Jeanette Forbes: Woman takes on the rigs and wins!



When Jeanette Forbes went to get ready for work and found that she couldn’t get her boilersuit on because the arms and legs had been stapled together she took it as yet another challenge of being one of only a handful of women working on rigs in the oil and gas industry. Fifteen years on, as CEO of PCL Group, she’s hidden the stapler and is setting the industry a few challenges of her own.

She looks back with almost fond memories of some of the things she faced when she was establishing her new company in what was very much a male-dominated oil and gas sector, where the demands of the job often found her working at the “coal face”  both on and offshore. There was little doubt she was considered a bit of an oddity; her very presence there was challenged by some of her male colleagues; her sexual orientation was questioned and acceptance, when it came, was often in the form of good natured pranks and jokes – like the stapled up boilersuit. 

There were practical challenges too – being confronted with a row of urinals when she asked for the ladies’ toilet and having to share a cabin with three men when no other bed space was available. More difficult to accept were constant challenges about her ability to do the job because she was a woman – “do you know what you are doing?” – was a question she faced on a regular basis.

But she persevered and since those early years she has seen her small company grow to become a global IT service provider to the offshore, marine, commercial, industrial and renewables sectors.

“The early years were far from easy and there were a lot of personal and professional challenges along the way but it gave me the determination to succeed however hard things might be,” she said.

“I did almost give up on one occasion, I finally felt that I had turned the corner when I won a huge contract – only to be almost bankrupted when the customer turned out to be a bad debtor who refused to pay.”

She said the person who helped her through that time was her business mentor, and the support which he gave her made such an impression that she in turn became a business mentor in the Scottish Chamber of Commerce’s Business Mentoring Programme – and in November 2014 she was named the country’s best female mentor in the national Mentorsme Excellence in the Woman’s Enterprise Mentoring 2014 Awards.

Yorkshire born and bred, Jeanette brought a fair helping of Yorkshire grit and determination with her when she moved to Aberdeen with her husband in the mid-70s.

She had started in the oil and gas industry as a secretary and PA but realised that if she wanted to make more of a career for herself she needed to get some education and trained and qualified as a systems engineer. Never one to choose an easy path, she studied while working full time and while raising a young family.

The decision to start her own company in 2000 came when she was made redundant during a downturn in the oil and gas industry – a forerunner to the current economic climate faced by the sector.

“Being made redundant hadn’t figured in my plans, but in retrospect it was the best thing that could have happened to me as I don’t know if I’d have thought of starting up on my own without that push,” she said.

In those early days her dining room table took on a new lease of life as her office desk, the décor in her home was augmented by yards and yards of cable and, with no computer of her own, she was a frequent visitor to the public computers at the Central Library in Aberdeen.

Her passion for building her business is matched by her commitment to encouraging other women to opt for a career in the oil and gas industry and she is actively involved in a number of organisations which work towards achieving this and is a much sought-after speaker on the subject.

“My own experiences absolutely convinced me that there is a role for women, not just in the oil and gas industry but in any sphere of business. A lot has changed since my early days, the barriers are breaking down and now a lot of my focus is on encouraging women so they too can be who they want to be. Women should not be restricted by their own perceptions of what they can and can’t do – in other words they shouldn’t place barriers in front of themselves.”

Her work championing the cause of women has won her a number of national awards and industry recognition, including the SET Awards (Science, Engineering and Technology) for Prowess in 2008 and Enterprising Woman in 2009. In 2012, in recognition of her work to encourage women to not only enter the oil and gas industry but to set up their own businesses, she was appointed as Scotland’s first UK Female Entrepreneurship Ambassador. She is also a partner in Aberdeen College’s Women in ICT Project, and her work with the college was recognised in 2013 when she was added to the Association of Colleges (AoC) National Roll of Honour.

She is passionate too about her adopted city and at the beginning of this year she was invited to become an investment ambassador for Aberdeen’s Invest, Live, Visit initiative. She is also a Burgess of the City of Aberdeen, a board member of ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) and Chair of the Seafarers’ Centre.

There has been considerable professional recognition too; she is a member of the Scottish Government’s Technology Advisory Group and last year was appointed to the board of the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland – Business Excellence Partnership. “Do you know what you are doing?” she was asked all those years ago – the answer would appear to be a very strong “Yes”.

In 2012, in recognition of her work to encourage women to not only enter the oil and gas industry but to set up their own businesses, she was appointed as Scotland’s first UK Female Entrepreneurship Ambassador