Building a business and a family

When Ffyona Dawber set up her medical communications business Synergy Vision it was a chance to challenge herself because she had reached a glass ceiling in her career in the pharmaceutical industry. Not only has she set up and built a thriving business, but she has also done so while adopting three children, something that has given her a deeper understanding and empathy with working parents.

Ffyona set up Synergy Vision in 2007 after having worked at GlaxoSmithKline for 10 years as a clinical development specialist. She wanted to move up the ladder, but felt she couldn’t get any higher where she was. She considered moving into a more senior role in healthcare and applied for a role as chair of a charity which educated girls about contraception and fertility. On reflection, however, she decided she knew the pharmaceutical world so well that it might be better to stick with it and become a service provider.  She had worked with a lot of medical communications agencies over the years. The quality was variable. Some didn’t listen to what the client wanted, she says. She felt sure she could do a good job because she had a real understanding of their needs from a client perspective and she was a good listener.

By March 2007 she had made up her mind and registered the company, but her department didn’t want her to leave until December. That gave her time to think and plan and also to focus on building relationships with people she would need for the business. “Once you are inside pharma it is easier to open doors,” she says.

In the beginning it was just Ffyona working on her own on the business from her home. In May 2008 a former GSK colleague who had been made redundant joined her and in December 2008 she recruited a third person which meant she had to think about moving out to an office near home. Since then the business has grown gradually and she now has 30 staff. It has also started expanding outside the UK, recently forming a business partnership with a firm in the US.

Ffyona funded the business by selling some of her GSK shares which covered her first employee’s wages. Then she negotiated 30-day terms of payment to improve cash flow after a few issues with payments with her initial clients. The work increased through word of mouth which prompted her to hire new people. She says getting the right staff has been vital and admits that she has made a few mistakes along the way. “I’ve thought maybe it could work a few times, but that is always when I have made a mistake. If your gut instinct says no then it’s probably not the right person,” she says. “The culture of the company is really important. You can train for skills, but it’s difficult to train for attitude. It’s better to do double the work that to bring in the wrong person.”


After starting the business, she decided to adopt, having had an unsuccessful attempt at IVF while she was at GSK. The process took over a year and a half and included home visits, preparation classes and sessions analysing her and her partner’s childhood. Then Ffyona and her partner went before the adoption panel. Once they were given the go ahead they were shown reports, photos and DVDs of many children. They wanted siblings. Ffyona says she had always had three children in her head and her partner is from a large family. They didn’t want to go through the whole process twice so they chose a family of children aged two, three and four.

The children saw DVDs of Ffyona and her partner so when they arrived on their foster carer’s door they were greeted by shouts of “mummy” and “daddy”. “It was lovely, but a bit overwhelming,” said Ffyona. “It took a while to get used to being called ‘mummy’.” They gradually built up the hours they spent with the children before they took them home.

Ffyona’s partner took six months adoption leave and Ffyona went back to work after just over four months. The first months were over the summer, but it was when her son started school that reality set in. Routine was very important for the children, who had come from a background of neglect and abuse. Ffyona noticed that any change in routine caused anxiety. So she set up a visual calendar which showed what each person was doing every day. It had pictures of nursery, school, work, airplanes and so on. There were photos of who would be dropping the children off and who would be picking them up. One of Ffyona’s employees is a part-time PA and nanny so she helps with pick-ups and drop-offs. “The children check the calendar every day so they know what the routine is for the day,” says Ffyona.

She admits there have been plenty of challenges. For instance, her middle daughter bashed her head against a wall while her partner was away for work. There was blood everywhere. It was night and the other children needed to go to bed. Fortunately,Ffyona had been a nurse  in her early career so was fairly calm. Her neighbour who had just had a baby helped out and her partner eventually arrived. “There are things which are outside your control and you deal with them at the time,” she says. “It’s only when you reflect that you think how challenging it was. I have so much empathy with working parents now.”

She says becoming a mother has changed her attitude to things like maternity leave. “In the past if someone had asked to have a gradual increase of their hours when they returned from maternity leave I would have thought ‘oh God, do I have to agree to this’. Now I’m asking them if they need longer to settle back. I trust people more. If they can manage their own family I think they are capable of managing their work,” says Ffyona.

Employees can work from home if they need to and one of the company’s directors works from Dublin. Another is on maternity leave and moving to Australia. She put forward a proposal for how she could continue working for Ffyona from Australia andFfyona will trial that.”I know her and I know she is good at what she does. I am happy to be flexible and she can build up our business in Australia,” she says. “It’s better than hiring a stranger in a different region. I see it as a positive – if you have the right culture and the right person there is no need to lose them.”

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