Emily Groves, Indigo Swan

Our lead interview in the Enterprise issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is Emily Groves Founder & Executive Chair of Indigo Swan based in Norwich.

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine, Spring/Summer 2019
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Spirit, Drive and Determination

“If I was to use three words to describe myself as I am today, it would be authentic, enthusiastic and inquisitive; all traits that I think add value to what I do and helps me to be a better person, both professionally and personally.”

The business community in Norfolk will know Emily Groves as the founder and Executive Chair of award-winning energy consultancy, Indigo Swan, based on Millennium Plain in Norwich.

Outwardly, she exudes confidence and self-assurance and her demeanour is that of an inspiring, capable and focused professional. However, to truly appreciate what drives Emily and makes her tick, you have to understand her formative years as a child.

Early life

“My parents Yvonne and David met when they were both constables in the Metropolitan Police, and I was born in Watford General Hospital in March 1980. Until I was nine, we lived in Bushey in Hertfordshire.

“My grandparents and uncle had all moved up to Norfolk, and when the convent school I was going to closed down, it was the spur for us as a family to also move to the county. We lived just outside Holt, and myself and my sister Sarah, who is three years younger than me, went to the local primary school.

“I was always a good kid; a model student who did her homework and worked hard. But I was also an anxious child, and this stemmed from my mum’s unpredictable nature – which I now know was caused by mental health issues – and my desire to pre-empt things to make her happy, so she didn’t have a reason to get upset with me.

“I loved arts and crafts and making things – something I still love doing now. I used to make models and tiny dolls house furniture out of plaster of paris and imagine having my own production line and selling them.

“But, as I had joined a new school in Year 5, it was tough to make friends,
and this was made extra difficult as I was shy and quite introverted.”

“My move up to Fakenham High School was also challenging, as only one of the few friends I had made went with me, and the rest went off to Sheringham.

“Nevertheless, I liked secondary school, and although I wouldn’t dare not work hard, I didn’t feel under pressure to achieve. My favourite subjects were English and History, and I enjoyed Business Studies when I did it for GCSE.”

Gaining confidence

Shyness and confidence were still a problem for Emily however, and one memorable occasion in class brought this to the fore.

“My teacher asked me a question and as usual my face would go bright red. This time however, the teacher playfully said, “Oh Emily!” and she took an empty cardboard box and put it over my head and then asked me to answer the question. This carried on over the following weeks, to such an extent that my classmates ended up decorating the box!

“That moment stayed with me and I decided in the Summer between taking my GCSEs and starting my A Levels to focus on becoming a happier me, to smile more, embrace opportunities and be more fun to be around.”

And, keeping true to her promise, in the sixth form, a new more confident and sociable Emily emerged.

“I decided to take Business Studies, English and History at A Level. However, I never had any idea of what I wanted to do when I left school and there was never any clear profession that appealed to me.”

The only definite was that Emily would be expected to go to university.

“My mum’s brother, Barry, went to Harrow and Oxford, and my dad’s brother, Tim, went to Cambridge, so there was always an unquestionable expectation that I would go on to do a degree.

“So, I decided to go to Leicester University to read American Studies. The reason for choosing this degree initially was simply because it was at the start of the handbook. Then reading a bit more about it, I liked the variety of the syllabus and the fact that I would spend a year in America. That really appealed to me.”

A devastating loss

Two weeks away from leaving for university, a tragedy occurred which sent the family into a tailspin when Emily’s mother took her own life.

“Mummy had tried before, and with her history of mental health issues it wasn’t a complete surprise, but it was still an awful shock for us all.

“Looking back, I think mummy was probably bipolar, but in those days, you didn’t speak about it and the issue was avoided.

“My parents had split up soon after moving to Norfolk and my sister and I lived with our mum and stepdad. Daddy was nearby and part of our lives, and although everyone in the family knew about her problems, for a long time I blamed myself. I felt that if I had worked harder, she would have been happier, as that was the one thing I could do to influence her mood. I now know that her behaviour reflected herself and I’m not responsible for her actions and the way she was.”

Today, although not a conscious decision, Emily feels that the experiences at school, and with her mum taking her own life, have informed the way she built her team at Indigo Swan.

Nurturing my team

“Over time these experiences have distilled in me and it is incredibly important to me, that I give the individuals who make up my team the opportunities and the understanding they need to progress, be happy and become the best version of themselves they can be.”

Although her mum’s passing was cause of some angst to Emily about whether she should continue with her plans and go to university, she was very much supported by the people around her to stick with it.

“My only big worry was leaving Sarah, as we were so close and although she had the family to look after her, we had a special bond. But I did it and, on reflection, from that point onwards I’ve always tried never to leave her behind again.”

The university years

The first two years at Leicester were difficult for Emily, as by her own admission she went a “bit off the rails”; hardly surprising knowing what had happened in her family life.

“To others, I was a typical university student, but to me – the steadfast model student who worked hard – I viewed this time as an experimental phase in my life.

“My third year was a turning point when I took a year out and went to the American university, Old Dominion, coincidentally based in Norfolk, Virginia. This gave me the chance to take a break from the destructive relationships I had started to form at Leicester.

Spreading my wings

“I loved this time and lived in International Hall on the campus, which housed students from all over the world.

“I really picked up on, and studied in quite a lot of depth, the concept of the ‘American Dream’; grasping your own destiny and through hard work and determination being confident that you can achieve anything.”

“However, the biggest transforming element about my time in America was doing
a course on ‘Women in American Society’.”

“The course was delivered by Professor Anita Fellman. She was truly inspirational and was one of the loveliest people I have ever met. She helped me very much with giving me reading matter and encouraging me to talk about my mum. I ended up writing a paper and doing research on ‘Malicious Parent Syndrome’, which is where parents split up and one becomes very malicious and uses the children as a weapon.

“Anita was kind, and this was a starting point for me on learning and understanding my mother’s behaviour and why she did what she did.”

And, linking in to Emily’s love of learning, Anita suggested something that would also help her in conquering her issues around confidence.

“She asked me to run a course on pedagogy, which is most commonly understood as the approach to teaching. More broadly, it refers to the theory and practice of education, and how this influences the growth of learners. Pedagogy centres around setting up an environment where the needs and dreams of a student can be understood by the teacher, so they can teach in a way that delivers the best attitude and engagement from the student.

“Having to get up and speak in front of a group of people and deliver workshops gave me confidence. And now when I look back, my time in America was instrumental in making me believe I was good at something and building my self-assurance and self-esteem.”

Returning to the UK

When Emily returned to the UK to complete her fourth and final year of her degree, the friends she had the destructive relationships with before she left weren’t there, as they had completed their third and final year and graduated.

“My friendship groups in my final year became the fourth year American Studies students and they remain my friends today.

“I graduated with a 2:1 BA Hons degree, and although I had been working part-time in my final year, I needed a full-time job. So, I got a contract with a graduate recruitment and sales training company called Metamorphose based in Cheltenham. They specialised in taking graduates, training them in sales techniques and then placing them into suitable positions.

“At this time, I was living back in Norfolk and I went for a job interview with Pilgrim Frozen Foods who are based in Boston, Lincolnshire and got a job as a Key Account Manager.

“I was 22, had a company car and was travelling around selling frozen food to local hotels, restaurants and pubs.”

But the job only lasted six months. Emily was lonely and unhappy as she wasn’t interacting and working with other people.

“I could do the job, but it wasn’t for me.”

Finding my own way

So, Emily asked her dad, who was working as an energy and telecoms broker for a small utility business, whether he knew of any vacancies locally, and he asked her to come and work for him.

“I joined him initially working from my bedroom helping with sales support and admin. I worked alongside him for eight years throughout my 20s. Although it was great and I learnt a lot, it was also difficult, as by the time I was 29, my sister was also working with us, as was my boyfriend, Mark. Therefore, the parameters between personal, family and work life were very blurred.

“I was also getting itchy feet and felt the urge to branch out on my own”.

“I had tried to leave before, but was always persuaded to stay. I was very frustrated. Sitting on the sidelines, I could see there was a more effective way to do things. I was working long hours for not much pay and I felt I wasn’t moving forward.”

The catalyst for Emily occurred in the summer of 2009 when Michael Jackson died.

“I loved his song ‘Man in the Mirror’ and the chorus of the song says, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.” That really motivated me to do something and I came up with a plan.”

Emily Groves, Indigo Swan 1
Photo by Warren Page Pagepix

The birth of Indigo Swan

Emily approached the MD of the company she worked for and put a proposal to him. She wanted to purchase their database of existing energy clients and TUPE across four employees, including her sister, for her new business.

“Although this was tough and the MD was, in his own words, ‘incandescent with rage’, he agreed to what I asked and Indigo Swan started trading in January 2010, helping businesses negotiate and manage their gas and electricity contracts.”

“We began working from a small office in The Royal in Norwich, and right from the start I knew I wanted to bring a more positive and human focus to the business. I don’t know whether it stemmed back to my year in America and the course on pedagogy, but I had very clear ideas on how I could be effective and capitalise on the opportunities and potential of the people that worked for us. I knew there was a better way of running a business and bringing out the best in individuals.”

The result is a business that is built on a foundation of valuing and appreciating everyone; whether they are customers or ‘Swans’ as Emily refers to the individuals in her team.

“Recognising that I needed to take small steps, my aim was to nurture a happy workforce and to be in control of my own destiny to a certain extent.

“It was hard in the early days, but I had so much energy, which I needed as I worked a lot. I have a genuine and overriding passion for what I do. But, to be frank, I am happiest when I am sitting in front of a spreadsheet, designing a process and managing the operational aspects of the business.”

Impressively, Indigo Swan survived the first year, made a profit and didn’t lose any clients.

“Although there have been significant successes recently, in the early days it was more about getting up every morning, carrying on, and accepting that you are where you want to be, and you wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

A growing business

The move in 2012 to offices on Millennium Plain, which is opposite the Forum in Norwich, was a big moment for the business.

“Unless you run a business, you don’t really understand the thinking and complete absorption
that goes into a task as big as moving your business to a new location.”

“For months, it was all-absorbing, and everything in my life revolved around the move.”

So, what drives Emily to get up in the morning?

“Now, it’s because I’m passionate about what we do, and I have the freedom to concentrate and focus on the things I love about running a business. However, in the first few years, it was that I didn’t have a choice; I had to keep going. It was very stressful for a time and my sleep patterns were horrendous as I couldn’t switch off.

“Giving up was never an option for me and the choices I made, either good or bad, were the process of learning about business. It’s all about the climb and the struggle, which now when I look back, makes me appreciate things even more.”

Today there are 22 people at Indigo Swan.

“The way the Swans feel about themselves and how we have nurtured them over time, has given them a sense of belonging. This, together with the skills and techniques they have learnt, has given them purpose and positivity which ripples out into all aspects of their life; family, friends and the community.”

The modern family dynamic

Emily’s life took a new turn in 2014 when she and her partner, Mark, had their son Logan.

Three years later though, the couple split up. “Our relationship breaking down was one of the hardest journeys I’ve been on, it really rocked my world and bought back into focus a lot of sadness from my childhood.  

“However, where Logan is concerned, I have never regarded myself as a single parent, but as a co-parent. Mark and I are raising him together equally. The one thing I find most difficult is trying to rationalise the fact that I am a part-time mum and that’s heart-breaking, as there is nothing I would love to do more at this point than be a full-time mum.

“I have a half-life if I look at it in a pessimistic way, although to look at it positively, I still have the opportunity to lead and devote uninterrupted time to work and my wellbeing. I’m extremely lucky that I can have a variety of experiences and Logan benefits as he has equal presence of both parents, and when he is with either of us, he gets more attention and focus because we can spend quality time with him.

“However, my approach to being a mum revolves around self-esteem, pride, ability and love, but above all consistency and predictability. As although my childhood was loving, there was always that unpredictability around my mum and her behaviour. With Logan, the biggest driver for me is his happiness, and that he is kind to others.”

Finding balance

Nowadays within the business, Emily plays a more strategic role. She loves getting out and about speaking to, and learning from, others. The ability she has, to absorb knowledge and then know how it can be applied at Indigo Swan, is all important.

“As a business owner, you need to have a love for numbers, especially when starting up as you must obsess about the cashflow daily. Financial acumen is vitally important as that’s the fuel for your engine. Until last year, I managed all the finances and was completely self-taught. I have now taken on a Head of Finance and she handles everything extremely capably.

“In my downtime, I enjoy spending it with Logan, and we tend to play Lego a lot. I still have a love of arts and crafts, and I enjoy making mosaics. Oddly, I think that’s because they are an artistic representation of spreadsheets! I don’t do it as often as I would like to but, I find it very therapeutic when I do get the time.

“I have also discovered a love for keeping-fit and I do weight training, running and Pilates. I’m not an adrenaline junkie, but just focused on keeping myself in the peak of health. I’ve always been aware of what to do to keep your mind healthy, but it amazes me what I can achieve if my body is in good physical condition.

“If I was to use three words to describe myself as I am today, it would be authentic, enthusiastic and inquisitive; all traits that I think add value to what I do and helps me to be a better person; both professionally and personally.

“The way we see ourselves is very different to how others see us, but one thing I am sure of is that in every aspect of my life there is no difference, and I am the same person whether I’m at home or at work.”

Emily Groves, Indigo Swan 3
Photo by Warren Page Pagepix

Facing the Demons

In late 2016, Emily’s colleagues at Indigo Swan encouraged her to face her public speaking demons by applying to a local TEDx event. The theme for the event to be held in March the following year was ‘Inspiring Generations’.

“Little did I hope that my application would be accepted, and I would – all too soon – be stood on circular red TED carpet, with a Janet Jackson style microphone, staring into a bright light knowing there were hundreds of people in the audience and thousands of people watching the live steam.

“I was on my own, no notes, no PowerPoint and set to do something that I had never imagined in my wildest dreams. This was the stuff that my 15-year-old, cardboard box wearing, timid self would shudder at!”

Emily spoke for precisely nine minutes and four seconds about the three points that she believes inspire innovation.

“I shared my belief on how the combination of Hunger, Humans and Habitat can motivate groups of individuals to forget what is and embrace what if. How by feeding a fire in their bellies, in an environment that fosters social collaboration and connection, sparks of innovation and an unflinching commitment to finding a better way emerges every day.”

This passion for innovation and finding a better way is celebrated both within Indigo Swan and by the business community it connects with. And, testament to this is the achievement of Investors in People Gold accreditation, as well as its success in winning Norfolk’s Small Business of the Year 2018 and the award for UK Energy Consultancy of the Year in 2016.

Our company values

“Our aim is to showcase just how much the combination of great employee engagement and service delivery innovation can achieve. Our greatest pleasure comes when the positivity we feel within our energy contract consultancy is felt by our customers, our energy suppliers, or our business network. How we do anything is how we do everything.”

Emily Groves, Indigo Swan 5

Emily Groves Founder & Executive Chair of Indigo Swan based in Norwich. Emily’s TEDxNorwich talk follow ‘3 points to remember when inspiring innovation.’ Emily Groves, TEDxNorwichED. Emily has also recently launched a podcast series about company culture called Culture: Awesome

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