Kari Owers’ first considered reaction on being acclaimed a Woman Entrepreneur of the Year wasn’t to ponder what it could do for her company, but what it could do for other women aspiring to start a business.
After all, the meeting room of her company is already stocked with around 30 awards in the business’s name, amassed within seven years. Indeed her personal success came just a week after the company, OPR, had been named the North East PR Agency of the Year.
She puts you a little in mind of Nicola Adams, the flyweight who recently became Britain’s first woman boxer to win an Olympic gold medal, for Kari Owers too is petite yet, in her own craft, punching far above her weight.
“I was really delighted and shocked at first, though. We’re not a huge business, and I thought these kinds of awards were for really big businesses. Then I was told it wasn’t about size but about impact in what I was doing to inspire other women in business,” she says.
The Susan Dobson Award for Entrepreneurship, annual recognition of a North East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, was made by Women into the Network organisation. Owers admits: “I don’t necessarily go to women-only networking events. I’m not really a big fan of that kind of thing.
“But I think it’s important to celebrate women in business because it’s tough for a woman – not tougher necessarily than being a man – but in many cases we have family issues, children to raise. So it’s important to pat women on the back when they strike out to create jobs and wealth. We need far more of their kind.”
As OPR further gathers revenues, profits and awards, she now wants to be a business angel to other young people. She already mentors as a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum.
“It’s funny,” this mother of two says in her gentle Irish accent. “I still see myself as a start-up in many ways.
“But a talented young woman approached me after I won the award. She has built a very interesting online fashion business. But she needs experience and help and some investment. We’re working through that now. Sometimes if you’re only a year or two further down the line it’s still fresh, and I too have benefited from mentors over the years.”
It might seem odd at first that Kari, still only 39 - and who has worked with more than 400 clients in nearly 18 years - should consider online fashion. Those previous clients have included fashion designers, true, but also schools, landscape and architectural firms, surveyors, builders, lawyers, retailers, accountants, building societies, advertising and design agencies, educational bodies and public sector initiators.
She helped launch a radio station, a mental health campaign and... (here she concludes her instances with one of her periodic and engaging outbursts of laughter)...
“You know, I’ve worked on everything from an alternative funeral business to a naan bread manufacturer."
Exploring fashion now, when her primary tools of her trade for so long have been words, is less surprising, however, given her background. Words permeate the genes on one side of her family, fashion on the other. Her grandfather and grandmother on her mother’s side were in tailoring and millinery. On her father’s side, excelling for the 142-year-old Belfast Telegraph (recently adjudged Best Regional Newspaper of the Year by the Society of Editors), grandad was a journalist all his working life from the 1920s.
He retired at 74 – “they must have discovered him in a back room somewhere,” Owers chortles. “He was a reporter who became a top sub-editor and was well respected.” On the same paper, her great grandfather Jack Watson was a reporter who became a noted columnist.
Her uncle was a reporter at the Derry office during the troubles and rose to political editor, since when he has been in PR for about 25 years. Her dad writes on ecology, and Kari’s brother John Stewart Watson, besides being an editor at Edinburgh University Press, has his own publishing business, Stonecountry Press, which specialises in outdoor subjects and recently published one of their father’s books.
Owers is part of the cherished asset of talented people who alight on the North East to study then want to call the region home. On leaving school she doubted she’d take to writing. She put a pin on the map and found herself studying art and design at Newcastle College School of Art and Design.
There she met her husband and business partner Rob. She then achieved at Nottingham Trent University, a BA (honours first) in fashion design. Despite offers from London, she returned to Tyneside. “I’d spent just a year here earlier but absolutely loved the North East,” she says.
“I’d realised writing was more a passion than I’d thought. I enjoyed fashion and popular culture so thought to have a go at PR. She joined a Newcastle firm in its ascendancy and covered, besides the North East, Leeds, Manchester – and London. She broadened her experience at several more firms. Then she left a large agency working on big corporate brands to join a former colleague, ex-BBC, who was introducing the first “pay as you go” agency, causing flutters of dismay in the established PR dovecot.
Her route now led her into the dotcom boom and work with entrepreneurs – “challenging but exciting,” she recalls. “So fast paced - businesses being valued at telephone book numbers, and the business owners only in their teens sometimes. I could see the impact building.” Owers’ children, Joseph and Ailis, are now 10 and 7.
Soon after Ailis was born her mother felt compelled to set up for herself. She was aware after the birth that “pay as you go” could be a difficult business model if you weren’t coming to the office “to put energy and shoe leather into the job again”. Her boss agreed that doing her own thing would be timely.
Her assets were £1,000 in the bank, a mobile phone, a computer and oodles of tenacity. “I was lucky to start with one client I’d worked with for years, one of my dotcom successes. That one client paid the bills at start-up. By the end of month one, though, I had three clients. Should I take on staff? Three months later I’d more clients than I could cope with. Business had taken off. That was it. She’d launched from the attic of their Tynemouth house. Now they live at Ponteland for family convenience.
“I remember in the attic rocking our newborn daughter in her car seat while trying to speak with a business editor. A crazy time. But that’s what women often do when they start businesses. Life doesn’t stop. Families don’t stop. You just get on with it.” To quote a converse, behind every successful woman there’s often a man. Rob by then was prospering in an advertising agency.
But he told her: “You know, you can do this. You can freelance. I’ll help you.” Nine months after the 2005 start-up she was so busy that he joined her in work as well as marriage - “a big decision for us as a family but I was winning work,” she recalls.
Business partners initially, they are now co-directors of a limited business. She is chief executive and he is responsible for O Digital, producing all multi-media content.
Enterprise was big on the government agenda then, as now, and over the years the firm has worked with the likes of Young Enterprise North East, The Prince’s Trust, Enterprise UK and the Entrepreneurs Forum, the latter now using OPR for its social media strategy.
They worked from an office on the Quayside at Newcastle for a couple of years. Now their offices nestle beneath Byker’s mighty bridges overlooking Ouseburn, for they became one of the first firms into this long neglected heart of Newcastle’s 18th and 19thC industrial revolution following its revival.
Old buildings of character have been uplifted internally by the talents of architects and designers.
“This was one of the best things we ever did. The team could enjoy coming to work here. It has helped us develop a creative culture. Ouseburn has had lots to do with our success,” Owers says against background sounds outside of chickens clucking, sheep bleating, and trains roaring overhead in this magical district mix of farm, pubs, media, culture and entertainment. Kari Owers sees her personal award as also helping to confirm PR as an industry.
“I’m really, really passionate in the belief we’re a very serious business discipline,” she says. “PR is often considered at best a bit of a luxury, or something nice in good times, or at worst sheer spin. It just isn’t any more. You can’t spin now. Things are so transparent. Truth is all that works.
“Some journalists tell me they can’t profile PR because it’s not really a proper business. Pardon??? We’re the business behind the business, influencing other businesses’ strategy. I’ve had clients who, through strategic PR, have sold their business, won huge contracts, grown performance.”
Weber Shandwick, a global leader in PR, put out a survey suggesting about 84% of business executives rate PR as having most influence on their reputation. But only 59% of them have given a communications person a seat at the top table of senior management.
“I think that needs to change,” Owers says. “As a consultant I’m lucky in having had a seat at the top table with a number of entrepreneurs and businesses, and have been privy in being able to help them shift and grow their business. In larger corporates we certainly need more PR and communications people at board level. This is the decade when you need a board expert on reputation. If that can be a woman, even better.” Why this?
“The impact of social media on business, in terms of us living now in a world of such transparency that truth is all important, and being able to influence and get your message out correctly, means our sector is burgeoning. The challenge has been getting businesses to understand that shift.
“You can no longer just put out a press release knowing someone will print it and everything will be great. “We need to think about all the different media channels out there now - and the fact that customers can talk back, and they can talk directly to them. They need to build relationships through social media and online.”
Also, she agrees sadly, many young people today don’t read – often can’t read. So her company also employs live presentations, almost street theatre. It helped Nexus launch its Pop card, the Metro’s equivalent of London’s Oyster.
Connectivity with young people was seminal. Under 16s were the first target. Besides Facebook and Twitter OPR applied its street shows, stunts and public happenings. “Unveiling the brand on the side of a moving train was a logistical nightmare but great for media pictures,” Owers says.
The agency is keenly into inward investment, promoting Science Central site and Quorum Business Park.
“Quorum with its Tesco Bank headquarters is a national beacon, and hopefully Science Central will be once it materialises. I think there will be positive news on that in the coming years,” she adds.
Other clients include Benfield Motor Group, the North East’s biggest privately owned motor dealership, and OPR also helped the Metrocentre to celebrate its 25th anniversary recently. It also feels privileged to have joined Ringtons, a firm with 105 years’ experience, in launching Victory, its online-only tea brand. The company team totals 10, co-directors included.
The core team are client managers, a freelance network having also been built of videographers, photographers, journalists and writers and other specialists. “I think we’ll grow over the next five to 10 years and I do want to grow the team,” she says.
“But I’ve no intention of growing big for big’s sake. I don’t ever want us to lose quality. We’re a boutique agency.”
Plans to form a senior management team acknowledge, however, that in seven years some “extraordinarily good talent” has developed within. It will also enable her personally to find the time her angelic intentions will require.