I met Sue at Gone Fishing. We soon started to have coffee after the session and have quickly grown close. Sue always inspires me when I am trying to work out what I should do, and I wanted to capture a portrait of this determined, versatile woman.
Sue describes her school years as ordinary. She worked hard and was conscientious; always handing her homework in on time and never taking a day off sick. She was an average student who left school with four O’ levels.
From the age of 13 Sue worked at Alton Towers “The Towers”. As a student, she worked every weekend and school holidays. After college she went full time, but The Towers made Sue redundant soon after.
She went on to further education to study to be a hotel bookkeeper and receptionist. I smile when she confides that she went to college to have a laugh. And chortle when she relates a tale of being escorted between lectures so that the entire class “didn’t bunk off on a Friday afternoon”. I ask what she learnt at college. With a twinkle in her eye, she replies “how to make a bed”. She goes on to explain that the course included ‘Operations’ aka Housekeeping.
Sue is still friends with and works with one of her fellow students. And a lecturer ‘Norm’ helped her make a life changing decision.
Now Sue embarked on a short career with an Estate Agent and Auctioneers. She counted livestock as they trooped into the sales ground. “I went to Bakewell to count the sheep in – it was snowing and horrible, I thought I would never go home”. The job was low paid and within four months she moved on to be a Wages Clerk in Ashbourne. “I went on the back of my brother’s bike and later we started to eat our sandwiches at our grans every day. On a Friday we would have Prawn and Pineapple Pizza.” She spent two years in that role before moving on to a haulage firm as a Personal Assistant.
As we talk about that job, I realise it was formative for Sue. “He [her boss] was like a dad to me, he was brilliant”. She tells me how her boss supported her when her mum was ill (and died) and how he helped her find a flat in Ashbourne.
But after six years, Sue was ready for a change. Norm reminded her that she had always wanted to go travelling. He asked “so why don’t you do it?” and Sue tells me “so I did”. For various reasons, her travel started cautiously. Her first step was an application to BUNAC (an American summer camp company). As she was older than the usual applicants, she had to go to London for an interview. A few months later she flew out to the US. After her stint in the camp, she joined some of her colleagues for a break in New York.
As Sue mentions being a hostess she spots the fleeting look of surprise and interest on my face. “oh no”, she says,“I was the legal sort”. She tells me of singing karaoke and making conversation. I am satisfied that my friend was completely above board.
She popped home for a few weeks and then hit the trail with her boyfriend. In a little less than two years, they spent time in India, Nepal, Thailand, the Maldives, Japan (where he worked in a bar and she worked as hostess) Australia (where they both worked as fruit pickers), Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.
On returning to the UK, Sue started to temp. First at Staffs Uni in the Business Studies department. Then she saw that one of the Agencies she used were looking for a recruitment consultant. She “phoned and asked why haven’t you considered me”. She stayed in recruitment for years, working for several national and local firms. By the time she moved to Shrewsbury with her then-husband she was a manager. She “LOVED IT”.
Her last employer in recruitment was a franchise holder for a large national firm. But he did not run his business well, nor did he appreciate Sue. And recruitment was changing. The industry grew increasingly competitive and her employer was unable to match contract terms and make a profit.
So she moved onto a brilliant job as the Administration Manager for a group that educates and cares for young people. The role encompassed the administration and catering teams and was highly regulated. She enjoyed the job, but her marriage broke down and she returned to Ashbourne, then Uttoxeter to be with family and friends when she found local employment. Though she managed to sneak in a holiday with her sister in the Maldives in between.
Sue always wanted to run her own business. Her motivation came from being the first in and last out every day and working for “idiots who don’t put the effort into their own businesses”.
Her new job wasn’t great and Sue bid for a contract as the secretariat of an Association. And won. To fulfil the contract she to set up her own company, which she did in her sister’s sitting room.
And Sue was now a Virtual PA.
She built up the business almost always through word of mouth and when her original customer started to tell her how to do her job she cancelled their contract:
“it’s my business, I make the decisions. You don’t make the decisions for me”
Initially, Sue took clients from around the country but soon decided to focus on local businesses. Though she still supports people from those early days. I observe that she makes it look easy and she retorts, “it is tough and scary, especially early on. One of the ways I built up my business was a leaflet drop. My sister helped me deliver leaflets in the evenings and I followed up with a phone call. It got me one client.”
She also started to network. She can’t remember the exact prompt but knows she wanted a higher profile (in her words ‘get known’). Like many other small business owners, Sue is a dedicated networker. She attends at least two sessions a week.
My last question to Sue touches on my perception that she is (can afford to be) choosey about her clients. What do you look for in a client?
I want to work for people who are serious about their business. Decent human beings who are honest and respectable. Who I like and will enjoy working with. And who are willing to work with me.
We finish our cake and laugh as Sue demonstrates her new, glamorous ‘PA’ glasses. Then her work ethic kicks in. She says that she won’t retire. She may slow down a bit and focus on easier tasks and clients. Her ambitions have a good precedent. Her dad works in gardening and building, and he is 76.
Featured Image by unsplash-logoandrew welch