When the Penny dropped

The Northern Echo: INSPIRATIONAL: Penny Mallory at last year’s conference INSPIRATIONAL: Penny Mallory at last year’s conference

Penny Mallory was the first woman to compete in a World Rally car, helped hardened criminals turn their lives around and took up boxing at the age of 44. Next week she enters the North-East business arena by hosting a major conference for entrepreneurs. Sarah French reports

THERE can’t be many window cleaners who have changed a person’s life, but for Penny Mallory the man up the ladder was the start of her climb out of certain oblivion.

With a heroin addict as a boyfriend, a disintegrated home life, a punk hairdo and a head full of angry thoughts, she was only heading one way.

Until she came across a bloke cleaning windows. “I remember looking at him and thinking ‘that’s all I’m going to be in my life’. It was a defining moment,” she says.

In fact, getting a job as a window cleaner would have been a step up for her at that time. But then again she had come from a background that promised so much more: an idyllic childhood in a beautiful house in a chocolate box village and a private education.

An ugly combination of problems at home – she prefers not to go into the details – saw her parents’ marriage crumble and, at 14, Penny left.

She stayed in a boarding house at school and with friends and, while drinking and self harming, hooked up with the drug addict. “I could have been sucked into that world. Luckily I wasn’t,” she says. “But I was feeling very sorry for myself and wondering what I’d done to deserve it when I saw the window cleaner. It was a banal moment, but it changed my life.”

After that she focused all her energies and determination into pursuing her dream to drive rally cars. Since then she has been a well respected television presenter, a businesswoman and is now a motivational coach.

The ability of the human spirit to transform has not only seen her turn her own life around, it has also become her work and is the thing that inspires her the most. “I suppose because I did it myself and turned my life around, I love to see other people making something of their lives against the odds.”

EARLIER this year Penny was in the North-East as host of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum’s Achieve conference marking International Women’s Day. She is back tomorrow to present Who Dares Wins, the Forum’s annual conference in Gateshead, one of the premier events in the North-East business calendar.

Delegates can expect more of her intuitive questioning as she goes beyond the typical host role of simply introducing the next speaker. “I love to challenge an audience, to get them thinking,” she says.

Her own early career saw her working as a waitress, in a recording studio, an arts studio and in graphic design.

“I was thrashing around aimlessly in my late teens, I was a total waster,” she admits. “I made lots of mistakes but then I realised that it was only me who could change it.”

She found her focus, driven on by a love of cars and motorsport inherited from her dad. She enrolled in a rally school, but simply learning how to race was not enough. “I was so determined,” she says. “I was in my early 20s and in theory that was way too late; I should have been karting at the age of seven.

But I still managed to do it. In the end, it did change the course of my life.”

Not only did she become competent behind the wheel, becoming National Ladies Champion within four years, but she was also adept at raising the finance needed to support her career, managing to secure household names as sponsors. Before long, she was driving a Ford Focus World Rally car.

“Usually I was the only girl, but occasionally there were one or two others.

I was desperate to do it and nothing was going to stand in my way.”

She became her own PR machine, securing television interviews and press coverage. “I was an uncontrollable ball of energy. I would do anything because it was all I wanted to do in the world and I knew that if I got the media coverage for my sponsors, they would continue to support me.”

Penny sent her CV to lots of television companies and after doing bits of presenting, combined with instructing rally drivers and even driving in the Nicole & Papa commercials for Renault Clio, she finally made her breakthrough landing a presenting role on Channel 4’s Driven. For the past three years, Penny has presented the Used Car Roadshow for ITV and is a regular contributor on Daybreak. Her first book, Take Control of Your Life, hit the number two slot on Amazon last year.

She has a good early education to thank perhaps for her presentation and speaking skills, although all the achievements that came after have been solely down to her.

“For a long time as a young adult I had no emotional support. I was really on my own. Although my formative years were massively beneficial, I changed school a lot after the age of 12. I was a car crash at every single one. I hated every second of school.”

Perhaps in an attempt to make up for the inadequacies in her own education, she has worked extensively as an educational speaker in schools and colleges with students aged 11-18, from the gifted and talented to the disengaged, and the homeless.

SHE also hated sport. So it’s somewhat ironic that she went on to not only work in sport and with sportspeople but also to run a marathon, climb a mountain and to push herself harder in a physical sense than she ever imagined she would.

The driver has been her absolute rejection of getting old. “I have a terrible fear of it,” says Penny. Now 46 and a single mum of two teenage girls, she adds: “I’m still 23 in my head.”

Two years ago she embarked on boxing training. “I thought it would keep me fit and mentally alert, and it has got me really fit and lean.”

She hasn’t shied away from going in the ring either. Her first fight was against a woman half her age. It was a draw.

Now Penny is hoping to take her training up a gear by joining Teamed Up, an initiative that gives people the unique experience of training with an Olympian. She is hoping to learn from Nicola Adams, Britain’s best hope of a gold medal in women’s boxing at this year’s Olympic Games.

Her most rewarding experience to date, however, has been working in high security prisons where she was involved in a course to rehabilitate offenders.

“I would be in a room full of 16 pierced, tattooed, hardened bullies who had never had to face up to what they’d done. During the six-week course I’d see them go on an emotional journey, watching them initially resist, then accept and finally fall to bits at the end and become blubbering wrecks.

“It’s the most stand-out thing I’ve done and certainly the most rewarding.

It comes back to being inspired by ordinary people, seeing them transform and turn their lives around.”

• Who Dares Wins, the Entrepreneurs’ Forum’s annual business conference followed by awards dinner, is at the Hilton Hotel, Gateshead, tomorrow. For more information, visit entrepreneursforum.net

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