From Disney to dog food - and loving it

A big cheese in the Disney empire . . . rubbing shoulders with Will Smith . . . breathing the same LA air as Johnny Depp . . . What's not to love? Well .

Steven Russell

A big cheese in the Disney empire . . . rubbing shoulders with Will Smith . . . breathing the same LA air as Johnny Depp . . . What's not to love? Well . . . Stephen Williams tells Steven Russell why he gave it all up to sell animal feed in rural Essex

STEPHEN Williams takes a swig of coffee and grins at how bonkers it seems when articulated out loud. “When you say to people 'I worked for Disney. I was a director. Lots of glamour. And now I'm virtually moving in with my in-laws, into the house (wife) Jo grew up in, selling dog food, and doing it in a few months,' it does sound mad!” His boss at Disney certainly struggled to get his head round it when Steve broke the news that he wanted to step off the career ladder to spend more time with his family. He was ready to sacrifice the trips to California and the fast-track route into cool bars and restaurants, and would instead embrace wellies and warehouses, big sacks of horse-and-pony food mix, and strange equipment to sweep up horse poo. Basically, after years of working very hard, it would deliver that elusive work-life balance for which so many of us strive. “I was very much Mr Corporate; but after being here a few weeks, I'm sure it is totally the right thing to do,” says the 37-year-old, draining his mug.

“Here” is Poole Farm Feed Centre at Great Yeldham, just outside Halstead and not far from Sudbury, and it really is only a few weeks ago that mum and dad, and their two little girls, swapped the family home at Bishop's Stortford for a life more pastoral. The three hours spent travelling between home and London have been clawed back. “The commute is now 20 seconds!” smiles Steve, looking as if he's about to pinch himself.

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He and Joanne are buying the feeds business started about 18 years ago by her parents, and have moved into the on-site house where she grew up. Linsay and Robert Staines are retiring to a cottage - currently being renovated - the other side of the shop and warehouse. They'll see a lot of granddaughters Scarlett and Evie - aged four and getting on for three - will be on hand for advice about the business, and will continue to run the horse livery yard.

Everyone's a winner, it seems. “The change in the kids has been amazing,” says Steve. “I've never seen the girls outside so much. They absolutely love it: picking apples; given half a chance stroking the horses. They seem a lot more settled. We have lunch together, dinner together. I get to read them stories; help teach them to tell the time.”

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Joanne, 36, says it's wonderful, rather than strange, to be living back in the house where she enjoyed such a lovely childhood. “I feel as if I've come home. I'm a country girl, anyway, so I was never really happy where we were: always itching to move further out.”

It was in the summer that things came to a head and they decided changes needed to be made.

“We went on holiday back in June time, to Spain, and I found I'm taking the laptop, BlackBerry . . . and you're still dealing with things,” explains Steve. “I thought 'I'm getting a bit tired of this.' Came back and it was straight into working until midnight on budgets and stuff, and I said to Jo 'Do you know what? I'm really not enjoying this any more. I used to get off on the buzz and the glamour . . . what do you think?'

“She said 'Basically, I feel like a single parent. I don't see you all week. On Sunday afternoon you'll start saying 'I should start prepping myself . . .'

“The kids were asleep when I got up; they were asleep when I got home; and we'd get round to Sunday evening and they'd be saying 'Don't go to work tomorrow, Daddy; don't go to work.' They'd want me to stay at home.”

He did feel guilty. “Basically I came to the conclusion, with Jo, that all I was doing was living to work. The only day I'd have off solidly was the Saturday.”

When his in-laws mooted the idea of buying the feed centre, it was like a solution falling from the sky.

“Jo had worked here for about six years, doing a day or a couple of days a week for her parents, so she understands a lot of it already.”

The family moved in at the start of September. “From holiday in June we literally turned round, I resigned, house on the market, and we started moving everything over here.”

Steve admits the decision was as tough as they come, even though he realised something had to give. He liked the challenge of business, and the Disney empire was wonderful to work for. “Hopefully I'm not a very arrogant person, but you do get a certain sense of pride and well-being. You've got your suit and people look up to you. And there's the glamorous side, in terms of you get to fly out to LA, you may see the cast of Desperate Housewives filming and Johnny Depp swinging around on a pirate ship in the car park.

“Lots of nice lunches, the big parties, the movie premieres . . . I do miss that; but, when I was trying to make the decision, I was talking to my dad and he said 'OK, there's all that glamour you're going to miss, but how often do you go to a movie premiere? How often do you have a good night out, with dinner and drinks, with all these media people?' Well, not often. I've got a wife and kids I don't get to see. I'm working 24 hours a day. So that was good; that was a bit of a reality check.”

He has felt a hint of loss - “but it's false bereavement. When was the last time I really met someone glamorous? Probably a few years ago?”

Steve's able to tell stories against himself and acknowledges it will take time to adjust to the rhythm of rural East Anglia and the values of a family business after the pace of corporate London.

The feed centre and shop have a valued team of staff, and he laughs about his early suggestion they should all hold a “communications meeting”. “And if a computer doesn't work, it's down to you. If you don't deal with it, it doesn't get fixed, like it used to at work.

“On the plus side, I don't feel like I'm at work any more. I get up later. The kids are in our bed and watching telly and stuff. We all sit and have breakfast together and talk about the day. The great thing, when Jo and I are talking about work, is we both know what each other's talking about, rather than sitting there going 'Yeah, whatever.'

“Here, it's a different pace, with people chatting about their horses and things. You actually have to slow down. I've had to work at it. You'll be talking to someone and thinking 'Got to do the next thing; got to do the next thing,' . . . but why have I got to rush on to the next thing?”

Steve recognises he and Joanne will introduce their own ideas and ways of doing things - a website is a priority - without wanting to lose the values underpinning the business: value and friendly service.

Is there a danger he'll soon be working 15-hour days in his new role simply because, at heart, he's a driven person?

“You're totally right to ask.” If it were just he and Joanne, that might be a danger, he accepts; but having the family around should curb any propensity to do too much. “And like I said, it doesn't feel like work. I've sat here and done some work in the evenings and it doesn't feel like it.”

Steve does recognise that, at some point, he might want to return to the business world - but it would be at a much less intense level than before.

“I think it's a possibility. I think it comes down to the fact I spent so many years in a corporate environment. This (the feeds business) for me is something I definitely want to build into my life, and in all honestly we'll see how it goes. Never say never. But I think if something did come up, or I wanted to go back into it, it wouldn't be back in London, for the massive corporates. I think it would be something in Cambridge, or more locally. As soon as people start talking about conference calls with the US, that's your evenings gone. I know that now!”

And one suspects Joanne would need some convincing. She says it's been tremendous seeing more of her husband.

“Of this whole move, the thing that I love most is we have a family meal every night. I always felt as if it was me and the girls - and Steve added on on a Saturday. Now I feel as if we're a family, and it's wonderful. I love it.”

SO, Steve, tell us about the glamour. You know you want to . . .

“When I last went out to LA there was the Jimmy Kimmel show, which was, I suppose, the equivalent of the Jonathan Ross Show here. Via Disney and contacts I managed to get into the green room. We're there in this cool backstage area, with a bar and all this music going on, and a bit of food, and you've got people like Hilary Swank wandering around, Heather Mills was there, the latest upcoming band - and people saying 'Lipstick! I need some lipstick now!'

“There were restaurants you couldn't get into because you'd have to book so far in advance, but because you were with Disney you'd get in - and into some of the bars where the stars go.

“I met Will Smith - though only for a couple of seconds. I was wearing a body-warmer, actually, and he was as well. And he said to me 'Nice body-warmer . . .'!

“A couple of seconds. . . It's a soundbite, really . . . But it's cool when you're talking to your friends!”

Steve didn't meet Johnny Depp, but he did move within his orbit. The director wanted to reshoot some Pirates of the Caribbean scenes, but the film had had its allotted time on the soundstage. A site was needed for the boat, so they installed it in the Disney car park. “You'd be walking through and there would be Johnny Depp, swinging on a rope, with all the camera crews around.”

Often, when stars from shows like Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy were in London on a publicity trip, local Disney employees would act as aides and chaperones. Steve didn't really meet big stars such as Teri Hatcher, but, he laughs, “I caught a glimpse of them. That was enough. That was glamour!”

STEPHEN Williams hails from Bath and studied management science at university in Hull before heading for London. He trained as an accountant with Arthur Andersen, working on buyouts and other aspects of corporate finance.

After qualifying he sought a fresh challenge. He'd always played guitar, and liked TV and entertainment, so Steve looked for a finance role in a media company. He spent a couple of years with the Disney company, working on the Disney Channel side in Hammersmith.

Further moves saw him join the digital broadcaster Ondigital, then work as a consultant on TV and telecoms projects. Next was Sky TV, working on new products such as Sky+ and games.

Disney asked if he'd like to return. Steve liked the friendly and team-oriented atmosphere there, so it was a no-brainer. He joined the TV distribution side, which involved selling programmes to companies such as Sky and other outlets.

Disney's goodies included all the Pixar animations, live action such as Pirates of the Caribbean, and series like Lost, Desperate Housewives, FlashForward, and Grey's Anatomy.

Joining as senior manager, he progressed to executive director.

For his last year with Disney, Steve worked in the video games arena. It had the air of a start-up business, as the company strove to exploit its content through games for Nintendo DS, Xbox and PlayStation 3 systems, but Disney soon became a major force in the market.

As finance and operations director, the challenge was a thrill, “but the thing I started to notice was I'd worked pretty long hours in TV (distribution), and on the video games side it was getting longer and longer - in part because it was a start-up. It was a fair commute. By the time you added it all up, I was doing a three-hour commute plus a good, solid, 12-hour day.”

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