Norwich mums have a clear vision for business
PUBLISHED: 15:01 10 October 2012
It is one of Norwich’s longest running independent opticians and last week saw the relaunch of Colemans in St Augustine’s under two new owners, young mothers Helen Hillis and Kate Fenn. Emma Harrowing talks to them about how motherhood has given them a better head for business.
In the 1990s one of the main popular sayings was that women could have it all. They could have the career, the kids, the husband, be a main breadwinner and still bring up a family.
Then in the noughties those that boasted that they could be successful at everything suddenly, it seemed, became unstuck. Women were then told that they couldn’t have it all. Attitudes changed, the clocks turned back several decades and women could either be a good mother and home-maker or have a high-flying career.
Don’t you just love the fickleness of society.
Two women who certainly do not care what society dictates are Kate Fenn, from Norwich, and Helen Hillis, from Attleborough. Both are in their 30s (Helen is 33 and Kate is 30), both have young families (Helen has two children – five-year-old Scarlett and two-year-old Matthew, and Kate has one daughter, eight-month-old Amelie) and both have recently taken over the reins at one of Norwich’s longest running independent opticians – Colemans in St Augustine’s, previously run by Lester and Alison Fish.
Both women have worked at the practice for a number of years and while both Lester and Alison will stay on as optometrists, Helen and Kate are taking over the reins at the top.
“Taking on your own business rather than working for someone else is terrifying and exciting in equal measures, especially as Coleman’s has been serving Norwich since 1945,” says Kate who has worked for Coleman’s for eight years as a dispensing optometrist. “I have been in this industry since I worked as a Saturday girl at an opticians in my home town of Kent when I was 15. Now that Helen and I have taken over Colemans we are still on the shop floor but we have had to learn and take on more jobs from marketing to accountancy.”
Helen is an optometrist and has worked at the practice for 12 years after coming to Coleman’s to train in her last year of university from her home in Northern Ireland.
“I came to the practice under similar circumstances to that of Alison,” explains Helen. “Like her I was also in my final year of training and now it looks like I’m continuing to follow in Alison’s footsteps, as just as she took over the ownership with her husband Lester in the late 1990s I’m now doing the same.”
Both women are excited at taking on a new challenge and while both Helen and Kate do not want to make an drastic changes to what they see as a ‘very successful business’ they do want to update the computer system, invest in new equipment and brands and appeal to a younger generation (they have already brought in a new glasses collection from brands such as Superdry and they have an extensive range of vintage or retro frames).
“The plan to take over the business from Alison and Lester was discussed as far back as 2009,” says Helen. “Between as all we put together a five-year plan so that both Kate and I would have a chance to start a family and get settled before we took on our own business. Of course this turned out to be just a three-year plan as last summer Lester and Alison approached us to see if we were ready to take over the business this year. It would have been silly not to grasp the opportunity.”
Helen and Kate took over the helm at Coleman’s on February 29 this year. It was a leap of faith, especially as Kate had only just given birth to her daughter Amelie.
“You could say that I flew solo for a few months while Kate got used to being a mum,” laughs Helen. “It was a tough time, but Kate was back to work six weeks after having Amelie. That’s the beauty of owning your own business you have the flexibility to work when you can and you can have time off if you need to such as if you have childcare issues or if your child is sick without having to take holiday or worry about what your employer thinks.”
Juggling business with motherhood doesn’t seem like a circus act to either Helen or Kate. Both make their new roles as mums and business partners look fluid and seamless. In fact their children make them become better in business.
“If it wasn’t for our children we would be working until late into the night at the practice,” says Kate. “Knowing that we have to pick them up at 5.30pm from child care makes us become more productive in our working day.”
Helen adds: “Yes, we do have to juggle school runs, making dinner and being a wife and mum with running our own business, but being a mum gives us that work-life balance that many strive for.”
Organisation and support is key to Helen and Kate’s success. Although both joke about having to get used to eating cold meals, both plan home and work life three weeks ahead so that they are always on top of the situation. Kate prepares many of her family’s meals in advance and freezes them and both organise their child care well in advance.
“We could not do this without the support of the staff who have been amazing and, of course, our husbands who also work and also look after our children,” says Helen.
Kate adds: “Running your own business and raising a family is a challenge, but we are not afraid of hard work which makes both aspects of our lives so rewarding.”