In Conversation with Helen Flynn

15th Dec 21

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Helen Fly­nn is obvi­ous­ly a very busy per­son and the heart and soul of the York­shire Dales where she lives. At first glance, she may also seem to be very much a per­son of the pub­lic sec­tor and the world of char­i­ta­ble and phil­an­thropic activities.

She is, after all, the Executive Director of a local charity (The Nidderdale Plus Partnership), the Chair of the Northern Star Academies Trust (a multi-academy trust involving primary schools and secondary schools) and, most recently, a de facto Non-Executive Director of Capacity, a start-up which aspires to inject the social impact ethos into public sector projects, as the member representative for Big Society Capital, an investor in it.

In the recent past, furthermore, she has been the Chair of the Dales Integrated Transport Alliance, a school governor for more than two decades, a local councillor and a three-time parliamentary candidate.

Yet if you ask her what she feels the platform for all of this has been and what makes her tick, it is something very different that she decided to undertake at a much earlier stage in her career.

“I was a commissioning editor at a very large publishing house, it enabled me to be very creative but also to appreciate that there were aspects to major corporate life that I found far less appealing.”

After reading Classics at the University of Cambridge, she decided to enter the publishing industry, a move which would ultimately send her off in an entirely unanticipated direction.

“I was a commissioning editor at a very large publishing house, it enabled me to be very creative but also to appreciate that there were aspects to major corporate life that I found far less appealing.”

It also meant that in her mid-twenties, Helen found herself sent to work in the United States. “I was living in New York City. While I was there, I discovered the Museum of American Folk Art. It was like nothing that I had ever seen before. There were paintings and quilts and throws of a sort that just did not seem to be available back in Britain. I thought that they opened up a whole new avenue in terms of options for interiors. I wanted to save up some money and launch my own business in it.”

This was the era before the internet, which today would make both sourcing materials to sell and identifying the potential customers who might purchase them a much more straightforward enterprise. There was an array of complications which would have to be overcome if she were to realise her entrepreneurial ambition.

“I had to learn how to become an importer. I also had to understand the products themselves as the authenticity of them was essential. I took a two-day course at the British Institute of Importers. I then had to research into how to access the goods. There were a number of big trade fairs in the US but I could not possibly attend all of them. I had to be selective as to which I would target. Even then, there were a lot of up-front costs. I had to be VAT registered from the very start of my time.”

After a while, though, she began to make significant progress. She opened a shop in St Albans. She consolidated her supplies so that there was a big shipment once a month which was more efficient. She went to North America twice a year for really substantial buying trips. She managed to open a US bank account (there are states where it seems easier to rob a bank than to hold money at one). She had to deal with the uncertainties of exchange rates which she did by settling on a figure and accepting that sometimes this would work in her favour and at other moments she would lose out. She made the most of her background in publishing to produce attractive marketing brochures, be shrewd in where to choose to advertise and be slick in public relations so that they she could secure extensive publicity for what was a unique offer in the context of this country in the early 1990s.

From scratch she had built up a customer database of up to 20,000 people. She was on the shortlist for the She Magazine Business Woman of the Year award to top it all off.

The venture was an undoubted success. Enthusiasts would travel considerable distances to visit the shop and the mail order side was on fire. From scratch she had built up a customer database of up to 20,000 people. She was on the shortlist for the She Magazine Business Woman of the Year award to top it all off.

She had also become a mother and that led her to think again about her priorities in life. She sold Appalachia: The Folk Art Shop in 1998 and resolved to take the techniques she learnt to other areas.

What Non-Executive Director positions do you currently hold?

“Two. Chair of the multi-academy trust which I have been involved with for some time and since September the member representative for Big Society Capital on the board of Capacity. I was keen to take on the Capacity role to understand more about social investment as a sector. I find their aim to develop public services that are far better focused on the people that they serve very appealing. I sensed my direct experience of local and national government might also be of benefit to them.”

What first prompted you to explore Non-Executive roles?

“I find strategy fascinating. I think there are often not enough strategic thinkers in many organisations. It is hard to set a credible strategy without understanding the importance of governance. I am deeply interested in governance and the importance of getting it right.”

How did you get your first NXD post and what attracted you to that particular organisation?

“In a sense the first one was becoming a school governor which I did when my son was very young and have kept up ever since. The more formal initial post was as Chair of the Dales Integrated Transport Alliance when we suddenly found ourselves awarded £1.1 million by the Department for Transport and had to determine the best way to spend it. It was a fascinating five years and it offered us the chance to make a difference in what is a fundamental aspect of peoples’ lives.”

In your non-exec roles what has been the most useful part of your prior managerial career?

“Often it has been my background in publishing and setting up my own business. I have an eye for marketing and design. These are really important. They are the channels by which you will transmit information. People respond to enticing design. Visual information counts for a lot. Publishing is also a highly collaborative field.”

"The multi-academy board that I chair has people with a wide array of talents of it. You have to make the most of everyone’s experience and skills to do the job well.”

What makes something attractive to you as a Non-Executive Director or Chair?

“It has to be something where you believe that you personally can make a material difference and in an area which you find inspiring. I feel passionately about education, transport and rural affairs.”

What are some of the biggest lessons that you have learnt as an NXD or Chair?

“The first is the need to listen. You have to listen before you learn. The second is the value of serious teamwork. The third is the challenge of synthesising skill-sets. The multi-academy board that I chair has people with a wide array of talents of it. You have to make the most of everyone’s experience and skills to do the job well.”

What has been the best experience that you have had as an NXD or Chair?

“It has probably been as Chair of the multi-academy trust. I wanted to develop a new strategy for what was a relatively young organisation. Leading the Board, I have helped to shape a five-year plan working very closely with the CEO, and the Senior Leadership Team is now delivering on it. Eighteen months in we can see results. It has been incredibly rewarding. If you can settle on the right strategy then everything becomes easier.”

What has been the biggest problem that you have faced and have you resolved it?

“The toughest decisions are about people. The Trust Board has had to disband two governing bodies within the multi-academy trust. Restructuring can mean that people have to move on. It is difficult because you want to treat people with respect but you also have to do what you consider to be best for the organisation.”

What do you think your biggest challenge will be in the medium-term?

“Capacity is still in its early stages. It has to settle on an identity and develop a strategy to suit this. It would be easy to end up with a scatter-gun approach, chasing contracts left, right and centre, and not have a strong USP. Social investment has to be about delivering impact.”

What advice would you offer to those starting out on a portfolio career?

“Just do it. I have friends who are thinking about retirement. I cannot understand it! For me it is so fascinating to be involved in the sorts of organisations I am part of, and this would be true for others too. It helps to be a strategic thinker but there are a number of ways to add value. It is rewarding. There is a strong sense of satisfaction in enabling people to lead better lives by your efforts.”

It is reasonable to assume that Helen herself will not be easing up in any way any time that soon.