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Supporting employees can bring huge business benefits and no-one knows that better than Leigh Nelson whose Specsavers store has blossomed as a result and who has developed a mutually supportive team which has helped her through some difficult times.
Leigh, who has just been named a 2016 Worldpay everywoman in Retail Ambassador – Woman of the Year and is President of Newtonards Chamber of Commerce, has grown her staff from four to 20 since the store opened in 2001, has seen sales increase this year by 7.3%, reaching just over £1.2 million, and had her store awarded the Investors in People Award by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in March.
Leigh grew the business while bringing up a young family and caring for her eldest son who has autism.
Leigh was driven by an interest in business and in people and she has created a supportive team around her who she nurtures and develops.
She started her working life at a cleaning company working from the bottom up, making the tea and filing, but the business grew quickly and she was sent on an accounts and payroll course and moved into doing payroll for a few years. There was no career progression, though, she was travelling a lot to get to work and she was bored. “I needed a change,” says Leigh. She saw an advert for Specsavers.
It was 1996: the store was close to home and she thought she could do it as it had the right amount of maths for her and she could also talk to people. Leigh worked her way up from dispensing assistant to manager then trained to be a dispensing optician for four years. “I don’t think of myself as ambitious,” she says, “but looking back I must have been.” She was working full time in the shop almost every day of the week and studying in the evening.
Leigh decided to take a post as director of a new store in Newtonwards and nine months after finishing her training and opening the new store she found out she was pregnant. While she was on maternity leave, she went in every month to do the payroll. “It was like my other baby,” she says.
She didn’t have much time off which she says helped to get her son into a routine. She was properly back at work after 12 weeks. For Leigh, becoming a mum changed her whole focus at work. She has brought her son, Adam, into the store and it has allowed her staff to learn how to work with children, particularly those with special needs. Indeed Adam’s whole class came into the store on one occasion. Leigh says that family friendly feel has given her business an edge over others. “Being family friendly has made us stand out,” she says.
Adam was diagnosed with autism just before his third birthday – when Leigh was pregnant with her second son Sam. Leigh found out about a programme called Son-Rise which might be able to help him communicate. However, it involved her putting in an extra 40 hours a week to support Adam and attending a training course in New York which Leigh’s family could not afford. Her store had won a £1K bonus for their hard work.
It is a testimony to the loyalty Leigh inspires that her colleagues said they would rather give her the money to do the therapy course than take it for themselves. “They said it would only be a few hundred pounds for each of them and it would make a big change for you. They wanted to help Adam,” she says. She refused the money, but they insisted.
Not only that but the whole team worked together to enable Leigh to do the therapy with Adam for two years. She did shorter days and got some volunteers to help. When she started the programme Adam had no language skills. Within three months, he was talking and had good eye contact.
Leigh says that, although she has always prided herself on her independence, she has been struck by how much people want to help and how much support there can be if you ask for it. “Letting go of being independent has been a lifeline for me with Adam,” she says, adding that being at work has helped keep her sane and given her a sense of normality.
She adds that her team’s involvement with Adam has made him more confident and helped to create a strong loyalty and team spirit in the store – and her team know the support goes both ways. Leigh takes a keen interest in staff development and in checking people are in the roles where they can make the most of their skills. Many of her team have had children now and some need more support than others, for instance, single parents. She says she hopes her team members feel they can talk to her and feels seeing her as a “normal person” with her own challenges helps.
Leigh has also got a strong family network to help her with childcare. Her sister-in-law was a childminder and helped with Sam, having him on weekends when the shop was open and her husband was away on business. During school holidays Leigh and her husband organised childcare between them and Leigh worked shorter days and caught up on administrative work at night. She also trained another dispensing optician so she could focus on the retail management side which was less customer-facing.
“It’s all about changing and adapting,” says Leigh.
She became President of the local Chamber of Commerce almost by accident three years ago after other members left and she is embracing the role and the ability to see issues from a broader perspective. She has been involved in campaigns to promote Newtonards and has been advising the council on what they can do to support local business. She feels that, as a businesswoman, she brings a collaborative approach.
Meanwhile, her Specsavers store is looking to expand and relocate. “That will be my next baby,” says Leigh. She is delighted with the everywoman award. “It really floored me,” she says. “I thought that kind of thing always happened to other people. If I can inspire anyone else, especially working mums, that would be brilliant.”