Jane Crowther of G . F Smith on people power, the benefits of experience and falling in love with "home" again

Photography by Manchester-based Tora Baker

If you work in the creative industries, Jane Crowther is a much-loved personality that you'll undoubtedly be aware of.

Having enjoyed two decades at G . F Smith and an early career at her family's paper merchants in Salford, she is one of the UK's most knowledgable people when it comes to paper and print.

A force to be reckoned with, she's doing great things – not just in the creative community as a whole – but on her local doorstep in Stockport and Manchester, all with the aim of bringing people together, creating a strong creative network and even helping to regenerate her hometown.

During an exciting trip to see James Cropper in the Lake District, where G . F Smith paper is made, I happily chatted to Jane about her career and experiences so far.

What do you do at G . F Smith?

Today, my official job title is UK Text and Cover Country Sales Team Leader. Up until recently, I was a paper consultant. I'm still a paper consultant, which is a nicer term than sales rep, as that would just terrify most people. But my job involves looking after the entire country sales team as well.

We're back-sellers. We're not the hard sell. We're hopefully used as a resource for advice on what paper to use for people's projects or needs. People like graphic designers, students, end-users... even printers ask for our advice on which paper prints best for certain uses. Paper merchants approach us, too – the very people who buy paper stock on behalf of printers.

It's an all-singing, all-dancing role which involves wearing lots of different hats and personalities, depending on your audience.

What do you love most about your job?

I used to hate doing lectures for students. I was terrified and always thinking, these are young, cool adults who are looking for inspiration and then I rock up, 'the weird paper lady', encouraging them to touch and feel the paper. And they might look at me, thinking I'm strange. Which I am. But I embrace that fact now. And they do, too.

That's what I enjoy most – meeting fresh faces and talking passionately about paper. Seeing their eyes light up when they get to learn about the very materials they'll be working with in future. It's working with people I enjoy the most.

You're clearly a solid part of the creative community. Everyone knows and loves you. That's been deliberate, hasn't it?

Yes, but over a long period of time. Some of the designers I'm calling on now, I lectured at university. Which makes me feel incredibly old. But it just shows how important it is to talk to students whilst they're young; to inspire them and establish that relationship.

So when they begin their careers, they know they can drop me an email or tweet me to ask any questions they might have. I'm always there. And hopefully approachable. That's what I love – being readily available to help all these talented youngsters.

So it's not just about being a paper consultant; it's about being part of a support network, too?

Absolutely. And you know what, I wouldn't even class it as a job. Everybody gets fed up with their work every now and again, but my job is different every day. I can call on Manchester Art Gallery and do a project with them as I did for their New Order promotion. I can work with Manchester Print Fair and help out there. I can lecture at universities. Every day is really different.

And now we're training some new members of the G . F Smith team and it's helping to refresh my own mind on how it used to be. I think our company might be perceived as this giant being but, really, we're just a family of people who happen to be fortunate to have the most amazing products.

What's made you smile recently on your many travels to places?

I don't go to our Hull HQ very often, even though we're a Hull-based company. I was up there Monday and Tuesday last week, and I couldn't stop smiling. Seeing everyone, it just reminded me how passionate everyone is at G . F Smith.

You form relationships over a period of years but everyone embraces fresh faces – I'm proud of how we continually invest in our people and team. From the guys on the envelope machines to everyone in the company. It's great to see how much we all feel like we're part of something special.

Where were you before G . F Smith?

My great great grandfather was the founder of Samuel Crowther's, a paper merchants in Salford. It was handed down through the generations, eventually to my own father and I started there when I was 21 years old, working on the sales and admin team. I had to really prove myself, as I was the boss' daughter and they expected me to work just as hard as everyone else. Quite rightly, too.

My older brother also worked at the company but he was a bit naughty. He'd be lazy in the office and do things like hide filing instead of deal with it. So, to teach him a lesson, they tied him to the top of a large pile of palettes one day and left him there for a while. Until he got the message, anyway. Thankfully, nothing like that happened to me but I still had to go above and beyond to prove I was more than just family.

Do you think being a woman played a part?

Not there, I don't think. But certainly elsewhere in the industry. Some young 20-something girl, rocking up to a printing firm that had been around for 100 years and trying to earn their respect. It could sometimes be a challenge. Not sure if my gender had anything to do with it – perhaps my age instead.

These days, if I come across anything negative, I don't tend to get phased by anyone – no matter what they might think of me. I shake it off. It's all thanks to my life experience. I have the knowledge. I'm not there to be someone's friend unless they want me to be. I have confidence in my skills and expertise.

I suppose that's the best piece of advice I can give to anyone starting out in the corporate world. Just become really informed. Know what you do inside-out. Because the more you know, the more confident you become. And the consequence is that people will respect you – no matter how old you are or whether you're a man or woman.

It's one of the nicest things about getting older. We become more comfortable in our own skin.

Yeah. I experienced an enlightening moment when I hit 40. I was dreading reaching that milestone but when the birthday arrived, I thought, ok, now people have to see me as an adult. I deserve their respect. I think in my mind, I'd always seen myself as no older than 25. Whilst I still feel young at heart, I know I'm a 'grownup' that people have to take seriously. It's immensely satisfying to recognise how far we've come and celebrate our achievements.

Do you think it's a female trait that we don't give ourselves enough credit where it's due?

I think, in some sense, it might be harder for men these days because a lot of expectations are placed on them and if they don't live up to them, they're judged for it. Whereas, women of my age are quite fortunate as we've been through all the rubbish bits of being a woman in the creative industries and are now in an era where things are progressing and improving. Today, it's a really comfortable space – one where I rarely consider my gender.

It's certainly changed a lot in the last 10 years alone, hasn't it!

Yes, it definitely has. I think it would be nice to remember some old-fashioned values, which I think we've lost when fighting these battles to be recognised as equals. It would be nice to think we can keep our integrity as human beings, no matter whether we're male or female.

I was always brought up to be polite and respectful of others. It would be nice to think we could still hold doors open for one another. Say please and thank you. You know, those traditional manners that we seem to have lost a little.

Basic manners do seem to be disappearing. Is technology to blame?

Technology certainly makes it easier to not have to interact with people. Maybe that has affected society's ability to deal with the real world. It's easy to hide behind social media, for instance. But whether technology is to blame for a lack of decent manners?

Some would even say manners are old-fashioned and outdated.

Hey, if manners are classed as old-fashioned, then you can call me old-fashioned. I don't mind. Having someone say thank you for even the smallest thing goes a long way. I thanked someone the other day and they were so surprised. It shows that manners are becoming so rare that people think you're weird when you thank them for something. It's a shame.

I don't think you can point your finger at any one section of society. Some might accuse young people of being rude but I've found older generations lacking in basic manners.

Communication is such an important skill to have in business. And manners play a huge part. It seems some have this sense of entitlement these days. Like the world owes them something. If we could just bring some of the old school habits back and remember that it's about 'give and take', I'd be very happy.

It's incredible what can happen when you dedicate a little time and energy to a cause that you feel passionate about.

Has anyone recently been polite to you and restored your faith in humanity?

My daughter does so every day. She's 14 and, trust me, she can be a teenager on a regular basis, when it suits her. But everywhere she goes, whether we're leaving a supermarket or creative event, she will always turn around and say thank you. It makes me very proud.

So moving on, it's great to hear you're passionate about your job. It's a rare thing – to love what we do. Do you ever feel embarrassed saying you're happy at work?

I used to. I'd think it's not cool to say you like your job. Everybody is happy to moan. And the first thing people complain about is their job. But to actually be able to sit there and say, my job is not what's wrong with my life – it's great!

I mean, don't get me wrong. I don't wake up every morning like Mary Poppins with the sun shining, birds singing and jumping out of bed feeling amazing. I have my 'off' days, too. But for the most part, I love getting out there and meeting people, helping them to bring their projects to life. I love my job. I understand that's not something people really want to hear.

There's a lot of talk about overwork at the moment. Like it's a badge of honour. What are your thoughts on that?

I work out of home, most of the time. I enjoy the flexibility. Sometimes I have to work late but that's my choice. I don't hurt anyone else. No one is affected by my personal lifestyle. I'm not making anyone else look bad by working longer hours than them, for example. But I get how others might feel the need to work longer hours to 'keep up'. It's one of the saddest things about the modern world.

There's a lot to be said for time management. Something I could be better at, definitely. But what I mean is – if employees are having to work long hours, then that's the fault of their employer. Companies need to get better at managing workload so their staff don't have to half-kill themselves to meet deadlines.

Overwork isn't something to be proud of. It can't be a badge of honour because it's so negative.

You're not just involved with G . F Smith. You've got a couple of side ventures, too?

Yes! One is called Breakfast Club Manchester, which I started with the lovely Peggy Manning – founder of The Public Meeting and now run with the fabulous Alessandra Mostyn of Manchester Print Fair. It's a monthly, early morning free event where we invite the local business community to come together, network and hear inspiring talks. It's always on the last Wednesday of each month.

We've had lots of interesting folks share their stories so far. We encourage our guest speakers to talk about any side ventures they might have or things they're really passionate about. For instance, we've had the chaps from We Are Willow come and talk about their Manchester Mind project. We've had The Mustard Tree tell us more about their homeless charity.

We're trying to create a sense of community. To open people's eyes to all the amazing things that are happening in and around Manchester. We've always had a good turnout but we've got new faces every time. It's completely free and all are welcome. We love the feedback we've had and it's fun – we love it!

What are you up to in Stockport?

Open Spaces is a new project that hopes to breathe new life into Stockport. Founded by myself and Vicky Carr of Textbook Studio.

But first, a little background. I'm Stockport born and bred. As a child, growing up here, I always hated it. It was a concrete jungle in the 1970s, was always a bit rough and didn't look too good. Yes, it's common for any teenager to dislike their home town or city. But as an adult, I've come to appreciate my birthplace.

There is so much history to Stockport and stunning architecture. The Old Town itself is incredibly beautiful. It has so much heritage. Cobbled streets everywhere you look. But many of the shops are empty, leaving these dirty, grubby shutters on display.

It's not all bad. In recent years, we've started to see some fantastic independents launch shops and businesses in Stockport. There's definitely a growing community as people move out of an expensive Manchester to find cheaper rents elsewhere. Rare Mags, for instance, has opened next door to the tattoo shop that's been around for 40 odd years. They all chat and support each other. It's great to see. But more can be done to regenerate Stockport.

So Vicky and I started to talk about ideas and we approached the local council to see if we could do anything to help. One idea was to decorate the shutters on the empty shops, inviting local artists and designers to brighten up the place, following a central theme. A theme that would change on a regular basis.

Well, as councils go, Stockport Council is pretty darn good. The people who are working in the Old Town are so passionate about what they're doing and so open-minded to new ideas that they've agreed to the shutter scheme but also given us two empty shops to turn into creative spaces.

It's important to note that we are council supported, not council funded. Open Spaces is a non-profit scheme, something we run voluntarily and anyone involved dedicates their time for free.

The response so far has been overwhelming. People love what we're doing. Stockport has a fantastic community and it's exciting to start such a passionate side project that celebrates our heritage and birthplace.

If you want something doing, why not do it yourself, right?

That's something I've learnt with age, too. Maybe I've just got to that stage in life where I'm sick of people moaning about stuff but never doing anything about it. I want to use my spare time to see positive change in Stockport.

I've also realised that it often just takes one or two people to stand up and do something. Get the ball rolling, so to speak. With Open Spaces, so many people have crawled out of the woodwork, mega keen to help – it's been an amazing start. It feels like we've been doing this for years.

Hopefully, Open Spaces will lead to more ventures and opportunities and continue to open up a network that celebrates everything on our own doorstep. Not just creatives but people and businesses from all walks of life.

Just look at Manchester's Northern Quarter a couple of decades ago! It wasn't a nice place to live or work but over time, the creatives moved in and turned it into a wonderful city neighbourhood. We'd love the same thing to happen to Stockport. And we think it's entirely possibly. It's incredible what can happen when you dedicate a little time and energy to a cause that you feel passionate about.