Nicki Clark is Chief Executive of employee-owned, North East-based business support organisations UMi. Nicki recently received an OBE in the Queen’s Jubilee birthday honours for services to business and social enterprise in North East England.
Nicki started out in banking, travelled the world selling soft drinks or ‘posh pop’ as she likes to describe it, has set up businesses and social enterprises and worked closely with both the public and private sector. Nicki believes passionately that businesses have the power to make a difference to lives and the world around us, so she’s made sure that UMi measures success by more than just its financial health but also by the positive impact they have on the people and environments they touch.
Nicki spoke to SME Today about UMi’s foundation and development and what the future holds.
When did your business career begin?
My first career job was at 17 with NatWest Bank where, looking back, I was constantly trying to work out how to improve things, do them quicker and better, never happy to just stick to the rules. I then joined an independently-owned soft drinks business where, as Brand and Export Manager, I had a ball travelling the world selling very ‘posh pop’, meeting incredible people, and experiencing many different business cultures. It was an experience that has shaped where I am today and my approach in business.
Why did you decide to start your own business and what was the goal?
My first venture was in the building sector with my husband and we did it because I thought together we could revolutionise the small building segment from a service perspective.
Many years later the opportunity came to form a business that would influence the way that SMEs accessed support and that was how UMi was born. Not only were we intent on revolutionising the sector, but also how to make a difference because of the way your business behaves and its culture as an employer.
My aspiration was that through UMi we could help to create a brilliant example of a business model for the future and contribute to changing perceptions that success can only be measured financially.
What was the first objective when the business was founded?
Creating a single team with a shared purpose and ambition
How did UMi come about?
UMi was born off the back of myself and a few others believing we could deliver the Business Link franchise in the North East of England better than anybody else. For most business owners and managers it takes way too much effort and time to find the best information, expertise and finance for their businesses – UMi exists now as it did then to do the hard work for them, meaning they can spend their time and energy on other areas of their business where they’re most needed.
From that starting point we were confident we could transform the way that small businesses accessed support throughout the UK.
How many people work at UMi and how does the employee-owned scheme work?
Over 130 people are part of the team at UMi and each one of them has an equal shareholding as a result of being a beneficiary of the Employee Ownership Trust.
The Trust holds the shares of UMi on behalf of the team – members of the team and an independent Director are the Directors of the Trust.
How has UMi developed since it started and what are the standout achievements?
UMi started in 2007 as a result of winning a competitive process to run the Business Link franchise in the North East of England. On our first day of trading we TUPE’d in over 400 people from about 15 different organisations and were committed to building a business that would challenge norms and make a tangible difference in the economies and communities where we operated.
Within two years, we were providing services to national and local governments, private sector corporates and individual owner/managers. To accelerate our reach into other areas of the UK we made our first acquisition in 2011.
We cemented our commitment to doing things differently and recognising the power of partnerships by becoming wholly employee owned in 2010. From there we went on to make additional acquisitions and investments expanding our portfolio of services and reach into new sectors.
More recently we are really proud to have been able to set up the UMi Community Foundation which is managed by County Durham Community Foundation nationally for us. The fund has invested over £100,000 and continues to invest in community organisations who are tackling isolation where our team live and work throughout the UK.
Over the years there are many things to be proud of and stand out for us including being ranked multiple times in the Sunday Times Top 100 Best Companies to work for, achieving health at work awards in record time, and we should not forget helping over 500,000 businesses, supporting the creation of over 30,000 jobs and helping leverage over ££650m in private sector investment for small and medium sized businesses.
Where do you want to take UMi, what’s left to do?
We have recently launched our business SatNav service which we have been designing and crafting for over 18 months. It is a perfect example of where we are trying to challenge how businesses find and use the best information, expertise and finance. In my lifetime in business, I’ve never seen so many factors effecting business at one time, so in that regard there’s never been more to do. How we approach that is our next adventure which I’m thoroughly looking forward to.
What’s the best thing about your job now?
The ability to spend time exploring rather than just doing, the opportunity to be curious and develop partnerships, and of course working with an extraordinary bunch of people.