Like most true entrepreneurs, Natalie Sykes has her own tale of playground profits. Where others claim to have sold sweets or pop to classmates, Natalie was managing a team of young car washers before she’d even turned nine.
Perhaps more impressively she ran a national haulage sector supplier at 17. Then there are the numerous hotel and property deals, investments and turnarounds that she went on to broker all over the world. Her CV also lists supercars and low carbon fibre among industries she’s dabbled with as an entrepreneur.
Today, however, she is predominantly a leaders’ leader at the Institute of Directors. Sykes was appointed regional director of the IoD in Yorkshire and the Humber last May, with her patch extended to include the North East in September.
Covering an area stretching as far as the Scottish Borders has been “refreshing but challenging”, she says. And, amid political talk of an interconnected, powerful northern economy, she is enthused by the level of collaboration happening between businesses spanning regional boundaries.
“While the regions have their own subtle differences, we must also be able to come together and collaborate as one voice. I am seeing businesses crossing borders to work together. It’s refreshing because it’s pointless nailing our colours to the mast and talking about the northern powerhouse if we’re not going to do anything about it.
“I’ve seen a a number of companies in the North East interested in expanding further afield and firms within Yorkshire interested in opening up and expanding into the North East, whether or not they feel it’s sustainable to place an office there.”
Sykes took up her current IoD post three years into the tenure of Simon Walker as director-general of the national organisation. Walker, whose previous roles include communications director at BA and Buckingham Palace and head of the British Venture Capital Association, has been overseeing something of a sea change at the organisation.
While the IoD has always backed good governance, the pro-business lobby has provided increasingly vocal opposition to excessive pay and aspects of bonus culture – to the surprise of some commentators.
“We are trying to get back to the focus on governance, on running companies better and in the interests of stakeholders broadly, in the climate we are in today,” Walker said last year. His comments came after the IoD had spoken out against excessive pay-related activities at the likes of Barclays, Sports Direct, Experian and Burberry.
The historic organisation appears to be modernising too. This year it appointed its first female chair in Lady Barbara Judge, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority. And in the regions this modernising process is also underway.
Sykes says: “We are reaching out to different groups of entrepreneurs, younger directors, students, more female directors and more people from different cultural backgrounds.” Subtle changes include a streamlining of events in this and other regions, geared towards more quality and less quantity.
There is also a push to get more members contributing to its policy voting system. Sector and business representative organisations are all jostling to be heard in Whitehall at this pre-election period, as are English regions.
The IoD’s stance on issues is influenced by its monthly members’ poll called Policy Voice. But currently only 190 of the 2,000 members in Yorkshire, the Humber and the North East are registered to contribute. Sykes wants to increase this significantly to ensure the North’s business leaders are heard more clearly in London.
“Currently we’re not giving a true voice to our regions,” she says. “We want to see members contribute as often as possible and we are even considering incorporating Policy Voice into some form of event up here.”
Meanwhile, the ink was barely dry on her regional directorship contract when Sykes announced that apprentices could become IoD student members. It followed Sykes’ three years as chair of the Young Directors Forum and came as part of a drive to support more emerging entrepreneurs.
Apprentices in Yorkshire were the first to join the IoD as part of a pilot which is now set to be rolled out nationally.
Sykes says: “The stats showed us that after the increase in student fees, a large percentage of student memberships were international students. It’s wonderful to be able to support them, but what benefit is that to our business community if we have someone who will school here and then return to their homeland? So I lobbied to make membership available to apprentices on higher frameworks [equivalent to higher education and degree qualifications].”
Sykes is particularly keen to encourage apprentices within SMEs to join the IoD. She also aims to help give apprenticeships a new image. “An SME might have a team of only 10 people with three directors, and they might not see the benefit of joining the IoD. But they may have an apprentice who could potentially benefit the whole organisation by joining us.
I think there is a perception that you have to be a director to be a member. That’s not the case. We need to be more inclusive and to reach out to segments like SMEs where perhaps we haven’t in the past.”
Sykes’ motivation to create new frameworks to help younger people find success in business perhaps comes from her own non-traditional route to the top. Rather than taking the well-trodden university, corporate career, boardroom journey, hers has been more of a meandering path.
A commitment to what she calls “lifelong learning”, mixed with a fearless approach to entrepreneurial pursuits, have resulted in a remarkably varied career for someone still on the young side of 40.
“I didn’t go down the linear path and become a graduate, but I’ve shown that you can still achieve. I think it’s important for children especially to see that there are other pathways where you can be successful, give back to your community and achieve.”
Inspired by her father, who worked in the lighting industry, Sykes was just 17 when she launched a profitable business selling lights, torches, fuses and cabling to hauliers. “I was always interested in business but I also had creative skills and was good at art at school and pretty average at everything else. But from a very young age my mum said I should really think about business because ‘actors and artists are ten a penny’.”
Follow mum’s advice she did. Hitting the road from her home in Leeds to anywhere from Doncaster up to Teesside, she sold in bulk via two suppliers, including one which imported Polish goods. Eventually, however, she decided to return to her artistic roots and, at 21, completed an HND in interior design at Leeds College of Art & Design.
But with placements beckoning in Paris and Brussels – followed by the inevitable stint in London to cut her teeth – Sykes instead opted to stay in Yorkshire.
The hotel sector seemed like a way of indulging her love of business and her craving for a creative career. She landed a job in 1998 overseeing the redevelopment of Wood Hall Hotel & Spa at Linton near Wetherby.
From here she soared through to the upper echelons of the hotel industry, initially helping to launch 42 The Calls in Leeds and later holding senior posts at major hospitality empires including Capital Group in London.
She quickly fashioned a reputation for excelling in spotting and developing opportunities for private firms and investors. Highlight projects included a vineyard in the Loire Valley, an ecology spa and golf resort in Europe, luxury villas and resorts in Africa and various English historical venues like Hazlewood Castle, North Yorkshire.
Sykes says: “The pathway I had been offered to complete my interior design degree in places like Paris and Brussels, which I thought there was no way I could take, eventually found me anyway.
“I learnt so much about the importance of structure in my time in the hotel industry. At 42 The Calls we had no structure at the time and had to implement one. Once you have a proven structure that works and can be adapted to suit the culture of the organisation, it makes things much more manageable.”
After witnessing the growth in the value of investments she had led globally on behalf of others, Sykes decided to try profiting from property herself.
“I looked back at some of the investments I had proposed to clients and, if they had acted on all my suggestions, I worked out that the value of that portfolio would have more than doubled. So I just thought ‘why am I not doing this for myself?’”
Today she owns various projects in Yorkshire and has a long-held ambition to build something from scratch. As a trained nutritionalist and having had experience in developing spas, she also aspires in the future to run her own wellness centre.
Throughout her career, education has been a constant theme. The latest of many training endeavours is the IoD Chartered Director Programme which she will complete later this year via Leeds Beckett University. She also holds the IoD Certificate of Company Direction, which has paved the way into various boardrooms, including that of the community charity Groundwork North Yorkshire, which she has chaired since 2013.
“I absolutely believe in lifelong learning,” she says. “I was someone who at a young age was more interested in business than studying and maybe I wasn’t ready at that point of my life for the educational route.
But now I think it’s so important to give the youth of today self-worth and the belief that the training or education they do now can lead to a lifelong career rather than just being something to pass the time.”
Sykes has also learned vital entrepreneurial and leadership lessons out of the classroom, through her varied career. “I learned a lot about leadership in the hotel industry. One of the most important things I’ve found is that, if you want to be a good leader, at some point you have to be able to let go.
You have to empower other people to take responsibilities and find their own path, even
if you might have done things differently.”
And on entrepreneurial success, she adds: “If you don’t have passion about something then it’s very hard to make it work. Business is tough and takes a lot of time and energy and there is no get rich quick formula. It’s about hard work and never giving up; so you have to have passion about what you are doing to succeed.”