Entrepreneur's 'retirement' lasted four hours
Lorna Davidson might have pocketed millions of pounds from the sale of her business Tactical Solutions but it didn’t take long to realise that retirement wasn’t for her.
The company had been snapped up by printing giant St Ives Group in 2011 for a headline figure of £29m, dependent on hitting certain targets. Although they didn’t hit all the targets Davidson acknowledges they did ‘very well’ at the end of her two-and-a-year earn-out in 2013.
The mother-of-three ‘retired’ to her home in Cheshire with her husband Geoff, who she’s been with since the age of 17 when he used to drive by her bus stop as she waited to go to college.
Geoff put his career on hold to raise their three sons while his wife built up her business but it didn’t take long for the pair to realise retirement wasn’t for them.
“Within four hours I realised it was time and I needed to launch another business,” admits Davidson, who is now 54.
The result was she set up The Mothership Group, in Liverpool, which operates a portfolio of companies ranging from Jammy Pets which is a monthly hamper of treats for pets to online portal My Perfect Shop, which allows manufacturers to connect with the UK’s army of convenience shops.
However the business she thinks will change the world is RedWigWam, which is turning the world of recruitment on its head.
Described as the ‘Tinder of recruitment’ it uses algorithms to connect within minutes the growing number of short-term workers with temporary positions.
The company has 85,000 workers on its books and has provided its services to over 2,000 companies across the UK including Tesco, Co-op, Morrisons, Deliveroo and Carlsberg.
RedWigWam uses feedback to reward good performance and Davidson predicts it will become an £80m turnover business.
The award-winning businesswoman admits to suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ and wants to prove ‘I have more than one in me’ when it comes to setting up a business, adding: “I wasn’t lucky with Tactical, I was actually good.”
Davidson made her name in sales before launching Tactical Solutions in 2000.
The entrepreneur describes her soft Scottish accent as ‘well travelled’ and isn’t the only success story in her family. Her younger brother Graham is a successful businessman in London while her eldest sibling Callum is a high-flier in Hong Kong with accountancy firm PwC.
“We were brought up with a big work ethic and we were brought up to care,” she recalls.
Davidson started work for Kellogg’s in sales and quickly progressed to become divisional sales manager. “I was calling at the local Asda and Tesco stores counting how many boxes of stock they had,” she recalls. “I still know the product codes.”
She then left to join Mars for 10 years, where was boss was Angela Spindler, who recently retired as chief executive of online retailer N Brown.
While at Mars the idea for Tactical Solutions took shape after her difficulties in recruiting good field marketing executives.
“I wanted suited and booted sales people who went into stores and a made a difference,” she says. “That was my ethos and my reason for starting Tactical.”
Armed with a redundancy package of £34,000 she launched the business from her garden shed and grew it to a turnover of £18m with more than 1,000 full and part-time staff.
Her business model was based around having fully employed sales professionals who were trained on a 26-week induction program. Data driven and with a laser focus on profit, every client was fully aware of the difference that Tactical Solutions made to their product in-store.
“One of the issues with managing sales people is they’re very bright and very able but actually they need a little bit of discipline around them,” she says.
“One of the things I was conscious of when you’re managing a team as far as we were and you’ve got someone in John O’Groats, is how do you know he or she is doing the same job as someone in Inverness?
“The thing for me was giving them real structure. The 26-week induction course wasn’t just them sitting in a classroom, it was about learning what we were about as a business and why certain things were important.”
Davidson is a people person and gets the most satisfaction from seeing staff excel. “If someone left me to do the same job somewhere else I’d have failed,” she admits. “If they left me to go somewhere bigger and better then we’d all have succeeded.”
Tactical Solutions worked with several major brands including Heinz, Burtons Biscuits, Innocent, Diageo and Cadbury’s and when Davidson decided to sell there were no shortage of potential buyers.
She eventually settled on St Ives Group but compares parting with her company to selling a child and she was racked with guilt.
“It was a big decision to move,” she explains. “I felt responsible for everyone’s mortgage and career development. I was completely invested in the business. What I recognised in hindsight is that people spoke about the culture of the business but it was my DNA.”
Her subsequent retirement lasted four hours and she came up with the idea for The Mothership Group. “I wanted it to be a vehicle that created opportunities for exciting businesses that were disruptive in nature,” she says.
“I joke but I like an occasional bad night’s sleep. I like something that is rattling around my brain so I can’t quite sleep. I don’t like to be stressed but I like a bit of a problem.”
Davidson admits it took her a long time to identify herself as an entrepreneur. “Whenever we hit a problem in the business and everyone is standing looking at the brick wall we’ve just hit, I’m the one saying ‘are we going through it?’ or ‘are we going around it?’ It’s not going to stop us. It’s a level of tenacity to keep going when it’s tough.”
With this in mind Davidson believes RedWigWam will be her biggest business success to date.
“It’s the one I feel most passionate about,” she says. “It’s the one I think has the most potential to make the biggest difference to the most people.
“For me RedWigWam was borne out of frustration. When I was running Tactical Solutions you’d get an opportunity to do a big job that would transform your business but getting hold of good temporary staff was nigh on impossible.
“I’m the mother of three boys who are completely over stimulated. They can’t walk anywhere unless they’re on their phones. They’re never going to work in the same way as I did, which was to sit behind your desk for 40 hours a week.
“There’s a whole need to be flexible and agile as hirers. And there’s a whole need for good flexible work where people are treated properly. I thought it would be good to build something that matched the two of them.
“RedWigWam is a portal, a little bit like a dating site, which is not just based on skills and experience but is also based on your attributes. The system matches anything from a 15-minute task (like a mystery shopper) to a three-month contract.”
Workers are treated as full-time employees for the duration of their job so their national insurance and holiday pay is paid. There’s also a pension scheme.
“You have all the benefits of working for someone full-time but saying when you want to work,” says Davidson. “It’s the flexibility that we think is so important.
“If you do a great job we want to reward you as quickly as possible. If you’ve been graded as a four or a five by the hirer you’ve worked for we’ll pay you within 24 hours.”
Red WigWam is predicting to grow to 144,000 workers and 4,500 hirers by the end of 2019 and could be about to take on investment for the first time.
“I want to be able to sell this for significantly more than Tactical Solutions,” she admits although, given her previous experience, she’s not thinking or retirement just yet.