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A Series of Curve Balls!

By 24th October 2014

In my daily life I am lucky enough to meet all sorts of weird and wonderful people.  This week’s Big Personality, like most interesting folks, comfortably sits in both of these camps. Businesswoman, entrepreneur, mother, luvvie and sewing machine addict she is both gregarious and couthie, straight-talking and affectionate.  Fiona McLellan is the owner of Pharos Parcel, an online delivery service and one of George Street’s newest shops.  This is a woman who goes up against the giant that is Royal Mail every day and who can run up a spare set of curtains between visits to her favourite galleries.    

Fiona SchoolShe’s not always been a Perth girl but she did start her school life here back in 1965 at the age of 5 years old. As a forces child she moved around a lot but her formative education was spent at Robert Douglas Memorial School in Scone where she believes the good old fashioned Scottish education set her up for life. Her time as a Perthite ended with a trip to Perth Playhouse to see The Yellow Submarine before catching the overnight sleeper to London; such was the life of a daughter of an RAF pilot.

It was 1979 before she moved back to Scotland to train as a Radiographer at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

“I’ve always said that life is a series of curve balls and this was my first. I failed all of my A levels except one and so my plans to study Psychology at St Andrews were scuppered.   I knew I wanted to do something that could help people and radiography just appealed to me.  I arrived off the train at Waverley Station and had two weeks to find a flat before my training started. In those days you learned on the job and I of course loved every minute of the adventure. I always ended up on Saturday nights, dealing with the stabbings and the road accidents.”

Now, in amongst all of this Fiona was being courted by a handsome Merchant Navy Officer. During her final year at school she had toured through Greece, Italy and Israel on a School Cruise aboard the Uganda Troup Ship. (Can I just say my head didn’t quite grasp this at first as my school went to a youth hostel in the South of France on what looked like a berry bus!).  A young Roy McLellan ran the ‘senior club’ discos for the older teenagers and Fiona was instantly smitten.  Black is Black by Belle Epoque was playing, he was talking over the music, Scottish accent sounding sexy to her anglicized ears and she WOWed him in her own home-sewn creation of full circle skirt, super high heels and wide belt pulling in her tiny 24inch waist.  Before the cruise had finished she had abandoned dance requests from every other boy and Roy passed over his address and asked her to write, promising that he’d reply. 

Fiona TeenageWrite she did enclosing a photo so he would remember her, and he was also true to his word; the courtship lasted 4½ years and was carried out, in the main, via Air Mail!

“Bundles of letters would arrive all together because he wrote every day but could only post them when his ship made visits to shore.  When he eventually proposed the postman said to mum ‘I’d like to think I’m part of that!’  It was all very romantic looking back. There were no mobile phones, text messaging or Facebook in those days!"

 And so at the tender age of 22, just as she qualified as a radiographer, she married Roy and was ready to start her new ‘grown-up’ life in Edinburgh.  

“I applied for a full-time job and I didn’t get it because I was married. Back then there was no problem with saying this to a young girl and so I was offered a part-time job as a locum.  Roy eventually convinced me I’d have a better time at sea with him and so I spent the next three years living on Merchant Navy ships and travelling the world. I lay in the sun and read books, met Roy for lunch, visited far off places and of course I took my sewing machine with me so I was never bored! We’d spent 4 ½ years apart and it was wonderful just to be together.  Some of the characters you meet in Merchant Navy are amazing. I remember giving one of them a haircut, making an ok job of it and so the next day there was another one needing a trim. And then I made proper mess of my husband’s hair and that was me - I was struck off as the ship’s barber!”

After three years, Roy was made redundant from the Navy and switched to supply boats in the North Sea. Fiona was back on track but couldn’t get a job as a radiographer and so retrained in shorthand and typing “both of which I was terrible at.” Thankfully she wasn’t to wait too long before she secured her dream job as a radiographer at Bangour near Livingston. She was all set to settle down and concentrate on her career when along came curve ball number two in the gorgeous shape of Ross, her eldest child and only son.

“I stayed at home for a while because that’s what new mums did in the eighties but when Roy eventually came on shore his salary halved and I picked up a part time job selling houses from plan for a company called Tay Homes. The part time quickly became full time and it turned out I was really good at sales.  They would open new sites, hand me a pair of wellies and a set of plans and leave me to it. I sold millions of pounds worth of houses for them over the years and I loved every minute of it.”

A bit of a career turnaround then?

 “Well, you know, selling houses and being a good health care provider aren’t as far apart as you might think. When I was training as a radiographer we were all sent to The Astlie Ainslie Hospital in Morningside to learn patient care from an old radiographer. He told me that when someone was lying on a trolley terrified that they might have cancer you could make them feel better instantly just by wrapping a wee blanket round their feet.  I knew what he meant – it’s the little things that count and what you need to do when you work with people is make them feel comfortable and relaxed and happy.

It’s a skill I took with me to Tay Homes – I was selling sites no-one else could shift and when they eventually doubled my commission to sell houses on a hill that looked like the side of Everest I thought here we go…. And then came curve ball number three. I fell pregnant with twins and Roy picked up a top job with Royal Mail in Carlisle.  I can remember sitting in the car, seven months pregnant with the girls, driving to this new home in England, with a five year old and no job.  But you just do it don’t you?”

Fiona took a career break, sewed clothes for three children and then four years later she moved them all again 500 miles south (this time with a rabbit!) when Roy left Royal Mail to become the Managing Director of Virgin Mailing in Kent. 

Fiona Roy Kids

“He lured me with promises of free flights.” she told me in a tone that suggests this did not come good!

The girls started school and Fiona picked up work as a classroom assistant to fit in with the school timetable. It was to be an extremely fulfilling part of her career, working with teenagers who suffered from challenges and felt failed by the education system. She worked, listening and guiding these troubled youngsters and putting her well-honed mothering skills into play. From there she was headhunted to work in a local primary school on a one-to-one basis with a young boy who had severe social and learning difficulties. “It was my worst paid job ever but one of the most rewarding periods of my life. I felt happy every day that I was making a difference. I did miss my sales job a bit though.”

Now, pay attention folks because this is the deal changer coming!  At the same time as this was going on Roy (husband, remember him!) had set up his own mailing company and Fiona headed out one day with his sales manager, a fabulous woman called Jo who was on a mission to pick up business cards and sell the company to the publishers exhibiting at The London Book Fair. Fiona went to enjoy the fair and give her a helping hand collecting cards from the vast arena.  It seems she impressed Roy’s manager no end, who promptly headed back to the office and demanded he recruit his ‘brilliant wife’.

“He came home with a contract and I was talked into joining. However, Roy is one of those of people who didn’t want to look as though favouritism was being shown so it went entirely the opposite way and I started in junior sales, having to prove myself over and over again.  Every time I smashed my targets he just increased them!”

Now building a family business, the pair were unstoppable and went from zero to £3 million in three short years. But they were working in international mailing and, Fiona tells me, were delivering on promises, growing and building up new clients but screwed into the ground with cash flow. 

“We were naïve – we didn’t have nearly enough cash behind us to start a business this size and had put the house up as a guarantee. Eventually the gap between us paying suppliers and clients paying us was just too much.  It was a competitive industry and we fell mercy to it – the biggest curve ball of them all. After three years we had to go in and tell thirty people that we’d failed them - we were going into administration.  I can tell you Nicki, that next to my mother dying, that was the single worst day of my life. These people had homes, families and we had to stand and say ‘Sorry – we couldn’t make it work.’ I was devastated.”

When they sold the house to pay off the loans Fiona was 44 years old with three growing children and she and Roy braced themselves as they prepared to start again from nothing.

“We hid it from the kids as best we could but it was awful.  In the South East at the time everyone judged you on how flash your car was, how big your house was, where your kids went to school.  Closing that business was a defining moment in my life because I realised that none of that mattered at all – I was devastated at letting down the people in our team, gutted that we hadn’t made it but deep down I always knew we’d be ok as a family together. That was what really counted.”

What they did do, was offer the business to Pharos International, a bigger operation, and secure everyone’s jobs including their own.  Roy and Fiona knew this was their chance and without delay or exception visited all of their customers in an attempt to secure the business for their new bosses.

“The vultures had circled fast and by the time I was sitting in the London office of one of my clients he had already been called by three of our main competitors. Thankfully, all the hard work we had put in on relationships with our customers showed we could deliver what we promised and so we didn’t lose a single account.”

With every customer remaining the Chairman was suitably impressed and after only three months he called them down to a meeting in Wales.  The pair went fully expecting to be given a nice lunch and their marching orders – requirements met, why keep them on? 

“Not to be. Instead he told us the parent company was struggling, that he was sacking his directors and wanted us to take over running his entire business. He could see that the only thing that had screwed us was cash flow and that we were actually solid operators. I was made Sales Director and Roy MD.  It was very much a male dominated world at the time which didn’t phase me at all. In actual fact, I found that listening hard to the client was fairly unique and I would find ways to provide what they needed rather than trying to fit them into a process. During that time we won a huge contract worth £1/2million, beating off major competitors in the process.”

“Ironically, we pulled his business out of the red and made it so attractive that within four years it was bought over by a big American Corporate. I knew from the word go that I would be a square peg in a round hole and I resigned. Roy stayed on for another year before he threw in the towel and announced he wanted to come back home to Scotland.”

I’m feeling dizzy at this point in the conversation; here is a woman that met her childhood sweetheart at 17, married him, had three children in her twenties and followed her husband’s career the length of the country, chopping and changing hers as she went, all the while sewing clothes, cushions and curtains for her many houses.  She sounds every inch the perfect Stepford Wife.  And then you realise that alongside this she was instrumental in taking the risks required to build and close a multi-million pound business, and start again. She then played a blinder and helped turn around the fortunes of a large international business, growing it year on year and politely saying no thank-you when the big boys offered her a job that she felt was soulless.   #LikeAGirl #WhatAWoman!

Fiona BW

"At the same time this was all going on, I had my eye out for something that could work for us. It was 2008 and we could see online sales beginning to soar.  I sat down with UPS who I’d worked with for years and got them to agree a deal with me for parcel delivery rates. Then I contacted all my old networks and antiquarian bookshops and when we knew we could do it, we re-mortgaged £50K out of the house and started Pharos Parcel. I had asked our old boss for the name when he sold up to the Americans.”

She’s smiling as she tells me this last little nugget. She knows for a fact that she’s not anyone’s Stepford wife, nor is she likely to make the same mistakes twice.  She knew she couldn’t take the salary she needed while Pharos Parcel was building its online presence so she found Hollie, “an amazing twenty-one year old who dealt with the day-to-day running of the business” and Fiona built Pharos whilst putting in 12 hour days for another mailing company. 

“I did that for two years. After the first year Roy packed in the gig with our American friends and bought Driver Hire in Dundee. He moved back to Scotland at the same time as daughter Lizzie had been accepted to study Law in Dundee and I stayed in Kent for another year with Kathryn who had started Art College. Ross was 24 and had started his career in teaching.  In 2010 Hollie announced she was pregnant and after having the baby she decided not to come back to work. That was it. The nudge we needed to make the move and so Kathryn was dragged kicking and screaming to join us in Scotland – she only screamed for two weeks mind!”

In June 2010 Fiona opened Pharos Parcel’s offices in Rose Terrace with one other full time member of staff to manage the website. When the break clause in the lease came along last year she jumped at the chance to move her online business into retail and opened the shop in George Street.  They deliver letters, packets and parcels in the UK and anywhere else in the world. They sell all the boxes, bubble-wrap, gorgeous little gifts and quirky cards that you’d expect to see at a traditional Post Office counter. And as you’d probably expect, they provide the sort of good old fashioned service that has seen Fiona right since her days as a young Radiographer.

“People might buy things differently nowadays Nicki, and our online business has been extraordinary. But some still want a smile, a helping hand and the equivalent of that wee blanket wrapped around our feet.  Pharos Parcel can do both and I see no reason why there won’t be a chain of shops across Scotland backing up our online services.  Perth was always going to be first – mainly because I love Perth - but mark my words, this is what my years of practice have been for!”     

Fiona is passionate about her business and about encouraging other people to be bold and carve out a name for themselves in their own right. She is unwavering in her belief that all you need is the “tenacity and balls!” to make it work.  Her path is far from straight and certainly hasn’t been easy – but I think we’ve established most interesting people come with a complex story - and so I want to know what she considers to be her most defining moments from her 54 years on the planet.   

“I lost my mum when I was 20 years old.  I met the best man that I could possibly have wished to meet and I love him just as much today as I did when I swapped addresses with him on that school cruise. I have three wonderful children.  Together, as a family we have moved house thirteen times.  We have built a company, taken it into administration and lived to tell the tale.  All of these things have defined me and made me very clear about what I want out of life.”

She tells me about a day last month, her birthday. Roy was working, the kids are all now living their own lives away from home and she decided to head to Edinburgh and enjoy a day in the Portrait Gallery. She wandered round the exhibitions of John Byrne and Ruskin, had some lunch with an old friend, browsed a few shops and caught the train back.

Playmobile Post Office Pharos Parcel“It was sheer bliss. I love my business but I know only too well that you need a balance in your life. I adore the good company of good friends, great food, wine, travel, art and theatre. And to this day I am never happier than I am at my sewing machine – let’s not forget it was my home-sewn outfit that bagged me my husband!”  

She smiles, warmly and happily, and you know that you are looking at a woman who may not have mastered the art of having it all but rather the art of being happy with all that her heart desires. 

***

Visit Fiona at Pharos Parcel in George Street where you can post anything your heart desires and receive proper, old-fashioned, friendly service.  She promises me her rates are better than Royal Mail and her service is better than any of the others! (It is true – I am a convert to the lovely orange shop and the welcome from Maisie, their office manager and family pet!)  Website | Facebook | Twitter 

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