The inspiration for this interview came from far up in the clouds! Actually, that’s not quite true; my daughter was on a plane delayed on the runway and struck up a conversation with her neighbour. That neighbour turned out to be a member of Cathy’s company and my daughter soon learned that all senior posts in the company are female.
‘Mum‘, texted my daughter, ‘You’ll love them, you must interview their CEO!‘ She was right. And just a few weeks later I am chatting with Cathy Ridley while she’s in England from her current home in Hong Kong.
Cathy is the Chair and founder of MovePlan Group. In brief, her organisation handles location moves and workplace change management for companies. MovePlan do everything to make it as stress free as possible, while allowing staff to get on with the day job. I didn’t know such companies existed so my first question was:
Jane: Cathy, how did you get into this field?
Cathy: Well, I was working as a Personal Assistant and my organisation was moving to a new location. As I was PA to the Director I got tasked with making the move happen. I realised what a huge job it was, trying to coordinate everything with least impact on staff and thought to myself: there’s a business opportunity here.
So what were your career aspirations as a young girl? Did you anticipate running your own business?
I went to what was then called a secondary modern school, in the north of England, Hull. (It later became a comprehensive school). The range of options on offer for girls was limited; nursing, secretarial, teaching, or possibly working in a bank. None of it inspired me at all and the expectation was that we’d become good wives and mothers, not career women. I wanted to do something different like journalism. But I had no idea how to go about it.
I left school at 16 and went onto college for 16 to 18 year olds to study for a Higher National Diploma in Business Studies. I didn’t end up in journalism but instead my first job was in a packaging company.
A few years later I made what turned out to be a very good decision and applied for a job as cabin crew with British Airways. I loved it and flew with them for 4 years. It was a brilliant job. British Airways at that time had all the best routes and I literally flew all over the world.
Do you still use any of the skills you learned then?
Yes, lots; the training in customer care was excellent. It taught me how to deal with stressed and anxious people, and anyone who has ever moved office knows just how stressful that can be. It also taught me the value of stamina and working a shift system. Businesses are usually moved outside of office hours so BA was good training for that.
Four years on and you left BA for…?
BA was great but it wasn’t so great for developing a good work and home balance, which was beginning to become important to me. I moved to work for an advertising company where I was PA to one of the Directors. And, as you know, it was during that job that I had the idea for starting up the business.
What was your motivation for running your own business?
I’ve always loved creating something from nothing and I certainly did that with MovePlan. I think it’s what we women do; make our own opportunities. I felt I’d not had access to so many things that I decided to take control, and I was strongly motivated by a desire to be in control of my own time: that work home balance again.
I started small and mainly in my field of expertise where I had contacts. Our first big break came when a very large pharmaceutical company asked us to manage their move. That moved the business into a different league and we learned so much from it.
I hate asking women this because men never ever get asked but, as it’s come up a few times already, have you managed your career along with motherhood?
Yes, I have a grown up daughter and for most of her life have been a single parent. In fact, I went back to work when my daughter was 8 weeks old. It was bloody hard and I’d never advise anyone to do it. But this was in the pre statutory maternity leave days; you had to have been working two years full time before you qualified for any maternity benefits and I didn’t qualify.
On that point about men never being asked about children, a few years ago I spent some weeks living in a fully serviced appointment. The thought suddenly struck me that I was living like many men of my generation did. I didn’t have to shop for food or worry about washing my clothes or anything; it was all done for me and all I had to do was concentrate on my career. It was wonderful.
The reason we got together to talk was because your company has senior staff that are only women, although I know you do employ some men too. If the situation was reversed I’d be demanding to know why you don’t have an equal gender representation as research shows that a good balance is best. Do you ever think you might be a better company if you had a man in a senior post?
Ha, good question. It wasn’t actually a conscious decision that we became a strong female led company. At the time I was starting one of the non negotiable requirements was excellent keyboard skills. We were all working from our individual home bases and doing our own administration was a necessity. There were very few men at that level who could do that then, so almost by default rather than design we employed women.
If I consider that question more deeply, I think that possibly being all women means that at times some of us can get over involved with our clients and stuck into detail, when a more detached view might be more appropriate.
On the plus side, I think women are ideally suited to this work. There’s no big ego stuff happening in our meetings and we’re all happy to ask questions and say if we don’t understand. We’re all very practical and detail focussed. Also, many of our women have families so they manage their time really well and are very productive in their working hours.
Have you ever experienced overt sexism in your career?
Given the generation I’m from that’s almost inevitable but it’s not something I’ve ever let bother me. If anything it spurs me on to show what I can do.
I do remember one incident very well, though, when I was studying an entrepreneurs course, one year part time study at our local business school. I’d applied for it because part of the process was to produce a business plan and I thought it would give me some good feedback. As it happened I got in.
The course was about 80% male. One of the tutors on the course remarked that I hadn’t been a sure-fire selection because they queried my motivation. I had been very honest about the fact that I wanted to be in control of my time and create a good balance. Most of the men were motivated by having material things, like flash cars and making money. The male tutor obviously thought they were better reasons for success than mine. It rankled quite a bit as I was pigeon holed as not being ambitious enough to succeed.
I can’t help interjecting here, Cathy. That is so typical; the benchmark, applied by a male tutor, was a male one. You were being compared to what men did most of the time, and what men thought was right and acceptable rather than by a gender neutral standard. It happens in every strata of society; most norms are male and the world is viewed through a male prism. (Climbs off soapbox and straightens skirt)
Back to the interview…Have you had a mentor in your career?
Lots of people have been very helpful to me and I’ve had good advice over the years. Early on in setting up the business I asked a fellow businesswoman ‘Does it ever get any easier?‘ She replied no it didn’t; the numbers just got longer. I’ve never forgotten that and she was right.
What advice would you give to any woman reading this who is thinking of starting up her own business?
Talk to as many people as possible in your chosen field. Do the numbers work well, by which I mean, understand the cash flow, the overheads, investments, all the housekeeping stuff. And keep its simple.
That’s brilliant advice. My final question, if you could have any alternative career, however mad, no limits, what would it be?
I’ve always had a hankering to offer something tangible, not a service, to sell an actual product. On the more way out side, I’d love to be a backing singer with the Rolling Stones on tour!
Cathy, thank you so much for giving up your time to talk with me. I’ve so enjoyed interviewing you and I think the readers will enjoy your story too. It’s very inspiring; from PA to running your own business with a plus 8 million US dollars turnover. You’re pretty impressive!
RenewYou is my one day programme exclusively designed for women. Find out more here.
Posted on November 18th, 2014 by Jane