Helping the world go round

30th Mar

You won’t find them all on Helen Gibson’s CV, but there’s a definite career thread of crucial jobs that people didn’t know existed.
The big responsibilities and the things she does now are all about working around the world to help governments get to grips with challenges including pandemic disease, terrorism, corruption, war crimes and modern slavery.
It’s the sort of work that would be more noticeable if it didn’t get done, in much the same way as Helen’s first, more modest steps into the world of work.
She said: “One summer one of my brothers and I did night shifts at Needlers sweet factory in Sculcoates Lane. My job was sorting sweets and picking out any that were misshapen.
“I also had a job at Omya UK at Welton. I was chief bag folder, turning down the tops of the bags that were full of cement powder. There were a lot of jobs like that during holidays and weekends – they help you develop attention to detail and are character-building.”
Such attributes are at the heart of Agencia’s work to promote stability, build communities and transform lives.
The company has delivered more than 450 health and justice contracts in more than 20 countries. Closer to home it provides business support to more than 300 general practitioners through its Primary Care Direct service and runs award-winning projects in northern Lincolnshire to combat substance misuse and painkiller addiction.
Helen’s office, on the first floor of a building that sits on the edge of the Humber, commands inspirational views, with the bridge a towering symbol of lasting achievement. The river offers a regular reminder that a workload that runs calmly one day can become a torrent overnight.
The constant is Helen’s trademark smile. She thrives on challenges and success and above all on doing things properly. There have been occasions when Agencia has pulled out of a contract because it wasn’t right – just as with those Needlers night shifts, the wonky ones don’t get through.
Helen said: “We have a total commitment to delivering genuine work because there is often bad press around the use of private companies within the public sector. There’s always a real battle to be won in terms of people recognising the value of bringing in external expertise. Our high levels of repeat business are testament to the value we add. We turn down work or don’t take things on if it’s not the right job for us.”
Agencia rebranded in October 2017, marking its 20th anniversary with a celebration at the Deep. Within a few months Helen and her sister Joy Allen, the company’s head of HR and corporate services, sadly lost their father, Andrew Gibson, who had founded the business in 1997.
In exploring the Agencia ethos it’s worth reading Andrew’s profile on the company’s website. He set the highest standards of integrity and Helen knew she would have to match them if she wanted to join the family firm.
Her introduction to the business came after A-levels at Beverley High School and a degree in sociology and psychology from Durham University. She worked her way around the world with stints as a ride operative at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California and as a hostess at ski resorts in France and on a sailboat in the Australian Whitsunday Islands. But working for Andrew made a lasting impression.
Helen said: “I helped out a few times with things like sticking stamps for surveys and doing Dad’s expense claims. I always had in my mind that what Dad did was very interesting.”
Helen’s mother Elaine had taught French and German and for a time Helen followed her into the classroom, at one point covering lessons as wide-ranging as PE, domestic science, maths and Punjabi as a supply teacher: “Some of it was crowd control and entertainment rather than teaching but you had to fill in whenever they needed.”
Helen moved into education consultancy and then made the most of a scholarship to study for her MBA at the University of Hull, completing a dissertation on Sewell Group which was published in the International Journal of Education Management.
A job at the Cabinet Office introduced Helen to life as a civil servant and government departments and a move to PA Consulting brought a promotion and important lessons learned about people management.
She said: “It was a great experience but I didn’t really fit the culture. I felt chained to the Blackberry. I didn’t know from one month or week to the next where I was going to be posted.”
But the toughest challenge was still to come, with Andrew and two colleagues presenting a formidable interview panel at Agencia.
Helen said: “I had the right experience, contacts, and connections and I was ready to do something more meaningful, with greater control over my life. By that point, I’d successfully got through a number of interviews but the one with Agencia was tougher than all of them!”
She got the job and three years later, in 2012, became joint managing director, building on Andrew’s achievements. Agencia was voted best small business in the UK at the National Family Business Awards and followed that with appointment by the Department of International Trade as a Northern Powerhouse Export Champion, valued recognition from the UK government for the help Agencia offers to British businesses looking to invest overseas.
One of Helen’s long-term personal ambitions is to write a book, and she already has two articles under her belt – one about grief and loss and the other about the lessons she has learned from her team, as outlined at an event held last year to celebrate her 10-year anniversary of joining Agencia.
She said: “We are a family-orientated team and very individualised in terms of relationships and people. We want people to be comfortable and grow in confidence through working with us, not be scared or think they are going to be told off. We try to give people the opportunity to enjoy their work, being free to be themselves and able to do their thing – whatever their thing is.”

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire summer 2021

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