Commercial trainee, Murray International Metals, 1987-1988
I went into the workforce when I was 17. I come from a very working class family in Scotland and money was in short supply, so I worked myself up very much from a grassroots level. I didn’t actually see the inside of a university until I was nearly 40. Murray International Metals was fantastic early work experience. I started at 7.30 in the morning and we finished at 6.30 at night and I learned the basics, like how to be a team player, how to prioritise things and what the sale process looked like.
Sales and account management, Bupa Healthcare, 1988-1994
I learned quickly that I wasn’t cut out for the steel industry, it was very male dominated and I’ve always been quite a people-focused person, so working in healthcare had much greater appeal. So I then joined Bupa at 18 and I think that’s when things really kicked off for me.
I went in as a junior sales person and as I had no personal life responsibilities, I just worked incredibly hard. One of the early defining moments for me came when I was running the sales office management function in Edinburgh. We’d made a lot of changes but many branches down south, weren’t running in the most efficient fashion. So I wrote to the sales director at the time saying “you don’t know me, I’m running the sales office management function in Edinburgh, and I think we could restructure this across the country, and I’d like to have an opportunity to talk about it”. They flew me down a couple of days later, I had a 40 minute interview and they said “when can you start”. It was an early lesson for me that there can be some real benefits in putting yourself forward.
Customer service manager, Bupa Healthcare, 1994-1997
I completed the project and it went well, probably better than people were expecting and when you’re in a bigger organisation that’s more London-centric inevitably you get spotted by other folks. So I then moved from project based work in sales into customer service management, where I worked over a number of years on a combination of areas, including operational, call centres and back office management as well as on a fairly big transformation project.
Managing director, Bupa Childcare, 1998-2009
I got headhunted to go and work for one of the big banks. However, Bupa had a female chief executive, [Val Gooding] who was very pro diversity and didn’t want a senior woman leaving.
She said to me: “When I was a mum trying to get back to work there wasn’t any childcare for the boys, so I think there’s a good opportunity to stretch the Bupa brand into childcare and I think you’d be a really good person to do it.” I was only 27 at the time.
There was something about that opportunity that appealed – whether it was the entrepreneurial nature of the role or the chief executive having confidence in me – so I stayed and started with a blank piece of paper and developed a market entry strategy which I took to the main board. I think I asked for £3 million and they said they’d give me more than that.
First off, we bought one company which was very small, which did holiday clubs and helped parents find childcare, but for the likes of employees at Goldman Sachs and Shell. That was my first deal. Then a year later we bought one nursery and I spent a bit of time working in the nursery to learn the business. Then, the next year we bought Teddies Nurseries, which had 18 branches and we effectively used that as a buy and build platform.
Val’s timing in terms of spotting the opportunity was perfect because Labour had just come into power at that point and had launched the national childcare strategy, so it was quite high up the political agenda.
Managing director – UK and Ireland, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, 2009-2015
After a few years, Bupa decided to exit the childcare market and sold the business to Bright Horizons in 2009. I initially moved across just to do some integration work but the chief executive of Bright Horizons asked me to stay and run the whole in the UK and Ireland. And I just thought it was the best thing in the world. I was doing something I loved on a much bigger scale and having the platform to really work on key areas such as curriculum, safety and quality, workforce development and leadership. It was owned by Bain Capital at that point and they wanted the business to grow in the UK and that was very much my ambition, so we moved it from around 120 nurseries to over 200 by the time I left. Revenue grew from £50 million to £150 million.
Subsequently there was an IPO in 2013. And the landscape does change a bit when the business goes from that ownership structure to an IPO – the results are being reported on a quarterly basis, for example. For me, a couple of years after the IPO, I felt, I’ve been here for six years, I’ve achieved everything I want to do, it was time to pause for breath, step away from an exec role and spend a bit more time being a mum and writing my thesis.
Owner, Glass Moon Strategies, 2015 – present
I had a career break, spent a bit more time at home, got on with the thesis but I then kept getting phone calls from knowledge networking companies and investors who wanted some advice on education, predominantly early education in the UK and internationally. And I was also being asked to do public speaking on women in leadership. So I set up Glass Moon Strategies. The work was initially a combination of doing paid-for public speaking slots and advisory work for a number of different funds in the UK and internationally. And then I was asked by one fund to work for them exclusively probably about this time last year, which is what I did.
Managing director, Regard Group, 2017 – present
I got a call out of the blue from the chairman at Regard and he said “I’d like you to meet Sandie Foxall-Smith [chief executive of Regard]”, we had a great chat and it went from there really.
I was very clear in my own mind that if I was going to go back into an exec role, that it did not necessarily have to be in childcare/education but it had to be in a sector where there’s real purpose and meaning. And Sandie clearly articulated from that first meeting the social impact the guys at Regard do on a 24/7 basis.
I’m a big believer that you’re on a journey of lifelong learning and with your career you sometimes have to reinvent yourself. I saw this as my opportunity to apply a lot of my knowledge and experience of building and scaling businesses successfully but to a new and more complex area and that was really appealing.
Masters in high performance leadership, Middlesex University, 2010 – 2012
Senior executive doctoral programme, International Management Centre, 2013 – 2017
I started my doctorate of philosophy two years before I left Bright Horizons and it was initially going to be about safety in a multi-site commercial human services business, because safety’s a huge thing for me in terms of how you do not wrap children in cotton wool, but equally how do you keep them safe. But after I left Bright Horizons I spent a bit time just contemplating what really appealed to me from a research point of view and there were just a couple of things that made me start to look into gender equality, gender in the workplace and the glass ceiling as a phenomenon for senior women.
Basically the title of my thesis is ‘How can I relate my lived experience and career journey to the factors affecting female attainment in post-modern society’. I had my viva a couple of months ago and I passed with no rewrites which I suppose is the ultimate outcome. What I’m now hoping to do is create a few articles from it and also I’ve been asked to turn it into a book for the modern day career woman. So I’m in the process of figuring out when I’m going to get the time to do that.
First published in HealthInvestor Magazine. Please click here for more details; www.healthinvestor.co.uk