Growing up on what she calls one of the worst council estates in Telford, Sandy Lindsay founded her own communications consultancy and launched The Juice Academy, which trains digital apprentices, as Maria McGeoghan reports.
I bloody love my job,” says Sandy Lindsay with a big grin. We’re in the boardroom at what she affectionately calls “Tangerine Towers” – the home of one of the UK’s top communications consultancies, which employs 60 people and works with some of the world’s biggest brands.
It’s in the heart of Manchester’s trendy Castlefield, where old meets new as smart office blocks and apartments look out over the canals and bridges that reflect the city’s past.
Lindsay, who was made a member of the order of the British empire (MBE) in 2015 for her services to business and young people, is founder and chair of Tangerine, which provides public relations (PR), marketing, digital and content expertise for national and international companies.
She also set up a multi award-winning apprentices’ scheme, The Juice Academy, to help plug the digital skills gap in the North-West of England, is chair of the Institute of Directors’ North-West skills group and a national ambassador for apprenticeships. A very busy lady, but she’s funny, down to earth and keen to praise the people who have helped her along the road to success.
Tangerine has just celebrated its 15th birthday by announcing employee ownership so it’s the perfect time to look back at where it all began. And that start was set to a disco beat; a dancer for 20 years, Lindsay has realised that many of the skills she learned while leading her dance teams stood her in good stead for a life in business.
“I grew up on one of the worst council estates in Telford,” she explains. “I was very, very lucky because I had amazing parents.
“The older you get you realise how much of life is based on having good parents. They gave me really good values and a real belief in myself.
“I danced for 20-odd years competitively with teams across the country and we would come together at the weekends to compete. It was a mixture of disco dancing and tumbling, acrobatics and gymnastics – which is why my body is completely screwed now.
“With hindsight, the way I ran the teams is very much how I run things today. Bringing people with you, engaging people, teamwork, communications, leadership. When you felt fantastic, and you had a really good routine, you felt on top of the world and nothing could knock you down.”
But a series of repeated injuries put paid to her dancing career and she had to give it up. “One day I was dancing and we had this new Greek routine.
“I went over and landed on my legs, whipped them out, and went ‘Oooohh!’. I walked home and got up the next morning and fell out of bed. Fell flat on my face.
“Basically, the doctor said I had broken both my ankles and I walked home on them. He said If you don’t stop you will end up in a wheelchair. I thought right, stop. I was 22 at the time.”
A role working in administration for the British Amateur Gymnastics Association followed, and she then moved in to crisis management. “I do love a crisis,” she admits. “Some people run away from it but I always think there is an opportunity in a crisis. When you see all the phone lines lit up you know it’s going to be interesting.”
She then took on a senior role at a large PR agency, which eventually opened up the path to Tangerine. “I never ever was going to start my own business,” Lindsay says. “That was not what we do in my family. We work for other people. We know our place.
“I was working with a very large PR firm, which had 10 offices and it was a brilliant place to work, and I was loving it.
“Then I started getting that Sunday evening stomach ache, ‘The Sunday Doom’. We had been bought by a venture capitalist and you probably know how that goes. It was a brilliant place and it was making a very, very good profit. But they bought it and changed it which I have never understood. They started doing things that I disagreed with.”
So, she sat down with her boss and talked herself out of a job. “I was told at the time that the problem with me was that I had too strong a moral streak,” she remembers. “Back then, PR wasn’t what it is today at all. If I told people that I worked in PR they would say ‘Oh you lie for a living’.
“I was offered redundancy, which I took. I was 35 or 36 and my friends and family said you can start your own business and I said ‘No, I don’t think I’ll be doing that thanks very much’.
“PR is a very small village in Manchester. I was offered two or three jobs immediately, managing director roles mainly, and I thought I might be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
“Then I thought if I’ve got this hideous moral streak, maybe the only thing I can do is start my own business. I can prove to myself that it is possible to run a PR business that is both ethical and profitable.
“Those two aims are not mutually exclusive. If you do great work for clients, and treat people properly the money naturally follows.”
Anyway why call it Tangerine? “Oh, I’ve always loved orange but that brand was taken.”
Now 15 years on, Lindsay has built up the business on those same principles and, as she predicted, success has followed with current revenues of £3.2m. “It has flown by,” she says. “It feels like three or four years ago. I absolutely bloody love it.
“Some agencies are willing to say and do anything to win business but we are only willing to say and do what’s true. Sometimes that can put you at a disadvantage.
“We were absolutely determined that we would never break that or we would end up just like everyone else. We will stick to our principles and even if that means we are not going to win some clients — they are not for us anyway.”
The biggest growth year for Tangerine was in 2012 when it won the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) national agency of the year award, the first agency outside London to take this prestigious prize. “It went absolutely bonkers,” says Lindsay. “It was crazy. We were getting calls from national and international brands and it took us in to a completely different league.
“It had just been proved you don’t need to be in London. You can do brilliant work from anywhere in the country.”
This summer, Lindsay announced that Tangerine was going to be employee-owned and all the paperwork was finally signed off in mid-November. “I always said I would do it,” she says. “Tangerine is my baby. I don’t have kids. We never have wanted to sell. The people who have helped me along the way should benefit from their work.
“So, if you work for us, you are a partner like in John Lewis and share in the profit, which we have always done. A lot of the things that employee-owned businesses do, we already did. So, it won’t feel that different. It’s real now. I only own 26% from owning 86%.”
As part of the deal, Lindsay wrote a “Letter of wishes” for the staff, which includes: “Support and develop each other as individuals. Doing work that makes us proud.”
And one of her proudest achievements is setting up her second baby, The Juice Academy, which guides up to 80 young people through a level-three apprenticeship in digital marketing every year.
“Role models are very, very important,” says Lindsay. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We go into schools and talk to young people about the brilliant careers they can have as men or women.
Anybody can be anything but they can only do that if they have role models. We have always done job creation, internships, sandwich students and apprenticeships.
“I got in to this whole PR thing by accident. Someone took a punt on me with no experience and I bloody love what I do.
“So, I think we should do the same thing. When you are brainstorming Iceland you want someone who has actually shopped in Iceland – not Waitrose.
“They bring us this new energy. Some are uni grads and some are 18 years old. It annoys me when people say that they are too small to take an intern. We had our first intern when we were two people and she was amazing.
“You are never too small to start helping people out. I thought instead of just moaning about the skills gap let’s see if we can do anything about it.”
The Juice Academy was set up in 2012 and now employers and students are recruited every quarter and speed matched during a boot camp before setting off on an 18-month programme combining the classroom and the workplace. “It’s great that 93% of our young people get kept on,” says Lindsay proudly. “Some of them have gone on to amazing jobs. People teach at the academy for free and it’s not for profit.
“You see the students going from wide eyed with terror at boot camp to 18 months later graduating in caps and gowns. It’s really rewarding.
“I think that the apprentice levy should be a training and development levy that can be spent on any development.”
So, what advice would she give to people who are just setting out running their own business? “The best piece of advice is always employ the most expensive people you can afford”.
“More often than not, there is a reason why they are expensive. We don’t tend to penny pinch with people if we like someone. You get what you pay for in people more than anything else.
“Founding director Sarah Halton has been with me since a month in. I’m the gob basically. They call me the head of prancing.
“If it wasn’t for Sarah, Tangerine would be the noisiest, smallest PR agency in Manchester. She is the one who has made it work. While I’m the one out there making all the noise, she’s the people, she’s the detail, she’s the money.
“As the teams grew we employed Sam Gregory as MD of business-to-business five years ago and Mary Harding as MD of consumer. They are exceptional people. Absolutely brilliant and much better at communications than I have ever been. We are the sum-total of everyone who has ever worked here over the years.”