Having a bad week? You’re not alone…

08th Aug

Entrepreneurs are a breed apart. They innovate, they take risks, and the buck stops with them – and this magazine exists to celebrate that. But when you are your own boss, even if you have a team behind you, it can be all too easy to feel like you’re in an echo chamber. There are scores of networking events up and down the region, but they’re mostly geared around the promotion of products or services, and you often end up with little more than a bunch of business cards at the bottom of your bag. 
FEO – For Entrepreneurs Only – is different. As its name suggests, it is there to help independent business owners of all sizes grow and create jobs and prosperity in the region by putting like-minded individuals together to share ideas and help each other solve problems. What FEO absolutely isn’t is a pitching forum, and at the helm is its energetic chief executive Jan Brumby, who is there to help entrepreneurs make these key connections.
Jan’s long and varied career in business began when she left school and went straight into work at what was then the Midland Bank (now HSBC). She worked her way up through numerous customer-facing roles before going on maternity leave to have her first daughter. When she returned, a new opportunity opened up – as the liaison officer for Midland’s school (banks). 
Now, school banking is something I have but a dim memory of, and the concept seems to have gone by the wayside due to budget cuts and lack of time, like too many other things. Hull and East Yorkshire Credit Union runs banks at a handful of primaries across the region, but it doesn’t seem to be a widespread thing any more. This is a shame, as getting a grip on money is, of course, a vital life skill. “At the time these were a really popular thing,” says Jan. “What I would do is train up the older pupils to be the cashiers in the bank, and when the school bank opened each lunchtime, pupils would pay in their money. It would encourage them to save and get into good financial habits.”
Jan’s role at the bank also involved volunteering for Young Enterprise (see BW issue 01 for our feature on YE), and it wasn’t long before the chance of a full-time job there arose. But just before Jan had her second daughter, she left Midland, (by then HSBC) for the University of Hull. “It was a newly created role, and it really appealed to me because it was geared towards helping them gain Investors in People status, which meant interacting with an awful lot of people in lots of departments who, more often than not, didn’t know one another. It was a job I really enjoyed.
“But it was after I had my second daughter, and my husband was away much of the time working as an offshore engineer, that the Young Enterprise role became available. My first position was as the area manager for the Humber, and then I was promoted to the regional manager for Yorkshire and the Humber.”
And this is where Jan first began to forge links with business. Not only did she work with young people and their teachers, her job involved liaising with local business volunteers, as well as the volunteer board made up of various business leaders. “I was working with four distinct groups of people, and, as you can imagine, they were at very different levels,” says Jan. “So as far as my communication skills went, I had to be absolutely at the top of my game to succeed because it really was all about building strong and lasting relationships.”
She certainly was at the top of her game – in 2006, business volunteers from the board nominated her for the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise Promotion, which she won and collected at Buckingham Palace. 
Working for Young Enterprise was to entrench in Jan a deep respect and admiration for people who ran their own companies, especially as the business volunteers were giving up their own time. “If you work for a bank or a corporate company and you volunteer your time, then you know your employer is supporting you and while you’re away your job might be covered by someone else. When it’s a private sector business owner who is volunteering, when they’re out of the business that time is of absolutely critical value.”
Through the business volunteers, Jan came to hear about FEO, which was the brainchild of MKM Building Supplies owner David Kilburn. “Although there were a lot of business groups in the area, there was nothing for entrepreneurs only,” says Jan. “David wanted something that was very different networking business-to-business clubs. He wanted something that was deeper than that, and focused on peer support – a network of people who understand how it feels, as they’ve had the sleepless nights worrying about what you’re worrying about, and they’re happy to give you their time and experience, expecting nothing in return. That way, there would be more private sector businesses with the confidence to grow and employ more people.”
At this point, in 2013, FEO was in its infancy, and Jan had heard they were on the lookout for someone to run the group. “I just saw the advertisement,” she says. “So I did what anybody would do, and updated my CV, applied, had an interview – and was thrilled when I got the job.” 
She was sad to leave Young Enterprise but felt that FEO was a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. “I just felt that it fitted my skill set perfectly. Because it’s all about people and relationship building.”
It’s an extremely varied position where no two days are the same, Jan says. During her time as chief executive, the group has grown to almost 200 members, who employ more than 22,000 people in Hull and East Yorkshire and collectively turn over £3.5 billion a year, across all sectors and sizes of company. “It doesn’t matter if you’re running a £100 million business or a £100,000 business, your worries, pressures and problems will be very similar,” says Jan. “When you’re having a bad week, it’s usually caused by one of a few key barriers. And it’s so nice to talk to someone about it who knows how you feel and can offer practical help and support.” 
Jan can offer practical assistance, too. “Members will get in touch with me and, for example, they might ask, are there any FEO members who can help me to build a sales generating funnel? They may need help with learning to delegate; it might be that they’ve got problems with employees, or want help with their strategy. A lot of my time is spent with people, finding out what help they need, and putting them in touch with the person I think will be of the greatest inspiration.”
While Jan is a friendly face to FEO members, she’s also familiar to many on the local arts scene, not just as a regular punter, but on stage, too, as a member of Housemartins/Beautiful South tribute act The Beautiful Couch. Rather like the opportunities in Jan’s business career, there was an element of serendipity that she embraced wholeheartedly. She joined the band in 2007 as maternity cover for her sister Liz, who was the original female singer in Eddy Faulkner’s band. “I had 41 songs to learn!” says Jan, “But I really enjoyed it. As fate would have it, my sister had two children quite close together, and she decided that being in a tribute band didn’t fit with her new lifestyle, so I just sort of carried on doing it. I’m really proud to be in a really popular tribute band that hails from Hull but is popular much further afield too.” 
Musical theatre is another of Jan’s passions, and, not content with just being an avid theatregoer, she is also president of Hessle Theatre Company – although she prefers not to tread the boards herself. “I don’t have to be in the production, which suits me, because although I enjoy singing, I’m not a very good actor – at all!” 
At the time of writing, HTC had just completed its run of Made in Dagenham at Hull New Theatre to rave reviews, many of which expressed astonishment that everyone involved, from the actors to the production team, are amateurs. The group is entirely self-funded, and Jan and the team work hard to put on shows that include a spring production at Hull New Theatre, an autumn show at Hull Truck, and their highly popular Christmas panto at Hessle Town Hall.
It’s obvious that Jan is, like her FEO members, a very busy person – but family time is as important as her work and cultural commitments. “Time management is always challenging, but for me my work time, the time that I volunteer for things, and my family time, are all very precious, especially as I now have a granddaughter to spend quality time with.” 
If there’s one thing Jan wants me to take away from our chat, it’s that academia is not the only path to success – and she’s proof of that. “I didn’t go to university and I haven’t got a lot of academic qualifications,” she says. “I’ve tried to make the best of my skills and personality and to be true to myself, while not being afraid to try new things and come out of my comfort zone.”
Which, in a nutshell, could be the unofficial motto of FEO. It’s clear that its members can rely on someone who has a deep understanding of just what it means to go it alone.

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire spring 2022 magazine

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