Enthusiasm, Commitment and Belief
Interview: Rachel Sloane
Pictures: Warren Page
Sue Wilcock talks to Suffolk Director
To be featured as the lead interview in Suffolk Director is something that ‘money can’t buy’. It is in the hands of magazine owner and editor, Sue Wilcock, who having identified a businessperson with an interesting story to tell, interviews them herself.
When supporters of the magazine suggested that she should be the cover story, she admits she wasn’t totally comfortable with it, as having always worked in public relations, she was used to staying in the background, putting her clients into the spotlight. She also couldn’t write it herself. So, she took a deep breath and then asked me to do the interview. I am very honoured!
The first thing I wanted to find out is what is so special about being the cover story?
“I’m not interested in a company profile but want real people. People who have probably had a tumultuous journey in their life and career, where they have managed to persevere and overcome the obstacles thrown in their way. I do say to people, I am going to tell your story, warts and all, and you need to be frank with me.”
The theme of this quarter’s magazine is ‘passion’ and Sue is certainly passionate about Suffolk Director magazine and its ability to help businesspeople learn from each other’s experience.
“The ethos of the magazine is that it has integrity, is respected and the cover is something to aspire to. It answers the questions that help owners and directors run their businesses better.”
“The passion behind it comes from both mine, and my husband Brian’s personal experiences running our own businesses. I understand how lonely and challenging it can be. I want to provide something that is free, and which has content that, as well as being useful and informative, will inspire and motivate the readers.”
The bond of family and family-time is very important to Sue. The oldest of four children, she grew up in Belstead, a very small village just outside Ipswich. Sue passed her eleven-plus exam and went each day on a two bus journey from home to Northgate Grammar School, on the opposite side of town.
“I was the only one who went to Northgate. My brothers and sister went to local schools. I left the house before they were up and out of bed and returned home about an hour after they did. Belstead was remote – it was before the A14 was built. There were no streetlights and no buses in the evening, so I didn’t socialise with friends outside school, and spent most of my evenings doing homework or watching TV.
“When I was 13, I broke my leg playing hockey at school. I was in hospital for a week, on crutches for three months and I went back to school a couple of weeks after coming out of hospital. Mum or Dad would take me to Northgate and pick me up, but because I was so small, they wouldn’t let me carry my books in a rucksack on my back, as I might fall over. So, I had to rely on friends to carry them for me between classes. One day, they all got up and left me stranded, and I had to ask a teacher to take my books to my next lesson.
“These childhood experiences made me fiercely independent, and even though I have been married to Brian for 30 years, there isn’t a day in my life, either personally or professionally, when my first reaction to a problem is ‘how will I sort that out’.. It’s been a very long journey but I’m starting to realise that I can turn to family and friends for support and help; I just need to get used to asking.”
However, Sue’s parents were always encouraging.
“I put a lot of my drive and ambition down to Mum and Dad, who told me that if I wanted to do something and worked hard for it, I could achieve anything.
“The only slight deviation from this came from Dad. He worked as an electrical engineer in the electricity supply industry on heavy construction and maintenance . Him and his mates, also engineers, would often say to me ‘oh you won’t understand that. You are not an engineer!’”
Northgate School in Sue’s time, the mid to late seventies, was all about academia, O’ levels followed by A’ levels.
“I had to work really hard, but I got good grades in nine O’ levels and then everything went to pot. I learnt to drive as soon as I could and once I had passed my test, there was no stopping me. Freedom! Every weekend was a series of parties, so I was a bit of a renegade when it got to A’ levels and I ended up failing all of them. Yet, this didn’t hold me back, as I had never wanted to go to university.”
Going out to work
Sue’s first job was at Suffolk County Council.
“I was only there a very short time when Dad got promoted to a new job which meant we had to move. I was horrified as my whole life was in Ipswich, and now the family were going to have to move all the way to…. Bury St Edmunds!”
“Dad’s job was with Eastern Electricity, and he arranged an interview for me in the commercial clerical section. At the time they had a load of shops that sold appliances, and my job was organising the engineers’ daily work for appliance deliveries and repairs.”
“I remember there was this woman who used to come in and out of the office, immaculately dressed. She also had a company car, and I asked a colleague, ‘what does she do?’ I was told ‘she works in marketing and visits people in their home to talk about electric heating.’ That was when I thought to myself, that’s what I want to do.”
After several attempts, eventually Sue got the job… and a Mini Metro. Two years later, she got promoted to her ‘first proper job in marketing’ and went to work in the domestic marketing department at Eastern Electricity’s HQ at Wherstead in Ipswich, organising sponsorship and corporate events.
“My boss, David West, was excellent and taught me how to run events and how you have to be objective in marketing.”
“To do marketing well, you have to step back, put your personal feelings aside
and go with the majority.”
“It wasn’t long before a job opportunity came up to work at the Enfield office, in the indirect heat advisory team, working with plumbers and electricians. I had always wanted to work in London and as I had just separated from my first husband, and had no ties, I took the job.”
With technology changing and power showers becoming popular, all those conversations about engineering, with her father, meant she could ‘talk the talk’ with these tradesmen. In addition, Sue did extra training.
“What most people don’t know about me is that I did a basic plumbing course so, technically, I could replace an immersion heater and make a heated towel rail! ” Sue laughed. “It really helped when I was talking to the contractors about water heating, cylinders and water pressures.
“Eastern Electricity saw investing in their staff as very important. As well as paying for me to attend a course in public speaking, they also financed my BTEC HNC in Business and Finance. I went to Harlow College on day-release and took my second year option in marketing.”
A failed relationship and the family wanting her nearer, meant Sue returned to Suffolk in 1990.
“I got a job working for a company called IMI Range as a Specification Representative. I had bought my own home, I had a car, a good job and a great social life. Yet, it wasn’t long before I got burnt out career-wise. As well as finishing my HNC, I was doing 1,000 miles a week and staying away from home frequently.
“Luckily for me, I was with Brian by now. He had a good job, so he encouraged me to take some time out. I had a two-month break, then did some part-time work as a dental nurse and travel assistant.”
When Sue was ready to go back into marketing, she got a job at the Ipswich and Norwich Co-op.
“I was already working for them as a travel assistant when an opportunity came up to work in the Marketing Services Department. I applied and started there in 1993.
“While there, I decided to go back to school and take my Diploma in Marketing, which I financed myself. People think marketing is easy but out of 23 people in the class only three passed. It is a tough course, but I got to put the mortar board on and collect my Diploma at a graduation ceremony.”
In 1997 Sue saw a job advertised as PR and Publishing Manager at the Jackson Group, a company which she openly admits she knew nothing about.
“I didn’t think about this being a male dominated world of construction and civil engineering. My job at the Co-op had given me experience in PR, but I had also supervised the studio that produced all the artworks and marketing material, adverts etc. As I had a foot in both camps, I got the job.
I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED that job! Construction is such a brilliant and exciting sector to work in. There is so much clever stuff that goes on with the planning and design, before you even get to start on site.”
Jackson Group comprised Jackson Construction, Jackson Civil Engineering and several other support businesses. In 1999, the company was sold to the Peterhouse Group, in Yorkshire.
“The Chairman arrived in Ipswich, and I was called into his office. Unbeknown to me, I was going to be sacked, as he didn’t think having an inhouse marketing section was a good return on investment. But something I said, or did, changed his mind; I ended up not only keeping my job, but extending my remit to do work for Peterhouse as well.”
In 2001, Sue was 38, assessing what she wanted to do with her life and thoughts turned to doing something for her.
“There was a lot of things going on in my life at that time. Dad had recently had a heart transplant after contracting a virus, so the family were still getting used to that. Plus, I suffer from endometriosis, and I was having increasing attacks. I had no warning they were coming on and I was worried I might be in a meeting or on a construction site when I had one. There were also changes happening internally in the company.
Starting her own business
These were the spur Sue needed to leave Jackson and, with their encouragement and three months paid garden leave, she set up her own business, Stratton PR, with Jackson as her first client.
“I’d been going for a couple of years when I was introduced to Barnes Construction. I helped them with publicising their 25th anniversary and I was then asked to continue working for them. 18 years later, I still do their PR and working relationships have developed into friendships.”
With the business growing, Sue moved into her own premises, building a team, with work that included handling crisis PR.
“What most people don’t realise is it’s not just how you handle a crisis when it happens, but how you prepare for it. Identifying the risks, working hard – sometimes for years – beforehand to build a strong reputation, as well as putting protocols in place on how you manage your communications when the crisis occurs, is what carries you through.”
Then tragedy struck for Sue early in January 2005.
“My good friend Julie died, very quickly, from cancer. She was a career girl, and we would have many discussions about work, sharing our problems and putting them to rights over a glass of wine or two. When she passed away I was devastated. It’s weird, that her death affected me so badly, and I know now I should have had grief counselling. I was close to giving the business up and walking away from it all, but we converted the garage into an office, and I scaled down to a core team of two and moved to working from home.
“I had just made the move when something else happened in the business, which taught me a big lesson about putting all your eggs in one basket. 80% of my work was with one client. They had a hostile takeover and almost overnight I lost their business. It was tough, but now I make sure that I spread the risk, never having more than 20% of my turnover with one client.”
Sue’s business continued apace when in 2009, realising they had complimentary offers, creative and branding agency Catapult Design and Stratton PR amalgamated as Trebuchet, which appropriately is the name of a bigger warfare catapult.
The business grew and exciting opportunities came along. In 2013, Sue worked overseeing the filming of a BBC TV series on a round-the world cruise. And, as part of the Sir Bobby’s Breakthrough fundraising auction, she found herself talking to ex-football players and managers, who soon laughed when they realised she knew nothing about football!
Then in 2015, Sue was asked to lead the publicity on behalf of Business for Britain (BfB) in the east, for the EU Referendum.
“BfB was part of Vote Leave, and I was unsure of how I felt about it all. So, I said I would think about it. I knew I would learn something about an emotive and complicated subject, and after talking to friends and the Vote Leave team, I agreed to take it on.”
Trebuchet reflected the country’s views, with people working on the project who would vote Leave and others who would vote Remain.
“We had lots of heated discussions in the office. It was not an easy time, but it was six months of the most exciting work, and I saw first-hand, how the big machine of politics works.”
Sue was dealing with Tier One politicians , top business leaders and small business owners.
“Then I had to arrange an event for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to come up to Ipswich. Media interviews took place at the Waterfront, and outside the room, there were police and crowds of protestors with placards making a lot of noise.
“After the interviews, everyone was anxious to get back to London, but Boris turned and said to me, ‘you organised this, what do you think I should do?’ I said he should go outside and speak to the protestors. ‘Then that’s what we will do,’ he said. So, he went downstairs and as he and Michael walked along, there were students trying to hit him with their placards, at the same time as taking a selfie!”
A spur of the moment invitation to Boris by the manager meant that, instead of getting in the waiting taxi, he turned right into Coffeelink, followed by all the protestors and the whole press pack.
“It was like a cartoon as everyone tried to pile in. There were arms, legs, placards, and cameras. I was laughing and I thought this is what I love, and I am not doing this enough. My forte isn’t running a business and employing people, why aren’t I doing what makes me happy?
“I think that anyone running a business today, employing people, lives in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. The referendum work ending coincided with a difficult staffing issue, and I just decided to get out. It was just too hard, and I wanted to get back to doing what I do best.”
Becoming a magazine publisher
Taking a few PR clients with her, Sue went back to working at home, intending to semi-retire. Then, a chance meeting at a networking event with Jonathan Tilston who was the owner and publisher of Suffolk Director magazine (previously IOD Suffolk) led to Sue being asked to be editor.
“Years before I had had a conversation with the Institute of Directors, when I said they were missing a trick as, although most members were like me, and good at doing what they do, no-one was actually teaching us how to run a business properly.”
So, becoming editor was Sue’s chance to put her ideas into practise. Three months later Jonathan offered her the chance to buy the magazine. Seeing the potential, she took the plunge and didn’t look back.
“In 2018, I launched Norfolk Director and late 2019, the website was relaunched, so it complimented the free printed magazines.”
Just prior to the pandemic, Brian brought his sales expertise into the business and joined Sue. They now work together with a small core team producing the magazines.
“When we first started working together, Jonathan Tilston had a chat with Brian saying that he must understand that, if the business was to work, he should accept that the business is mine, and the ultimate decisions rest with me. Brian has taken that to heart and will give me advice, but then leave it to me.
“Revenue comes from the magazine supporters who pay for the space and send in their articles. I , then craft and edit all the content to make it reader-friendly. As business owners and directors, the readers all have one thing in common, a passion for what they do, whether that is sewage repairs, cleaning offices or running a gin distillery.”
In 2019, Sue faced another challenge within her family.
“In November, my sister Kate mentioned that she’d had a pain in her chest and the doctor wanted her to have further tests.”
Even with the family history of her father’s heart problems Kate was very casual about it all. After the tests, she was told she needed to go to Papworth to have a stent fitted.
“The procedure went wrong, and Kate had to have an urgent operation which resulted in her being put on life support in an induced coma for 16 days. It was an horrendous time, and her chances were 50/50 in making it through. When she finally came round, she still didn’t realise the enormity of what had happened but, on being told the truth, she started fighting and she came off the machines and was out of hospital on Boxing Day.”
The unpredictability of her life is what Sue really appreciates. That and her grandchildren, who along with their dog Pip, are a big part of Sue and Brian’s world. She is determined to make every day count and has challenged herself to grab opportunities that come her way, to do new things that will push her out of her comfort zone.
“As well as making me think that if I was told my time on earth was up tomorrow what would I regret, what happened to Kate has made me question what would happen to my business if something happened to me? Who would run things, access the bank accounts, and so on? So, we have now set up protocols and processes on how the magazines would continue without me. A business shouldn’t be about one person, however passionate they are about what they do.”
Like many businesses that are owner managed, Sue had no financial help during the pandemic and used what little savings she had to keep going. She also really appreciates the continued support of advertisers who themselves were going through difficult times.
“The pandemic meant that I had to postpone our growth plans, but it did spur us on to produce the magazines as electronic publications. We are now working to increase our list of digital subscribers.
“I can also announce Essex Director will be launching in 2022!”
Hearing Sue’s story it occurs to me that several times she has had to walk away from a successful job because of the pressures it put on her mental and physical health.
“The be-all and end-all isn’t about the money. It’s about keeping the passion for what you do alive. Sometimes you have to accept your limitations and cut and run. But always remember that you have skills, and no one can take that away from you. It’s taken me a long time, but I’m starting to believe in myself and what I am capable of.”