From growing up with no money to creating businesses all about money, Cathi Harrison tells Paul Robertson about starting from scratch to closing in on a million-pound dream.
As one of six children to a single mum, being brought up on a council estate in North East England was not the easiest start in life for Cathi Harrison, but it is a one that has shaped her determination and desire to succeed. In her hometown of Darlington, she now owns one financial services company, Para-Sols, employing 17 people, and has just launched a sister company, Apricity Compliance.
Add to that being mum to one-year-old Harrison, running a half marathon for the first time and organising her wedding in Crete to partner Rohan in October, 2017 has been something of a whirlwind for the 34-year-old.
She is justifiably proud to see Para-Sols successfully complete a brand refresh as it is about to enter its ninth year of trading, with the £1m target for turnover in 2019 set to be achieved at least 12 months early.
“My team and I provide paraplanning support to financial planners across the whole of the UK,” says Cathi. “We act as a business support unit, helping to fill in any gaps in their services to enable them to focus on the areas they do best. This includes administration, research, report writing as well as consultancy services where we can help put in place systems and processes to enable firms to get the most out of their current resources.”
Getting the most out of resources is something at which Cathi can be considered an expert, all thanks to the hard but happy upbringing on Skerne Park council estate. “I am often asked what is my earliest memory of money,” she recalls. “It is there was none. Because I had nothing growing up, I have always been motivated to change things for myself.”
At the age of 14, Cathi got a job in a restaurant washing pots and at another peeling garlic. Then at 16 she added a third job, working part-time at the Royal Mail as she became the first person in her family to go to college in the town to study business.
“I used the money made on jobs to put myself through driving lessons and to get a car – mum doesn’t drive so it was another thing I wanted to do to make a difference. I also saved up for my first passport to go on holiday – doing things I was never able to do when I was younger.”
Having finished college, she went full-time at the Royal Mail but after a few months decided there was little prospect of career progression. “I realised I wasn’t going anywhere and I didn’t know what career I wanted so I saw university as an opportunity to help me get that direction,” she says. “I applied to Teesside University to do English and I was accepted but a few weeks later I got a letter withdrawing the offer because they said I hadn’t done English at college.
“I wrote to the vice chancellor to complain, told him I was passionate about wanting to do it and that I would do well, so they let me do the course.”
The fact she achieved an upper-second class bachelor of arts degree with honours in English with business is testament to the fighting spirit within her. As she started considering her future, Cathi spotted a newspaper advert to become an administrator in financial services. “It was a big area of life I knew nothing about,” she admits.
She set her sights on becoming a financial adviser but when she started doing paraplanning during her training she really enjoyed it and decided it was the career path she wanted to follow. She moved on to a specialised paraplanning role with a company in Harrogate but found the daily commute a grind so, after gaining a lot more experience, began sowing the seeds for her business.
“I started calling up firms in the North East and many said they would love a paraplanner but as we were in the middle of a recession [it was 2009] they couldn’t afford to take on anyone full time so that’s when I thought ‘what if they paid me for each project’? A couple of them said they would be interested so I left my job and went freelance,” she says.
Things didn’t start smoothly. Cathi raised £4,000 by selling her car, investing £1,000 in a small run-around, leaving the rest to cover her mortgage and bills for three months.
“At the end of three months I hadn’t earned anything – that was the point where my mum said just get a job,” recalls Harrison. “I asked the mortgage company for a couple of month’s holiday, took on some waitressing work, which I was terrible at, just to make ends meet but then I got my first client. It was for just £200, but it was a start and I thought if I keep going I will get a few more and it will build up.
“Within a few weeks my first client, Flora [still a client today], had recommended me to someone else and I did some cold calling, which is not really my skill – I don’t do sales. I had no materials, website or anything to demonstrate what I could do so it was so painful, but referral started taking on a life of its own – I never advertised or promoted the business, it was all word of mouth, which is lovely.”
Cathi got a grant of £300 to build a basic website and printed some self-made business cards from a machine in a shopping centre. “I went to an industry event and my former boss saw my embarrassing cards and said well done and good luck,” she laughs.
“I started thinking of a name and came up with Para-Sols (Paraplanning Solutions). I drew a parasol, got a logo made, which went on emails and it started feeling more professional.”
She started off in the corner of her lounge on a computer – she didn’t have a spare room – before getting a small office in an old job centre with two desks and one phone, enough to persuade former work colleague Jo Campbell to join her in 2011.
Several moves later, the company recently took on 2,500sq ft offices in Lingfield Point Darlington. As part of the new office, Cathi has also installed a “pub” where they meet every Friday night or to celebrate special occasions, while three dogs mingle among the employees.
Rapid growth not only brought logistical challenges but getting experienced staff was proving equally as difficult. So, Cathi launched Para-Sols’ own graduate training programme, “The Grad Scheme”.
“The few paraplanners we had found in the past tended to know only the workings of one particular company but we work with 100 different companies,” says Cathi. “I spent so much time retraining staff I thought we would be better off teaching people from scratch.”
The scheme is now formalised after a successful trial and runs for two years with each employee becoming at least as qualified as a financial adviser, although they are encouraged to go to the next level. It all paved the way for the next move to grow the business by creating a sister company, Apricity Compliance, an idea Cathi came up with while on maternity leave.
“Para-planning is nice to have as it frees up time for advisers to see more clients but it is not an essential, whereas compliance support is,” she says. “It is so heavily regulated.
“Financial services can be a very stale, dry industry, dominated by mostly middle-aged men. We want to change that image. We are a young, fun and friendly team. We believe we can create a new compliance service and bring the Para-Sols ethos to it, something our clients will want to use on a day-to-day basis.”
It means Cathi handing over operational responsibility of Para-Sols to her co-incidentally all-female team of Campbell, now head of paraplanning, head of marketing Natalie Bell and Kim Binks, head of client services, so she can lead a team of five on establishing Apricity Compliance.
Early indications suggest there is a healthy demand for the new services on offer so yet more space for more staff could be required soon.
“At the beginning, I wanted to work for myself and never thought beyond that so when I did take on other people I found it very hard,” she says. “I have got over that hump and I definitely run it as a business. Para-Sols was my baby and I was involved in every single aspect of it but when I had Harrison I realised I needed to hand over some of the responsibilities.”
“I did a leadership course recently and just because I love the fact it is changing and moving all the time doesn’t necessarily mean everyone does, so I have to be mindful of having regular Monday morning meetings to keep all the staff informed.”
Spare time is precious and dominated by family life with Rohan and Harrison, while every other second is spent building up the business. “We talk about pensions all the time,” she jokes. “I did the Great North Run for the first time in two hours and 35 minutes. I couldn’t walk for two days afterwards. I didn’t too much training because we were too busy.
“We had 50 family and friends at our wedding in Crete then a little time to relax but the business takes up most of our time and energy – apart from Harrison of course.”
She has bought her mum a house and many of her wider family live close by, including on the council estate where she was brought up. “I am proud of where I am from and I love coming to work every day – I couldn’t ask for anything more,” says Cathi.