If you’re a woman in business, you’ll know the debate about part-time working, motherhood and corporate effectiveness only too well. Here’s one unstoppable woman who personifies just how plausible the combination is – and who proves it can create you a multi-million-pound success story.
Nicola Hunter didn’t go looking for trouble.
She didn’t set out to shake up her industry, become a trailblazer, nor, in all brutal honesty, to become a business owner at all.
But perhaps there’s a seed within this relentless – albeit somewhat accidental – entrepreneur that makes her like the Branson, Jobs and Brady of this world. She saw a closed door…and she barged the darn thing down!
Today, Nicola is a much-respected face in the healthcare sector, having successfully sold on her £5 million turnover Suffolk-headquartered company, RehabWorks, in 2010.
That business became the admirable legacy of a dogged determination to prove motherhood, and the desire for part-time working, need not be the end to her early stage career in physiotherapy.
“Setting up a business had never really been on my mind in any form,” says the 61-year-old.
“My husband, Andy, and I, moved to Suffolk from London in the late 1980’s, and I just naturally assumed that even with two young children, and a request to work part-time, my credentials from working at Hammersmith Hospital would speak for themselves when I went to the local hospital for a job.
“I was flatly turned down. They said there’s no way I could work part-time as a physiotherapist, so it was all or nothing.”
Undeterred, Nicola’s next move was to lay the foundations for a phenomenal commercial offer.
She would set up from her own front room, seeking out future employees among parents like her who very much wanted to work part-time.
“There was no question that I would find a way around the problem,” she insists. “My husband had just completed his MBA at Cranfield, so I’d got a very able business brain to support my thoughts, and all of a sudden we were creating an entire business plan around Mums, like me, who wanted to work, but to do so flexibly.
“We’d clearly hit on something, because year on year, the business grew, and we quickly seemed to get to a position where we had more than a dozen part-time staff.”
The company – tagged simply Bury Physio – rapidly leveraged its name in the corporate space, and was continually fuelled by Nicola’s fascination with preventative therapy.
She became obsessed, perhaps somewhat ahead of her time, with the concept that the health service, and businesses, could be saving themselves huge sums of money by addressing the factors which caused staff to be ‘off sick’, and with getting them back into their commercial seat as swiftly and safely as possible.
“I was constantly looking at what the issues were over in the United States Canada and Scandinavia and seeing how they were dealing with the fact that so many people had musculoskeletal conditions and weren’t getting back to work for a long period of time,” she recalls.
“No-one wins when someone is off work for weeks or months at a time. Yes, the company suffers, but the individual also loses a sense of identity and purpose. Our answer was to do more in this space, and to reach out to bluechips with an offer about answering their ongoing battle with ‘return to work’ cases.”
Of course, even the best idea, when revolutionary at the time, can set the doubting Thomases at work.
Nicola was faced with this in spades.
She chuckles softly when she recalls the reaction to wanting to establish her new approach.
“People said I was absolutely mad,” she says. “I felt our new idea – RehabWorks – should be based on working people hard and getting them fit again, but that went against what a lot of professionals in the sector considered to be the right thing at the time.
“Back then, in the mid 90s, there was a lot of ‘softly softly’ still going on. No-one felt you should push patients or make it a physical fight for recovery, but all the evidence was telling me otherwise.
“I knew our physio’s needed to work alongside psychologists to address the patient’s mindset. I really believed we could get people back to fitness quicker, and that it would be the thing more likely to prevent a recurrence.”
And clearly, no matter the cynicism facing her, it proved to be the case.
As against the trend as it may have seemed, RehabWorks notched up the likes of Anglian Water and the Royal Mail as early confident clients. In fact, such was the workload that this humble Suffolk company was soon setting up another base in Mount Pleasant (Royal Mail’s core centre in London).
The momentum took flight and continues to this day, with Nicola’s sell-out (for an undisclosed sum) having taken place seven years ago.
But if you think this comfortable business culmination was enough for the woman who once had a door closed in her face at the local hospital, you’d be so very wrong.
(Let me take you back to the reference earlier to other relentless achievers like Jobs and Branson…).
Hunter’s portfolio today includes a nightclub – by the name, aptly, of The Hunter Club, the ongoing and ever successful Bury Physio (“we have about 14 physio’s and to this day it’s still a model around part-time working”), and her latest initiative, Working Toward Wellbeing.
Whilst similar to its corporate ‘cousin’ RehabWorks, in respect of its ethos about a return to the workplace, this has a very dedicated focus. The purpose is clear: Let’s help people who’ve had cancer and other long term conditions get back to work.
“Over the years, I’ve seen more and more people, of all ages, battling cancer,” Nicola says.
“It’s a sad reality that there are more cases, more types, and more families being affected at any given time.
“What wasn’t being taken into account in any specific way was just how much the majority of individuals who’ve been through cancer, still want to get back into the saddle of work when they’re able to do so.
“We took the same flexible approach to staffing hours, built a team of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and cognitive behavioural therapists, and we launched that to the market a couple of years ago out of our Bury Physio clinic.
“It’s going well, and very soon we’ll need to separate it out in its own right. The success is just in having listened to a demand and found a flexible way of offering it – one which works best for patients, and our employees.”
As an aspiring entrepreneur or someone growth-hungry for your existing concept, you’d be forgiven for leaving your time with Nicola somewhat aghast at the effortless ease with which she appears to suggest this incredibly triumphant journey has come about.
But she is neither complacent, nor self-congratulatory.
Instead, she is determined to summarise by painting a picture of someone blessed with a mere ‘give it a go’ attitude, and who received unfaltering support when it mattered most.
“I never intended this,” she says with a warm but resolute lilt to her voice. “I was just a qualified woman who wanted a flexible job while being a Mum to two, then three, lovely children.
“Like so many females in the workplace in particular, I’ve suffered Imposter Syndrome. They say women are especially guilty of not applying for jobs until they are over-qualified to do so, because they’d rather not reach out and be found to be ill equipped.
“My fortunate antidote to any chance of such self-doubt has been Andy. He has constantly boosted me and reminded me of what I am capable of.
“Add that to the fact I’m someone who just wants to do things properly, and it seems to have worked out pretty well for me.”
Budding entrepreneurs take note: The next time someone shuts a door – make like Hunter. Open a new one for yourself.
IN A NUTSHELL
NAME: Nicola Hunter
BUSINESS: Bury Physio, The Hunter Club, Working Towards Wellbeing
WHAT THEY DO: Both Bury Physio and Working Towards Wellbeing are centred on flexible staffing, and on getting people back to their normal activities and work as safely and swiftly as possible
TWITTER @Bury_Physio @word2well