Big in Japan: a woman who had no truck with business bias

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The Independent Online

For 20 years Nikki King has fought the anti-female prejudices in business. Her career is so remarkable that last week the Rochester businesswoman won a lifetime achievement accolade from the First Women Awards, an annual ceremony which celebrates barrier-breaking British women.

In the mid-1990s she was in Tokyo as the only female member of a team of business negotiators who were looking to import Japanese Isuzu trucks into Britain. "Whenever I spoke at meetings the Japanese wouldn't bother to translate what I was saying," said the 61-year-old mother-of-three. "They ignored me because I was a woman."

Their attitude changed at a test track outside the capital where the team of negotiators had been taken to to try out seven-tonne trucks.

"This very polite fellow suggested that perhaps I might like to drink iced tea instead," she recalls. "By the time I'd finished driving the truck, there were 80 astonished Japanese men at the finish line. They then brought out an 82-tonne articulated lorry with a 16-speed gearbox. Once I'd driven that round the track they accepted that I was one of them – and took me to a transvestite bar for a night out."

Ms King went on to become the managing director of Isuzu UK and in 2004 led a £32m management buyout of the Hatfield company. Her ascent was all the more remarkable as she only began her career at the age of 41, prompted by the need to earn more after her husband left her. She entered the male-dominated world of logistics. Within seven years Ms King was a regional account manager and was then headhunted by a consortium of businessmen who wanted to bring Isuzu trucks over from Japan.

The skills she learned as a mother to three children, she says, were invaluable in helping her rise through the ranks. "When you are a mother you automatically learn a whole skills set that is invaluable in the workplace. Anger management, good timekeeping, multitasking – all these things are vital for staying ahead in business. The only thing women lack is confidence."

She also made sure she acquired new skills, such as learning Japanese.

"If the Japanese want to say something without foreign business partners overhearing they switch to their own language, which puts you at a disadvantage. So I made sure I understood what they were saying. It wasn't long before I'd learned the words they would use to describe women."

Ms King's nickname was "obatarian" – a composite of "obasan", meaning elderly auntie, and "otarian", the name given to the son of Godzilla.

"It basically meant they thought I was a bit of a battleaxe," she laughs. "But it earned me respect."