Women in Business Q&A: Carolyne Vale, Co-Founder, Wilson Vale

Carolyne Vale co-founded Wilson Vale in 2002 with her husband, Andrew Wilson, on £50k capital and 'a laptop and a pencil'. The couple initially ran the business from an office above their garage in Derbyshire. Current annual turnover is £19.5 million and Wilson Vale now employs 550 people. The company specialises in high quality catering, mainly within the business & industry, private education and conference venue sectors.

Carolyne started her career as a trainee manager with Aramark after completing a HND in catering and hospitality at Birmingham College of Food in 1979. She joined Sutcliffe Catering as a relief chef and quickly moved up the ranks, and at 24 years of age, she was made one of the youngest ever area managers within the Midlands.

By 28, she was one of the youngest general managers in the company and one of only two women at that level.

In 1991, following the birth of her daughter, Carolyne joined niche catering company, Nelson Hind, as an area manager initially and laterally as operations director. She was fundamental to the growth, development and success of Nelson Hind which sold to Avenance in 2001.

In 2002, with a young daughter and financial commitments, Carolyne and Andrew took a leap of faith and established Wilson Vale. By the end of their first year of trading, Wilson Vale had five clients, a turnover of £357K and they employed 40 people. Others clients soon followed, tempted by the couple's genuine approach, great food standards and their ability to attract like-minded people to join them.

By 2006, turnover had reached over £6.6 million and in the December of the same year, Wilson Vale appeared in 15th place in the Sunday Times Fast Track List.

Carolyne still has day-to-day, hands-on involvement in the operational side of the business, ensuring that food and service standards remain high, while Andrew Wilson is responsible for sales and development. She is a member of the Women First Top 100 and was named one of the top 200 most influential businesswomen in Leicestershire in 2013.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think growing up in a bustling household with three siblings gives you a certain skills set which helps to shape your future! The delicate arts of negotiation, debate and compromise (or not!) are highly practised and honed. I think it also gives you a certain level of determination, competitive edge and drive too. My mother and father had a fantastic work ethic and a strong sense of fairness and loyalty, qualities which have influenced me tremendously. When it comes to a career, you also need to be lucky enough to work within the right business culture that reflects your values and philosophy - and to work for and be inspired by those few special individuals who can really make a difference to how you think about and approach work. Unfortunately, for many it's often only in the later stages of a career that you truly appreciate the importance of that. I think when you are younger you might instinctively make these decisions but we don't perhaps guide people in making career choices around matching values and culture, do we?

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Wilson Vale?
I have always had an eye for the detail and the strong belief that things can always be improved. One of the people who influenced me greatly in my career was Nora Stolz, my area manager at Sutcliffe Catering. Nora really helped me to define my style and focus as she had immaculate standards. She gave me my first managerial role at the age of 23, running a team of eight staff. It was a challenge but she obviously had the confidence in me to give me that opportunity. It established me on my career path. I really believe in giving the young and inexperienced a chance; that certainly happened to me and hopefully I rewarded the business as a result. Chris Hind, who was the MD of Sutcliffe Catering at the time, subsequently supported my career through area management and I went on to become one of the company's youngest regional general managers at the age of 29.

When Chis left Sutcliffe in 1991 to set up his own business with Andrew Nelson (Nelson Hind) it was then that both Andrew Wilson (my husband) and I decided to join their business. It comes back to following a culture and people, doesn't it? These guys had rare talents and could frankly have run a Footsie 100 if they wanted to so both Andrew and I learned a great deal about starting and growing a company in a niche market with strong core values. Nelson Hind doubled in size every three years to reach a £50 million turnover in ten years - an impressive achievement.
When the company was acquired in 2002, Andrew and I knew it was the right time to consider making a move ourselves and starting Wilson Vale but with a culture and philosophy that meant something to us.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Wilson Vale?
Definite highlights have been creating a culture which defines us both as individuals and watching people develop and grow and engage with what we have tried to achieve. Although Wilson Vale has grown steadily over the years, we have never lost sight of our core values which has resulted in a fantastic client-base with long lasting relationships. For example, we still have four of our first five clients from our first year of trading. (The other one sadly closed in 2006). Given the transient and highly competitive sector we are, we see this as a great vote of confidence in our ethos and way of doing business.

On a more personal level, appearing on the Top 100 listing of the most influential women in hospitality last year was a very humbling moment, as was being named in the top 200 business people in Leicestershire in 2013.

One of the biggest challenges we face on an on-going basis is finding the right people; we have to search very hard to find the Wilson Vale champions of the future. The good thing is that once we find the right people, they tend to stay with us. We still have our very first employee, who was coincidently named Andrew Wilson also.

What advice can you offer women who are looking to start their own business?
Absolutely define the culture and ethos of your business and never be tempted to deviate from those core values - regardless of the financial lure.

Manage your balance sheet and don't outsource your financial management. In fact, recruit the very best to do that for you - someone you can really trust. We were very privileged to have Esther Brookes join us as financial director at the very start. She is a serious class act and we know that we never have to worry about the financial aspects of the business, which allows us to concentrate on development and quality.

Create a niche for the business and again stay in it! It's far better to keep to what you do best. One of Andrew's favourite sayings is 'stick to your knitting' and to be honest, that's so true.

Whatever you do, if you don't enjoy it and you're not passionate about it, it's not going to be successful.

Work hard and engage the very best people you can afford.

Last but not least, if you don't have the support of your close family - don't bother. So many people fail because they don't have their partner's or family's support and that is absolutely vital because of the long hours and dedication it takes to establish and grow a business.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm not sure that I have until last year when we invested in strengthening our board of directors by appointing two new directorships post for sales and operations. Up until then, I was on the road every day, overseeing the operations side of the business. We have 75 diverse catering operations located throughout the UK and I took a very hands-on approach - to the point where I wouldn't think twice about grabbing a pair of rubber gloves to help out when necessary when preparing for a new contract opening! I now try to work from home on Fridays and I travel less than I did. Being married to the business (!) means that it's difficult to separate life and work but Andrew and I are have made a conscious decision this year to book more breaks - even if it is just getting away to the south coast for a weekend. Having said that, I truly believe that you can't run a successful business on a part-time, arm's length basis - you are either on the bus or not!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Their own confidence; I saw this in myself and I see it in so many other women. I don't know why so many of us lack the confidence to believe in our own abilities.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has had a big impact on my professional and personal life, through actual mentors like my mother who set a strong example for us all, to business mentors like Nora (already mentioned above). There have also been what I call 'subliminal mentors' - really strong female role models within the hospitality sector such as Prue Leith and Robyn Jones OBE, who showed that with determination and hard work, you can succeed. I have always tried to lead by example at Wilson Vale and would never ask others to do anything I wouldn't do myself. I would like to think that I have inspired and will continue to inspire other young talented females within this niche sector to have confidence in themselves and follow their dreams.

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