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Suzanne Brock has lived the rollercoaster of starting a new business. Her bank pulled out of a start-up loan just hours before she was due to sign the lease on her office premises and after she had purchased expensive equipment. That meant she was forced to remortgage her house and take money from her mum, risking losing everything. It’s not something she would do again in hindsight, but she says she has learned from it and that experience has helped her to build a thriving business, employing 30 members of staff. She has done all of this while raising her two children as a single mum.
All Suzanne’s hard work was recently acknowledged when she won the Natwest everywoman Artemis Award for inspirational women who have been trading for between 18 months and three years.
Suzanne was a full-time mum until her marriage fell apart eight years ago. It was very sudden and hit her hard. She took a job as a school cook as she was passionate about nutrition and it fit around her children, but it didn’t pay well. She decided to do a degree. Her brother, who she is very close to, had moved closer to her in Surrey to support her and had set up the first raw food business for dogs in the UK. He asked her to work for him for a year. She enjoyed it so much that she stayed, helping to build up his company and learning a lot about running a business in the process. The company made their own food and, as it grew, Suzanne, who became general manager, took a role in developing recipes, doing marketing and learning the ropes.
It was a great place to work until there was an aggressive change of management and Suzanne decided to leave. Within a few days half the staff had followed her.
Suzanne thought it was the perfect opportunity to start her own company, Nutriment, where she could do things her way. “I didn’t want to do anything else,” she says. “I believed in the products I knew I could develop, I believed in the quality of what I could offer and there were some great staff available.” Within eight weeks the business was up and running.
However, in hindsight she says she was “incredibly naive” and would probably not have done things the same way if she could do it again. “My naivety made me brave,” she says. She bought space in a dilapidated factory, hired 10 staff and bought some fairly expensive equipment. This left her with a three quarters of a million pound debt against her name since, as a limited company, all the financial risk fell on her head. In June 2013, just two days before she was due to sign the lease on the factory and after she had ordered the equipment the bank pulled out of a start-up loan agreement. They didn’t say why. “I was in pieces,” says Suzanne. She arranged a meeting, but all they could say was that her business plan was too optimistic. She laughs now because in fact it did not prove optimistic enough.
She couldn’t even get an overdraft. The only solution was to remortgage her house and her mum offered her life savings. “I could have backed out, but I still believed if I could just get the business up and running I could do it. My mum believed 100% I could do it. She said there was nothing like what I was doing on the market and that she trusted me. I didn’t sleep at all with all the responsibility. But I had to get the kids to school every day. That keeps you grounded,” she says.
She adds: “Being a mum and a single mum at that you become really competent and focused on what you can achieve in a day and very good at budgeting. It’s the best training to manage a business because you know how to keep all the balls in the air. Women achieve their absolute best each day.”
In addition to providing a quality product, Suzanne was clear that she wanted to offer great customer service.
Asked what has been the biggest challenge she says it was not staffing as she had thought because she knows and trust her employees. What she did not expect was that the industry would be so cut-throat. Her old company tried to hamper her efforts, but it just helped to get Nutriment’s name out, she says. “It’s a very cut throat, male industry and I made waves quickly because of the quality of our product and service,” she adds. However, she didn’t have any debts and was not beholden to any investors so that freed her up to follow her own path.
She says she is very concerned that her employees have a good work life balance. She feels this makes for a happier workforce and says everyone is very connected to each other. Employees help each other out outside work, for instance, with moving house.
Suzanne herself works long hours, though flexibly. At 8.15am the kids, now aged 14 and 15, go to school and she goes to work – just three miles from her home. She leaves work around 5.30pm and is around for the kids then she works again on administration in the evening until late. She reckons she gets around five to six hours sleep a night and can work seven days a week, depending on circumstances. Despite the long hours, she says she loves her work and is surrounded by people she cares about. Her daughter works at Nutriment on Saturdays and knows every aspect of the business. Suzanne also works alongside her mum and her boyfriend. “It doesn’t feel like work,” she says.
Although they are older, she says she worries about what her children think of her long hours, but she went to her daughter’s school a while ago. There were pieces of work the children had done on the wall and she read something by one of the students about their mum which said she was the most inspirational person they knew and mentioned that she had built a business. “I thought how lucky to have a child who would think that about their parent. Then I saw that it was written by my daughter,” says Suzanne.
In addition to prioritising a happy workplace, Suzanne puts a premium on customer service. There is a phone line which customers can call at any time to talk about the products and about their dogs’ nutrition. “It’s not a high rate line and it’s not cost effective. But I don’t have an expensive lifestyle and we don’t have shareholders. A lot of people who buy raw food because their dogs have a health problem so I think it’s important to provide that service,” says Suzanne.
She is also keen to support small retailers. She doesn’t sell through the big supermarket chains, but via 300 smaller retailers, including pet shops, and the internet. “They offer the same approach as we are promoting through our customer service,” she says. “We try to drive custom through to the shops. It’s all about creating relationships and providing that personal contact.”
The business is doing well as a result. Suzanne is opening her second premises in January and is keen to ensure that she maintains the quality of the product as the company expands. Nutriment is moving into the organic and free range market and is launching a new range of treats for dogs in the new year.
Suzanne says awards like the Artemis Award can help with customer confidence, giving people the confidence that Nutriment is a company with ethics.
For her, the Award was more than that, though. “It was very personal,” she says. “You hear all these incredible stories about women at the Natwest everywoman awards. Women tend to be more honest. We are not comfortable singing our own praises. I know I’ve made some mistakes, but it was quite something to think that other people thought what I had done was extraordinary. It has given me confidence. For me it’s a real personal win.”