Dawn Gibbins' blend of knife-throwing, feng shui, democracy and belly dancing certainly makes a new contribution to modern management theory. But how did it win her businesswoman of the year?
"OOOOOooooh, wow!" the woman in the orange trouser suit enthused as she picked up the Businesswoman Of The Year award at Claridges hotel in London in April. Dawn Gibbins, founder of specialist flooring firm Flowcrete, is the construction industry's newest star, but she's a generous one. Her Oscar-style acceptance speech praised her staff, her husband (he's also her managing director) and her bank manager.

She's still getting used to the honour and the attention, six weeks on. "People come up to me in the street now," she says. "I'm delighted to be recognised as a businesswoman in the male world of construction."

Gibbins, 44, founded Flowcrete, a Cheshire-based flooring manufacturer, 20 years ago. Here partner back then was her father, Peter, a technical consultant and researcher. He had been asked by confectionery giant Mars to design a floor that wouldn't be eroded by sugar - a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Instead of signing up to the Mars project as a consultant, Dawn persuaded her father to set up in business with her and make the product as well as design it.

Mars is still a customer today, and a colourful variation on that floor is being sold to shopping centres in more than 20 countries, earning a decent chunk of Flowcrete's £25m annual turnover. And it is that figure that makes the firm the biggest specialist flooring company in Europe, and number two in the world.

Gibbins' success was first acknowledged in 1994 with an MBE – but she's hungry for more recognition. "I'm trying to become the world leader," Gibbins says. "But I never thought it would grow this far – never, ever."

That it has done so is testament to her steely determination, boundless energy and democratic approach to management. "Your staff have got to believe in you and the product you're putting forward," she says. "You've got to involve them; they've got to feel a part of the company."

Flowcrete's staff are certainly involved – Gibbins' team-building and motivational ideas are never-ending. "We've had a Flintstones party, an Arabian Nights party with belly-dancing, a Wild West party with a knife thrower, medieval banquets, beach barbecues … I think it's important to laugh together – laughter is such a stress-reliever and it breaks down barriers."

Gibbins' workers do tire of their boss' enthusiasm, though - the staff representative pleaded for a plain black-tie ball last year. And her bouncy nature has led to some embarrassment on the part of her teenage daughters, who aren't keen on her flamboyant dresses. "They're trying to get me to be trendier; they think I'm over-the-top," Gibbins confides. "I love bright colours, yellows and oranges. I'm a spring and summertime person. They think I should be dressed in black – but that's just not me."

And Gibbins' appearance can be deceptive – behind the leopardprint and jewellry lies a firm grasp of the technical and scientific issues her company faces. In fact, in the early days Gibbins was Flowcrete's technical support manager, as well as its marketing and financial brains. "I was always on the phone answering technical queries, I was out on site doing specifications," she recalls. "A woman in the industry has to muck in, demonstrating products on site, laying floors to show people how. I had to be technically competent. It was hard getting acceptance that I was credible."

A woman in the industry has to muck in. I had to be technically competent. It was hard getting acceptance that I was credible

When she started out in business, Gibbins was motivated by her father; she wanted to give him space to create. "He was one of those passionate innovators who loved his job so much," she says. "But he didn't understand how business worked, so I had to learn that – build the relationship with the bankers and learn about cash flow and forecasting and all that. He was always worrying about the money and the risk, it frightened him a bit."

Her father died of cancer in 1993, when the company's annual turnover was £1.5m. Dawn was devastated, and freely admits that it was a massive business blow, too. "We had a complete void in the company; it was just so hard," she says. But Flowcrete found recruits and now she has seven "innovators" who continually experiment with ideas and improvements.

Gibbins is clearly a partnership person – she took joy in collaborating with her father and now thrives on the business relationship she has built with husband Mark. She recruited him from Shell UK after Flowcrete over-reached itself and faced bankruptcy in 1989, because she wanted an MBA on board. "I needed someone who had experience in bigger businesses," she says. "He had all this knowledge about the theoretical way you should run a business. Facing bankruptcy was a challenge but I always had confidence, because I had a good relationship with the bank and I had confidence in my team. I knew we would get over it."

Gibbins wasn't so confident when a second disaster hit Flowcrete, however – their factory and offices burned down in 1995, destroying all their equipment and paperwork. "It was an inferno," Gibbins says. "We had to reconstruct the whole of our finances from a six-week-old debtors' list that one of my directors had at home. Apparently, only 15 to 20% of businesses survive after a disaster like that."

But the loyalty and determination of her staff and friends in the industry pulled her through. "I was amazed by how much help we got," she says. "I had people offering to lend me factories! It took us three days to get back into manufacturing; that's unheard of. It was phenomenal."

Since then, Flowcrete has been on the up-and-up, and Gibbins' wacky management style has moved on – in February she brought a feng shui consultant in to audit the company offices.

"My philosophy is that where you're working and living should be a healthy environment," she explains. "Our offices are very stress-inducing – they're grey, the lighting is artificial, there's clutter everywhere. I studied a one-week course in Bali about clearing your clutter with feng shui. It's my hobby, but it also helps me in business."

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? My husband, Mark, and our daughters Michelle, 15, and April, 13. We live in the countryside with two horses, four dogs, two cats, five rabbits, 30 chickens, a hamster and a guinea pig. Where do you go on holiday? I like adventurous holidays – elephant trekking in Thailand, learning to reggae dance in Jamaica. Over Easter I took one of my daughters to Snowdonia to go walking and quad-biking. What music do you listen to? Classical music in the car. At home – Bob Marley, Van Morrison. I like heavier stuff like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to do the housework to. And my favourite of all is Santana. What car do you drive? I drive a gold Volvo convertible. My staff like it so much they want it to become the company car, so all the sales staff might end up driving them. What’s the floor like in your house? I’ve got laminate wood floors and carpets, but I’d like to put our cream-coloured terrazzo flooring throughout the house with underfloor heating. So we’re trying to design a thin-layer terrazzo that would be suitable.