Celebrating International Women's day 2024

To celebrate International Women’s day, Hannah Khusainova sat down with Mandy Burnell who, with husband Robert, founded PRF in 1982 and where she still works as part of the directorial team, head of purchase ledger and co-owner.

Tell me about the beginnings of PRF?

Due to health reasons, Robert had leave the composites industry. As he could no longer manufacture using the materials, he thought he would sell them, working with weavers in Germany. Karen (our first child) was born in the May and we started PRF in October. Robert sold materials and I wrote the invoices by hand. Robert drove to Germany to see suppliers and collect materials about once a week. Originally the materials were stored in our front porch in Devon. I had to hold the fort whilst he travelled. I took the calls, while I had a new baby and being professional! When we looked for a house, we had to look for one that could contain the business as well; we found a house with a double length garage – not for cars, but for materials!

About 3 year’s later, Hannah was born and less than a week later, Robert went to the canoe exhibition. When Hannah was 3 weeks old and Robert had to go away again, I ran the business for 1 week with the support of my father, a toddler and a newborn. During that time, I distinctly remember that I had an order for an urgent cut piece. I had to measure out the material, cut it and parcel it up. I bundled the kids in the car, drove it 9 miles to Barnstaple station and had to pay for it to be put on the train – and the customer picked it up at the other end. The next day I received a box of chocolates from the customer! But the main thing was that I did it!

Robert would be away 3 days in every week, seeing suppliers and customers and building the business. And I would stay at home, looking after the kids and taking the phone calls. Then Robert’s brother Jim joined the business and we re-purposed our dining room as the sales office, where he would come and work each day. After that, we got our first factory at Hankinson Road. And that was where it all started.

What are some fond memories you have?

Something always happened when Robert was away, and I had to cope with any problems. All with 2 young children as well!

And then there was the infamous time when I was fired! Robert asked me to leave – not in those exact words! - because a 2-year-old Hannah had messed with the computer and cancelled the accounts, losing around 6 months of records. We then found out that the back-up hard discs that we had to use back then were corrupted. So all that information was lost! I’d calmed down from being fired by the time he came home for dinner though. After that, I took an extended break for 2 years from the business and concentrated on our young family. Robert had to concentrate on growing the business and he was always travelling - servicing and growing our customer base.

How was growing a small business and a young family? What were some of the challenges?

Our first factory was a wreck when we bought it – my parents came to see it and my father thought we were mad taking it on! But it became a nice factory.

I suppose at the time, it was all a challenge! All of it, looking back, was bloody hard work! I went back to work when Hannah was 3 years old – she went into kindergarten and I worked 9.00am to 3.00pm. It was hard work, but I don’t remember complaining much – we just got on with it.

What motivated you to overcome these challenges?

We did enjoy it, but we also didn’t have a choice – we had a young family to support. Robert was very suited to running a business, and he found a niche in the market and PRF grew from there. Fortunately, it all worked out.

How does running PRF now differ from back in the beginning?

It’s much more demanding these days, because it’s bigger and over a number of sites. You have to delegate, which is hard when you have grown a business from scratch. Robert has slowed down on his travels, but he still loves to be out in the industry. Otherwise, it’s very similar to how it was in the beginnings - our values remain very aligned to how the business started.

What is valuable to you in terms of the business and the industry?

My focus has been very much internal and within the business, and my connection to the industry has been limited. The composites industry is Robert’s world, but where I derive my value from PRF is that it has enabled us to support our family, for which we are very fortunate. PRF has had to come first in everything. In a family business, you don’t get holidays for instance – the demands of the business come first.

What are some of the achievements over the years that you have been proud of?

I’m proud of it all. I’m very proud that PRF is now over 40 years old and – perhaps the biggest achievement – is that we have lived together and worked together for that length of time as well! And I’m very proud of our two girls; how they have grown and the lives and families they have now built.

But I never think of it in terms of achievements; I have taken care of the background and supported Robert in the growth of business. I’m very good at ‘sweeping up’ – I take care of everything else in the background to allow him to concentrate on what he’s had to, to achieve what we have achieved. It’s been a team effort.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

No. Not at all. It’s been one hell of a ride!

MB PRF International Women's Day