Charitable, Selfless and Kind
“In previous jobs, my work was always focused on thinking about the impact my efforts made on the business. Now, as CEO of The Feed, the staff are at the forefront of my mind and my decisions are geared around that.”
Interview: Sue Wilcock/ Rachel Sloane
Pictures: Warren Page
Lucy Parish talks to Norfolk Director
Lucy Parish is Chief Executive Officer of The Feed, a social enterprise which raises revenue through its cafés and by providing catering for businesses across the city. These funds are then used to support projects that prevent poverty, hunger, and homelessness in Norwich.
However, Lucy’s path to CEO wasn’t taken via a conventional route.
“I was born in Norfolk and grew up in Blofield and Brundall. I have an older brother Robin and Mum was a primary school teacher, and Dad was a headteacher.
“Mum had time off when Robin and I were small, but she went back into teaching when we went to school, working in Norwich. I had an idyllic childhood. I have memories of lovely long school holidays where the weather was always nice! We went to the Yorkshire Dales every year, squashed in our car, with my brother and me sitting on top of the tent.
“I get my work ethic from my parents’ dedication and hard work – especially mum doing her marking in the evening. She was a real perfectionist …but she was always available to us.”
Lucy admits she is naturally very competitive and laughed as she remembered her childhood hobbies, which she is always reminded of when hearing songs on the radio from the 1980’s or 1990’s.
“Not many people know this, but I was a member of Lingwood Cheerleaders, competing at weekends across Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. I really enjoyed it and would love to go back and do that again. I was very tiny then so, with one other girl, I was always at the front being thrown in the air.”
She also liked winning races.
“I was a conscientious student. I always had my hand up – saying “pick me, pick me!” Lingwood Primary school was a real community, and they ran a cross country training programme three times a week, come rain or shine. We were known as a school that won competitive races.
“I loved running and when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was selected to run for Norfolk in the National Cross-Country Championship; I was thrilled to be representing my county.”
Lucy’s memories of secondary school are not so positive.
“I went to Thorpe St Andrew High School. I had a friendship group and got Involved with school plays, netball and hockey and things like that, but can honestly say the teachers weren’t particularly inspirational. There weren’t the same opportunities that I had at primary school and nothing like what my son has at high school now. There was also peer pressure growing up and it was uncool to like cheerleading and cross-country… you just kept your head down.
“I was quite studious and worked hard, passing my GCSEs before going on to do my A levels. However, I wasn’t taught well. I enjoyed English Literature and Theatre Studies, but I wasn’t committed; I’d bunk off and miss lessons. My parents must have been in despair as I was the opposite of what I had been like, and I ended up coming away with just an A-level in English Literature.”
Lucy left school not knowing what she wanted to do with her life.
“I had no particular aspirations, and I knew I didn’t want to go to university. We had a careers advisor at school, and I filled in a questionnaire on a computer, and it recommended I became a Funeral Director!
“However, one thing I enjoyed was my Saturday jobs at the local Post Office and in Topshop shoe department, where I got a massive discount.”
On leaving school, Lucy Increased her hours at Topshop to four days a week while she took stock about what to do next.
Venturing out into the World
“Then at a party, my best friend Ali – who’d been to a different sixth form to me – said she was going to Australia in February, and I decided I wanted to go with her. I’d been left some money by my grandparents when I was younger, so I asked Mum for some of it. Initially she said no, but a colleague at her school said: “You should let her go. You never know where the opportunity might lead”, So, Mum then agreed.
“I was only 18 and I’d be so worried if my kids wanted to do that. There were no mobile phones. No internet or anything.
“We planned it all, where we were going to stay when we got there, and the route we were going to take. We went for six months and travelled down the east coast in a little pea-green Chrysler Gallant which we bought. We met lots of lovely people and drove at the back of a convoy of six cars. We stayed in hostels, campsites and hotels… and in the car one night.”
Then, when the Australian adventure was over, Lucy had to decide what to do next.
“I came back, and it struck me that nothing had changed in Norwich, but I had!”
“I decided to move to Macclesfield to meet up with the group of friends from there that I’d met in Australia. I was 19 and ironically, I got a job in an Australian bar and restaurant called Aboriginals. I was having a really nice time, but a friend, who was an estate agent, said I’d make a great estate agent as I was good with people… and was nosy when I went for a walk in the evenings, looking inside houses when they had the lights on and the curtains open.”
After interviews, Lucy was offered a couple of jobs and chose one based in Macclesfield, as a Trainee Junior Negotiator.
“I worked my way up to Junior Negotiator and then to Senior Negotiator. I loved dealing with people and managing the Listings; going into a house to get it on the market. People liked that I wasn’t a typical estate agent, who in Macclesfield at that time were all men, suited and booted, who rocked up in BMWs. I was 20, had a Vauxhall Corsa and was bubbly, normal and very relatable. I was also really honest with people.”
In 2003, although Lucy was encouraged to apply to be a Branch Manager, she didn’t feel she was ready.
“I wanted to get a professional qualification first. So, I told my Regional Manager that I would like to train as a Mortgage Adviser and take my CeMAP 1 (Certificate in Mortgage Advice and Practise). I was told that if I funded it myself, they would repay me if I passed.
“I worked really hard, working full time and going straight home to the kitchen table to study in the evening. It was really hard learning about tax rules and on the day of the exam you got the results straight away. I didn’t expect to pass as it was very difficult. So, when they told me I had, I couldn’t believe it”.
Soon after, Lucy became a Mortgage Adviser and was refunded her course fee, with the company then paying for her to do CeMAP 2 and 3. She worked in that role for several years, at various places, including as a Subprime Mortgage Adviser. Then the original estate agents tempted her back as a Branch Manager, where she was able to put to good use her experience of both selling houses and mortgages.
“I was Branch Manager for about a year and then I went to work as a Mortgage Adviser at ‘Solutions Mortgages’. However, they went bust quickly afterwards and I was made redundant on New Year’s Day, just after the Northern Rock scandal, in 2008. I then worked at a large bank, and it was the worst experience of my life. I was miserable.
“At that time, my (now ex) husband had a business with my best friend Vicki’s husband, installing kitchens and bathrooms. My aunt had a holiday home in France, and she said she needed a new kitchen, so the boys went over to do the renovation.
“Vicki and I visited and spent a long weekend there. We sat in lovely sunshine, drinking wine, and joked; “wouldn’t it be lovely to live here?” as we were both miserable in our jobs.”
The boys were then offered further work in France, working for expat retired couples and families, who wanted English builders, as there was no language barrier.
“Vicki and I decided we had had enough of our jobs, so we rented out our houses and went over and lived in my aunt’s house, the four of us. We went initially for six months and stayed for three years, and in that time I had my little boy and worked in the business doing the quoting, administration and marketing.
“When my son was a year old, I felt a long way from home and needed my mum and dad more. Living in France can be idyllic, but it can also be very isolating. So, I decided to return home.
Training to become an accountant
Soon after, Lucy and her husband separated, and she and her son went to live with her mum and dad.
“Dad said to me that this was the chance to start again, to retrain, and I could do anything I wanted to. After a year sorting out the divorce, I was really excited about the future.”
“I am a firm believer that the attitude and approach you take to situations can either make it an opportunity or a setback.”
“I signed up to adult education to do my Accounts Technician Training and went to Norwich City College, then to Thorpe. I like logical things, a system, and following a process. When you have learnt the process, you then can do it over and over again. There were loads of exams and after two years, I came away with an accounting qualification.
“In total, I stayed at Mum and Dad’s for six years which was lovely, and my son now has the most wonderful relationship with them.”
However, it was time to look for employment.
“My son was at school full time, but I found getting a job a challenge, as I had qualifications but no experience. Recruitment consultants looked down their noses at me as an older woman and a single mum, and I wrote to every accountant in Norwich but didn’t get anywhere.
“Then someone who’d read my CV asked to meet to have a chat… but not for an accounting role. It was a role in business development for a firm of accountants and financial planners, and I was to build relationships with other organisations and get new referrals in.
“It seemed ideal, as I was a people person and not good at sitting looking at a spreadsheet. I could use the experience and skills I’d already got – I thought – plus they allowed me the time to pick up my son from school one day a week. I was there two years and although some of the time it was good fun, I found the management style a challenge. I most definitely felt I was in a man’s world, with lots of inappropriate remarks from work colleagues.
“Being in an environment like that, even for someone like me who is quite strong, was difficult. It was easier to laugh along with it, rather than speak out and make a fuss. I had a lot of experience of the world under my belt, and I was quite shocked at the lack of support management had for their staff.
“I had seen the level of support my dad gave his staff and so I’d seen what a good manager should do, and it didn’t sit well with me. I had my own house by then and I found managing work and home life hard, so I went to my boss and asked for flexible working as one day a week at home would make a massive difference to my life. He just said no.”
Already unhappy with the atmosphere and culture of the company, the last straw for Lucy was when they preferred to manage someone out of the business, rather than invest money in their training.
“I walked out of work and went straight to a friend who was a recruitment consultant and said: “Can you find me a job? This is my experience and qualifications; I love working with people…it’s what I’m good at”. Half an hour later he called me back. “Do you know The Feed?” He asked, which I did as they had done the catering for events I’d arranged.”
“The recruitment consultant said he thought it was right up my street. They were looking for a corporate fundraiser, so I went for an interview.
“At the time The Feed had a market stall and a little office in Upper Goat Lane in Norwich. They were running a one-month training course for unemployed people who had been in prison, suffered from mental ill-health, were homeless, or all three. The training would be followed by work experience on the market, all with the aim to get them into paid work.
“At the interview, they said they had eight more people to see over the next few weeks, but the next day the recruitment consultant called to say they’d cancelled the other interviews and wanted to offer me the job.”
Making a difference
“I am not shy of working hard, but in my previous job what I did and the amount of effort I put in, didn’t make any difference to people’s lives. They were already wealthy people and the harder I worked, the posher the cars were in the office car park. It didn’t mean anything to anyone.
“I was 39 and wanted to do something that made a difference to somebody, and which mattered more.”
So Lucy joined The Feed in July 2018 as Corporate Fundraiser, but she quickly became involved in other projects, encouraged by the then CEO, Matt Townsend.
“I’d been there six months and could see lots of areas that needed developing. Matt recognised my experience and wanted to encourage my involvement in different projects, as well as the corporate fundraising. He took me aside and said he saw my role as more of an Operations Manager, so he changed my job title.
“At the same time, he said that he was planning to leave as CEO. I said I was very sorry as I liked working for him, “…but I want your job!”
As The Feed is a CIC, Matt had to take the proposal for Lucy to replace him as CEO to the Board of Directors, and they unanimously agreed that she should take over the role.
“From January to July 2019, I worked alongside Matt as he handed over the reins.”
One lesson Lucy learnt about herself she credits to Matt’s management skills, which she now tries to emulate.
“I had never thought I was an ‘ideas’ person, but for the first time, I was working somewhere where I could talk about them. There was no-one more surprised than me, when Matt said my idea was a good one and “why don’t you do that?”
“He was really good at collaborative managing and I wanted to continue that way of working when I took over. I think that is why we have such a good and close team. Together, we will sit and put the meat on the bones of an idea. I see my role as ensuring that idea fits with our strategy or mission. If it does, I then work out how are we going to get money to fund it.”
All businesses have had challenges working through the pandemic, but how did it affect Lucy, her team and the work of The Feed?
“Overnight, we lost our catering business which was our main income source. We paid staff and when we closed the café I was really upset and went home and cried on the bathroom floor. I thought this was going to be the end of us as we’d lost our income.
“Then I ‘put my big girls pants on’ and thought what shall we do? The answer was we adapted.
“We know our staff; we know about food, and we are in a great position to support people, so we would have been stupid to close and furlough everyone. We approached all the councils in the area and, as we have kitchens, food and staff, asked whether we could help? As a result, we were commissioned to make and deliver food parcels to people who were homeless and in hotels as part of the ‘Everyone In’ project. We produced 4,500 meals in the first lockdown, and this resulted in us really raising our profile.
“People started to recognise us and wanted to support us with money which was lovely.”
“The pandemic was challenging, but it was a positive experience as well. The attitude we have is, “never waste a good crisis!”
“As a result we have grown in a year from eleven staff with one outlet in Prince of Wales Road, to now having 37 staff, four outlets including the staff canteen for Kettle Foods and Norwich University of the Arts, and two more due to open soon. That’s massive growth in a very short time.”
Nurturing The Feed
“Looking at The Feed now, it’s unrecognisable to when I joined, and that’s down to the core team developing their knowledge.
“Now, the thing I worry about most is my staff and, with a social enterprise, I always ask myself: “What is the right thing to do?” and “What would I want if it was me?” The next decision is then… “is it possible within the business?
“One of the benefits of working in a not-for-profit organisation, is that any profit goes to The Feed Foundation, our charity which fights poverty, hunger and homelessness in Norwich.”
Lucy outwardly seems so confident, but what are the challenges she faces in her working life?
“We are growing and being recognised in Norwich, and what we do really makes a difference to people. At the same time, I often struggle with ‘imposter syndrome’. In a meeting I will think “what do I know about that?” and I am surprised when people listen to me. Some days are worse than others. I am really approachable, so it shocks me when people say, “she’s the boss-lady!” Oh yes… I am…. how did I end up here?
“Every day is different. The Feed is all about food and supporting people. One day you can be reading a report on women in prison and the problems and traumas they face, and the next minute someone will come in and ask if we have more sausage rolls in the freezer. It’s that balance of food and support for people. Both of those things come with massive challenges. In a smaller organisation you must always be willing and able; to roll up your sleeves and do the washing up or put the bins out.”
So, what drives Lucy to get out of bed in the morning?
“Obviously I’m driven by my lovely family, but I also adore my job and I never feel like I am coming to work, even when I end up in the kitchen when we are short-staffed! There were tough days when we first opened the Pavilion Café in Waterloo Park. We had to wash up, serve coffee and get this place running, but it doesn’t feel like a job and it’s easy to get out of bed when you feel like that.
“I am a lot different now to how I was when I was younger. As I have grown up I do consider things more carefully around the decisions I make.
“For me, it’s all about the people, understanding that’s there’s always a reason why they need help. Our empathy means we can make the right choices when it comes to the type of support we provide.
“There’s a purpose to it. We have a great team. Everybody knows what they have to do. That’s what drives me, making a difference to people’s lives. That’s altruism.”