ERICA Fraser is the most senior woman in Sutcliffe Catering and arguably the highest female achiever in the UK contract catering industry. Her current role as managing director, North region, for Sutcliffe gives her responsibility for 302 contracts, turning over almost £50m a year, and for 2,500 staff.
Fraser has achieved this by the age of 41 and despite the fact that her early training and entry to the industry were less than positive.
"When I left school," she says, "I decided to do an OND in hotel and catering operations, simply because my best friend was doing the course and domestic science was my best subject at school. When I left college, I joined Sutcliffe at a girls' boarding school and hated it. I was cooking and mopping floors and thought I'd made a dreadful mistake."
Nevertheless, Fraser stuck with the job and within 10 months had been made assistant catering manager at a larger unit. At the age of 21 she became the company's youngest area catering supervisor, responsible for 16 contracts. Since then, she hasn't really looked back, being regularly promoted by Sutcliffe, with which she has spent her entire career to date.
Fraser puts her success down to several factors, including the company and its personnel department.
"Sutcliffe has always genuinely practised equal opportunities," she says, "and Granada [the parent company since 1993] promotes women at the top very much. Group personnel makes sure nobody is forgotten, and provides extensive training. It was a regional personnel manager who encouraged me to do a part-time MBA [which she passed in 1990], without which I couldn't have progressed any further than area manager."
But the company's personnel managers cannot take all the credit for Fraser's success. Her own determination and character have also been crucial. She openly admits to being extremely competitive - whether playing a game of Monopoly or in a business situation, Fraser passionately wants to win.
She credits her family background for giving her a strong work ethic. "I was the youngest in a family of four children and my older sister was always very intelligent and top of her class," she says. "That made me want to prove myself."
A further vital characteristic that has contributed to Fraser's achievement is her love of pressure. She says she never gets stressed. Of Granada's takeover of Sutcliffe, she says simply: "They are more demanding and expect results, but that kind of pressure can be quite fun."
During her career, Fraser claims to have encountered few difficulties with her employees, although she concedes that women need to work harder than men to prove themselves to their bosses and colleagues.
She adds: "I also think that, in an ideal world, men would always prefer to have a male boss, but if you treat people fairly and evenly, they will accept you."
Fraser's success has, however, come at a price - she has not had a family. Although it is not a decision she currently regrets, she wonders whether she will in future. "I'm sure if I'd chosen to have a family, I wouldn't be where I am today, so I suppose I have made a sacrifice," she says. "I don't think anyone could do this job and have kids - I have to be there when my clients want me."
Having said that, she wholeheartedly recommends that young women consider contract catering as a career. The hours worked, though sometimes long, are not as antisocial as in the hotel world, and tend to be daytime, Monday to Friday. "Contract catering is also challenging," she says. "I can honestly say I have never been bored."
As for her own future, Fraser admits she would like to climb yet higher: "I want to go as far as I can." n