Inspirational Women – Sue Paulley

Another in my occasional series of inspirational women. I have to own up to an interest here – Sue is my accountant! True to form we met in a very unconventional way when Sue thought she’d won a coaching session with me through a business group we both belong to. It was the wrong Jane, but it was a lucky mistake for me. I hope you enjoy Sue’s story.

Jane: You are one half of the successful “Chartax Accountants with a difference”. How did this come about?
Sue: It was certainly never a lifetime ambition of mine to run an accountancy firm. When Nick and I met, we were both working for the same accountancy firm, me in London and Nick in Bristol. We met on a tax course in Nottingham – not a thrilling start to the relationship.

We spent a year conducting a long distance relationship and then I moved to Bath and commuted to London for a year, which was 2½ hours travel each way on a good day. When we realised that our relationship would work, I then moved to work for a Bristol accountancy firm, still doing tax. Nick stuck to his tax roots whilst I left the accountancy profession for four years after having breast cancer at 29. I came back to it when Nick was offered partnership in the accountancy firm he was with at the time and decided he wanted to paddle his own canoe. Nick joined forces with another guy and me and we started our own business.

Five years in, I had another health scare and we decided to leave our partner with most of the business and staff (it had grown to around 16 people by then) and took 100 clients and set off as Chartax. The driving force for us was our negative experiences with the large firms and we felt we could treat our clients and staff a lot better.

Jane: What’s it like working day to day with someone who is your life partner as well as your business partner?
Sue: Well, I should imagine it either works really well or it’s a disaster. For us, it’s perfect. We have completely different skills which work very well together and although it is sometimes difficult to leave business at the office door, we can usually make this work. I have to say that after 10 years of working together, I wouldn’t want to be in partnership with anyone else. I love it!

Jane: Do you remember what your first paid job was? How much did you earn?
Sue: My first paid job was at the local grocery store, the Kitchen Cupboard, in Leigh-on-Sea, stocking shelves. It was a horrible job, the shop was freezing cold and I hated carting big piles of tins around all the time, but the couple who ran it were very nice. I can’t remember how much I got paid but I don’t suppose it was very much.

Jane: What were your career thoughts when you left school? Did you go onto further education?
Sue: I went to a grammar school where the culture was, if you weren’t going to Oxford or Cambridge, you were obviously going to achieve nothing much in life. The careers adviser at the school could only find one occupation that he thought would suit me and that was a chiropodist. I hate feet, my own as well as everyone else’s so that probably wasn’t ever an option. I had always wanted to be a vet, but having failed my Biology O Level 3 times, I finally had to accept this wasn’t going to be.

I left school with one A Level (grade E) as I’d made almost no effort to study. Luckily, it was a bad year for results and I got a place at university studying for an HND in business studies – chosen purely because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I found this environment a much nicer place to be and really worked hard, so left with an honours HND, which was then equivalent to a degree. All quite lucky really!!

Jane: Did you have a plan? Or did you react to events as they happened?
Sue: I had no plan at all. I worked for a local airline for 3 months in the accounts department, and then went to work for British Gas tracing people who had moved house without leaving a forwarding address. Then I decided I wanted a change and took the Civil Service entrance exam. I passed and got offered the choice of any department. I only chose the Inland Revenue because it paid better than any other department but that was the start of my new life, both in respect of my career and also my family, as I would never have met my husband if I hadn’t.

I finished my training with the Inland Revenue in and got a job with one of the large accountancy firms in London in the expatriate tax department, again more by accident than design. Much as I’d like to be able to say my whole life has been properly planned, I can only truthfully say it’s just happened.

However, I do strongly believe that everything happens for a reason so …….

Jane: What problems and benefits have you found in combining motherhood and career?
Sue: The first thing I have to say is that I couldn’t have done it without the support of my Mum and Dad. They moved here when I was pregnant with our first son to help us with childcare and have provided us with total support ever since then. It was only when we started Chartax 5 years ago that we were able to take over our childcare commitments, although my Mum still has both boys during all the school holidays. Being an ex-school teacher, she’s been brilliant for them, and it’s a testament to her grand-parenting abilities that even now, after all that discipline, both boys absolutely love spending time with her.

Studying for my accountancy qualifications was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I started studying when our first child was about 2 and our baby was about 8 months old and spent 3 years doing a correspondence course. For the last year or so, I was studying for 3 hours a day as well as working a full day.

Looking back I think I was mad to try it, and I certainly couldn’t do it nowadays. Now, I think we have the best work-life balance of anyone I know. We both get up at 6, one of us takes the children to school (a 40 mile round trip) and the other one gets into the office for 6.30am. The early bird then picks the boys up and the other one of us works on until 5.30 or 6pm, so we both do a full day (plus some) but we are there for the boys too! Perfect!

Combining motherhood (parenthood really as we are both in it together) and career has been very difficult and trying over the years, but what keeps me strong is the knowledge that everything I do is either directly, or indirectly, for my family. We’re all worth it, as the advert says!

Jane: When were you happiest?
Sue: I think probably now. The boys are now 11 and 12, and because we’re with them so much, we’re able to see them blossoming into the men they will become. The business is better than it’s ever been, and we have a great bunch of clients who I really enjoy dealing with. We know that if we keep focused, we can make sure the business weathers this difficult period (I refuse to allow it the benefit of the “R” word!) and we have lots of things we still want to do.

Jane: What do you think is the secret of happiness?
Sue: Probably to be true and honest to yourself. You can fool most of the people most of the time, but in your heart of hearts, you know if you’re not content with how you are or you’re not being true to what you believe, you’ll never be truly happy. Always hope for the best and expect the worst. Having a half full glass is crucial to my personal happiness and that of my family I think. Living with 3 dyspraxics, I need to keep my glass fully topped up to keep others’ half full! Live for the day – you never know what’s around the corner; you could get run over by a bus tomorrow. Having breast cancer has certainly made many positive differences to my life and this is probably the biggest. Easy to forget sometimes!

Jane: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?
Sue: I think this would be to live for the day, but also that there are always millions of people out there who have it much harder than you, however awful things feel! Before I joined Nick back in accountancy, I spent 4 years working at a long stay hospital for adults with learning difficulties and this was extremely good at reminding me of this.

Jane: Who has been the most significant and or influential person in your life?
Sue: After having had our second son, I began to ask questions about genetic testing for breast cancer, and then found out that there was a 40 to 50% chance of the breast cancer returning, even if it wasn’t genetic. Let’s face it- you wouldn’t cross the road if you were told you had that high a chance of being run over!

Nick and I then started a 6 month process of considering whether I should have a double mastectomy as a precautionary measure.

During this time, Linda McCartney died when her breast cancer returned. I had been brought up on the Beatles and Wings and thought Paul and Linda were amazing role models. Realising that if Linda couldn’t survive a second coming of the cancer, then I shouldn’t assume that I could, finalised the decision for us and I had the double mastectomy in October 1998.

I can honestly say that I’ve not regretted the decision for a moment. Since then, one of my friends has died of breast cancer leaving 2 small children, and another has survived it.

The timing could definitely have been better as we started our accountancy firm with our partner in November of 1998 and I started studying within a few months, but hey, we can’t always choose timings can we?

Jane: Are there any books/sayings etc you think might be of interest to our readers?
Sue: I think I’d quote Elton John here:-

“I’m still standing,
Better than I ever did,
Looking like a true survivor,
Feeling like a little kid”

Jane: If the present Sue could give some advice to the 18 year old Sue, what would it be?
Sue: Oh, this is easy! You can do it, you need to believe in yourself now because by the time you hit 40, you’ll realise that you are good at what you do and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or says. I think if 18 year olds had the confidence and self belief of 40 year olds, they’d probably be able to take over the world!

Jane: Sue, thank you so much for sharing your story – you are definitely a different type of accountant!

You can contact Sue directly through her business web site, simply click here.

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Posted on September 28th, 2008 by

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