally for months. We hadn’t spoken in several years, but the finality of it all was devastating to me.

“It’s hard to find the right words to say how important watching the sun come up almost every morning has become. Feeling that incredible sense of peace is an acknowledgement that I’d faced another day and helps to remind me of the good things I have in my life.

“Throughout my life and what I have been through, it has been incredibly important to be true to who I am and to never compromise that for anyone. Also, communication and the words you use are extremely important. I am constantly reminding myself of what my Grandma Kay says, which is: ‘Never say words without them first hitting your wisdom teeth.’ I am who I am. I am willing to adapt, to change, to grow, but I won’t change what I am, and I don’t intend to.

“Fundamentally, I think I am kind, inclusive and the only judgement I make is on an individual’s merit. I love watching people grow and having the opportunity to play a part in that. To be honest it doesn’t matter to me if you are Barney the Dinosaur, if you have the appropriate skills, experience and the right attitude, you can have a seat in my team.”

For more information on Cory Brothers, visit https://ukdlink.biz/sliinc

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