Bright-eyed Louise Richley thought to be taken seriously in business she’d have to look and act serious. But looking serious doesn’t suit her as much as looking enthusiastic. Thankfully, she looks happy building on her reputation for turning firms around.
At 33 she has bred a phoenix out of a high-tech business once broken-winged and gasping. With an earlier start-up already to her credit in the North East, she was invited by a firm specialising in restructures to consider a troubled firm at Hoddesden in Hertfordshire, a niche operation like her existing business serving estate agents. A self-confessed bossy boots (not apparent on this encounter) Richley is from Throckley in Newcastle.
After early schooling at Walbottle, she attended Sacred Heart at Fenham then graduated in history from Newcastle University in 1999. “I knew I wanted my own business but hadn’t a clue how to get into it,” she says. “Dad was a teacher, Mum didn’t work. I’ve two sisters and a brother, all younger.
So I’ve always been, like, bossy: ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that, we’re going to organise this’, they’d hear me say. ”Parties in the garden, inviting the neighbours in and me saying, ‘Good afternoon everybody, we’re doing a show for you today.’” At university she ran the societies she joined.
Between studies she worked for BT’s Gosforth call centre, and researched for Newcastle Council. She asked swimmers for opinions on the baths and walkers in Exhibition Park for suggestions on improving it.
“I also worked with people helping recovering alcoholics, drug addicts in rehab,” she says. “Just taking notes and helping with admin, but it was fantastic.” When offered a career with business advisers Ernst & Young in Newcastle, she got cold feet, recognising she was a multi-tasker. She got a job instead with Home Movers at Sunderland Enterprise Park, working for Stephen Lovely. She intended to stay 12 months to experience full-time work, get a car and pay off student debt.
Lovely suggested she study for an MBA. At 21, it was thought she might be too young and inexperienced, but after several interviews at Durham Business School and – she thinks – a check with tutors at Newcastle, the school accepted her. She tackled the MBA part-time over a couple of years, Fridays and Saturdays.
“They say an MBA works most brilliantly when you can also draw on life experiences,” she says. “I was writing dissertations on running a stand in Exhibition Park when others were writing about their experiences with big companies.” But she got her MBA, regretting only that she wasn’t forced to focus on financial management, which inexperience had made her shy from.
So later she decided: “Right, I’m going to study accountancy for CIMA.” To date she has passed 10, perhaps 11 of the 15 levels. Only mounting business responsibilities and travelling have prevented further progress. Her maiden business, For Sale Sign Analysis Ltd, compiles and processes data for estate agents, based on findings of its team driving around streets, drives and avenues to count and study For Sale signs.
Their results, dictated into recorders, are typed up at the office, studied for market share and other trends, town by town. Findings are sold to the agents, and to housebuilders, removal and mortgage companies – anyone for whom housemoving represents profit. Eccentric? Richley agrees: “But its website says on the tin what it does, and you understand it if you’re an estate agent.” The Hertfordshire firm she was invited to inspect, Icion Systems, had been started in 2002, a year after For Sale Sign Analysis, by a father and son supplying audio-visual solutions.
The firm’s technical expertise surpassed its financial skills and one day the payroll couldn’t be met. Advised by North East business angel Jeremy Middleton and Stephen Lovely, Richley spent two weeks studying the proposition in 2009. Not only the accounts dismayed.
She recalls: “The location was wrong – premises above a shop so engineers had to hump huge and heavy computer and screen equipment up two flights of stairs and poky offices where I favour open-plan.
There was great potential, but we realised there was no point in trying to pick things up.
“We let it go bust and started instead Beyond Digital Systems.
We took on the owners and some staff from the failed business and relocated eight miles to Harlow to create a new, more motivational ambience.” Icion had been cleverly into digital signage, projecting ads electronically by LCD and plasma screens. Its 42” screens in agents’ windows showed houses for sale in a way passers-by couldn’t ignore. The two companies looked a fit, and there was opportunity to move into car showrooms next. Icion’s owners were given a stake in Beyond Digital.
Richley and Middleton, however, share financial control, with Lovely a non-executive chairman. Middleton also set up his own factoring company to secure the book debts, protected by subsequent orders. Within six months, the business was on a viable path, settling retained employees and sorting out contracts.
“We love estate agents,” Richley says. “The new business had depended on them and my first business still depends on them, but resources required to focus wholly on them were beyond the margin we could make.” Volvo UK was the catalyst. It hesitated initially because Beyond Digital was young. Richley says: “I persuaded Volvo to agree a contract by using relationships and credit I have through For Sale Sign Analysis.
We did a 2009-10 roll-out for all 120 Volvo showrooms in the UK.” Jaguar and Land Rover followed. Beyond Digital doesn’t manufacture but sources, custom-designs and assembles its equipment. Richley’s no techie, but revels in selling. When she and sales director Conrad Pope found themselves in a pitch against 10 or so competitors for Jaguar and Land Rover’s digital business last year they put on the big show – “full technicolour”, as she describes it.
“We pulled up in our big van and brought in our impressive engineers and big equipment. We asked for entry to the presentation room half-an-hour before. We set up all this equipment and created an arena atmosphere so when people come in for the pitch they think, ’Wow’. We took a team of five or six. Next day we were in the top three. Then we were selected. Now we’ve just finished doing Land Rover showrooms across the UK, too.” Beyond Digital Systems, now run from Boldon and Harlow, also projects advertising and announcements in stations, and outside corporate buildings – waiting times in hospitals and surgeries, times or changes to lecture schedules in places of learning. It has equipped Yell.com’s six call centres and, for Bourne Leisure, its Butlins holiday parks. Messages in reception areas, visitors’ welcomes, digital schedules of meeting arrangements, health and safety reminders can all be provided – illustrated too. At the call centres, latest performance stats on call monitoring and queue detail are transmitted.
At Butlins, digital signposts help holidaymakers. Restaurant and bar posters have been digitally replaced. Result? Drinks promotions and meal deals show sales up 21% in some cases. Other recent clients include coffee houses. Now fast-food chains are on the radar. Sites include major highways, such as two giant screens overlooking the Hammersmith bypass and the newly-opened Westfield shopping centre, acclaimed as Europe’s largest, near London’s Olympics quarter. Richley says: “Our presentation routine seems to work.
As long as I have the technical support I feel comfortable.” The firm showed half-a-million profit on £300,000 sales last year. Sales this year could be about £3m. “We’ve some really big deals in the offing,” she says. Volvo for example may equip its dealerships abroad now.
Richley remains her family’s only entrepreneur. One sister is a policewoman; her other sister is raising a family. Her brother teaches Japanese in South Korea. She has even set up and runs a residents’ group on Newcastle Quayside where she lives. OK, she might be bossy, but George Stephenson was bossy too, and look where it got him!