Suffolk: Bridget McIntyre helps women live the dream

BRIDGET McIntyre went from unpromising school pupil to chief executive of a top insurance firm at the age of 43. Now, having given up her high-flying post, and written an autobiographical work entitled The Pink Recorder, she is running dream on, a social enterprise, based in her home village of Thorndon, near Eye, which is aimed at supporting and helping women. SARAH CHAMBERS paid it a visit

NUMBERS tell a story, says Bridget McIntyre – and she should know. She is the former UK chief executive of insurance giant Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group, a �3billion turnover company employing 10,000 people. She forged her high-powered career through her understanding of figures, and the story which lies behind them.

Today, the Suffolk-based entrepreneur, aged 50, is involved in a very different social enterprise, or Community Interest Company (CIC) venture, called dream on.

It includes a business aimed at helping women to succeed in their careers through specialist coaching, a women’s clothes shop and a makeover venture. The retail and commercial side helps to fund the work she does in helping women to turn their lives and careers around.

Based in a converted garage next to her home in Thorndon, near Eye, the business fulfils her own dream of living and working in the countryside.

“We moved to this place nine years ago. We lived just across the road. There was an old house that needed to come down and we wanted to build something,” she explains. “I love living in the village.”

Bridget was brought up in a village in Lancashire in a happy and supportive family. When she was 18, her parents moved to Sproughton after her father, Alan Sutherland, took over as works manager of the ICI plant at Stowmarket. She would stay with them during the holidays, and started, despite a high-flying career which took her to London, to put down roots in Suffolk.

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Her rise through the ranks followed an unpromising school career and the unexpected discovery that she was good with numbers. She opted for a business studies degree at university, and, having achieved an unremarkable two, two, went on to become a graduate trainee with Willis Faber.

“At university, I found I was good at finance which was quite a surprise. For me, accountancy, numbers, tell a story,” she says. “It’s about making people understand what’s going on.”

It was this understanding, combined with some expert mentoring which helped her to overcome her own self-doubt, and propelled Bridget up the career ladder. She was just 43 when she took over the reins at Royal & Sun Alliance. Before that, she was director of sales, marketing and underwriting at Aviva/ Norwich Union, having joined the company in 1993.

She rails against the ‘bean counter’ stereotype which working in finance and insurance tends to prompt.

In fact, Bridget manages to thwart any attempt at pigeon-holing. She adores clothes, fashion and dressing up, loathes ‘power-dressing’ and is about as far removed from the traditional image of a ‘boring’ accountant or an uncompromising corporate boss as it’s possible to be.

She always saw herself as more than just an accountant, and it was her interest in understanding how companies work which led her to break free from the accounts office and successfully move into more diverse management roles.

“When you find out what you love and what you do naturally, you do it really well and it’s surprisingly simple compared to how other things are,” she explains.

She moved around different companies trying to broaden her understanding and experience. All the time she was honing her business skills.

“I think finance will always be in my blood. “But actually when I was at Norwich Union, or Aviva, I was in my late 30s and I kept being asked to move out of finance,” she says. “I love leading teams and I like putting plans into action.”

In her autobiographical ‘diary’ The Pink Recorder, Bridget recounts how, after hearing about the job at Royal & Sun Alliance in December 2004, she attended an interview where she was asked: “What kind of leader are you?” Her response was: “It depends.”

“What I mean by this is that leading isn’t about me. It’s about the person I’m leading,” she explains.

The job ticked all the boxes - a FTSE 100 company, plc director running the whole of the UK, good values, lots to do, interesting people and she would learn from the people she worked with. But the role would be in London, which meant she would have to live away from her “beautiful Suffolk home”.

“I wanted to run a whole business by then. I was approached and went through the process and took the opportunity. It was hard to leave Aviva, but I needed to do something on my own really. I enjoyed it. It never felt a prestige post. It felt like a really good thing to be doing. I really enjoyed it, and the first two and a half years I absolutely adored it,” she says. “I was able to make changes. It was a great company that had got a bit stuck. To get people to believe they could do things was really, really exciting.”

At first, she relished the challenge. But by January 2008, two or three years after landing her dream job, she began to miss her old life, and she found herself at odds with her boss, the group CEO, about the future direction of the company.

“To do the role I was doing wasn’t fulfilling enough for me. It was kind of like I’d lost my ambition and drive to stay in a corporate role,” she recalls. “By the last six months I didn’t enjoy it any more. I lived away in London and was only home at weekends and I like my family, I like my home, I like community.”

She and her boss “were just disagreeing all the time and in the end, he’s the group CEO and I run the UK,” she explains.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to have people who disagree. He had strong views and I had strong views and they didn’t agree.”

On September 2, following a crunch meeting at which the two were unable to resolve their differences, she resigned. It was an amicable parting, she says, and she stayed on the board for a further three months.

“I’d had enough of full-time corporate life. I’d enjoyed it so much for 24 years, but year 25 wasn’t for me,” she says.

“It was all very sudden, but I think that’s the way it had to be.”

Bridget’s husband, Chris, is a builder and they bought the plot which is now home to her venture and to the couple’s dream home some years ago, and started by planting about 500 trees. Chris is 15 years her senior and has two children from a previous marriage who now have their own children and Bridget enjoys being ‘Grandma Bridget’ to them.

“I got married at 22 to Chris. He’s retired - he’s older than me - but he retired at 50. We just felt we could work all hours and never see each other or make some cutbacks and enjoy our lives. We want to live and not just work,” she says.

Bridget had kept a pet project stored in a drawer. It was a plan to set up dream on, partly out of her desire to enable others to benefit from coaching and mentoring.

In her own case, the impact of mentoring from an early stage in her career had been huge, and it was something she felt she wanted to share with others.

“I love working with people, spotting and encouraging talent,” she says. “I thought: ‘If I didn’t do it now, it would never happen.’ I really wanted to do this. All the timings were right.”

She also loves fashion and self-expression, and her venture weaves these interests into an organisation aimed at improving the lives of women. Rather than limiting the role of mentoring to top executives, she felt it could play a meaningful role in the lives of ordinary women.

The CIC has a funded programme for women who want to work with dream on but don’t have the funds.

It also has a clothes store with fashion of a quality normally only be found in the top retail centres. Finding this style oasis in deepest Mid Suffolk is about as surprising and unusual as the venture itself.

There are regular coaching sessions and makeover days, and Bridget does organise corporate mentoring to help fund the project. These can take place in the capital, but also at the Thorndon centre. At the heart of the business is an easy marriage between ‘brain’ work through mentoring and creating easy looks to suit women with busy lives.

“We coach and work with women from all backgrounds. I love the variety of this. I believe everyone has talent and sometimes that talent needs to be encouraged,” she says.

“It just felt right. In life, you know when it’s right. You do it and you say: ‘That’s better.’ I did think it through a lot before I did it to work it through and make sure it was what I want to do.”

The concept itself stemmed from how she would reflect on what factors had played a role in her own career success. So far, 48 women have been through the six month programme. The work is helped by a �48,000 grant over three years from Suffolk County Council’s Transforming Suffolk programme. Dream on was officially launched in October 2010. Already the thank you letters are pouring in.

“People not using their talent frustrates me. “It’s helping them to understand they have got talent and helping them to use it,” says Bridget. “We do quite detailed self-assessment at the start of the programme and they do scoring at the start, what their circumstances are, how they are feeling.

“At the end of the programme, we do a final assessment and we have the data to show whether it’s moving or not and we are quite hard on that because we don’t want to be kidding ourselves.

“Some women finish the six month programmes we assess and realise they need more coaching. We never shut the door either so someone can come back.”

Through the project, she has discovered that there are many women out there who are failing to live up to their full potential and it has been satisfying to know that she and her team have, by and large, been able to help.

“I was lucky. I had parents who even though I used to get diabolical school reports used to laugh and made me think I was fine. They encouraged hard work, but I really believed things were possible. The number of people who are scared of doing stuff and say: ‘People like me don’t do these things.’ The rules and constraints people put on themselves that prevent them doing stuff. I think: ‘Where on earth does that come from?’ Nobody has ever helped them work out what they should do. “Nobody’s sat them down,” she says.

Meanwhile, she continues to stay in touch with the corporate world through non-executive director roles. But does she miss the corporate life?

“I like the complexity and stimulation you get from it but I still get it. To me, it gave some of the balance of what I want because I did wonder whether I would miss it and I really don’t. I thought I wanted to do it but you never know until you do it,” she says. “I really love my life now and I’m a very positive person and I don’t miss it. It’s a very relentless job. “It’s a 24-7 job. It’s long hours. If you are going to do it well you have got to work hard at it.”

It’s still early days in the life of her social enterprise and Bridget doesn’t know yet whether she wants it to get bigger or not. She is in talks about getting it to work across East Anglia.

“The business now is break even. and “I have worked really hard not to make it requiring loads of cash all the time. “We’ll make a small profit to go back in. “It’s got to be viable.

“Social enterprise has to be viable otherwise we’ll be a charity. It was quite important to me to show that. “Now I have done that it gives me a lot more confidence to think I could take it further.”

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