From minimum wage to MBE: Why there is no better qualification for business than being a single mum

Eileen Williams

Single mum, Eileen Williams, founded her business in 2005 when her 5 children were between the ages of eight and twenty. Less than a decade later Eileen was providing safety & security for much of the Premiership, England Rugby & Scottish Rugby, not to mention training the security teams for the 2010 Football World Cup and the Last Mile safety team for the 2012 London Olympics.
Then, in 2014, the very same day that she was awarded her MBE, Eileen received the news that due to an administrative error her company would not be paid on a large government contract. That evening she laid off her staff and closed down the business.
Since that difficult time Eileen has rebuilt her company and is once again heading up security & safety training and operational planning for many of the world’s largest sporting events as well as consulting the UK Government. We met with Eileen to learn:
– How she had been able to achieve so much with her business whilst single-handedly bringing up a large family.
– The attributes and habits that have led to her developing such a strong reputation in her industry.
– How she managed to cope with losing everything in 2014, only to come back stronger than ever.

Eileen Williams Boss to Boss Interview Profile Photo

What do you think it is about your approach that people have always bought in to?

I’m not great at self-promotion so it’s a difficult question to answer but people often comment that I’m a strong communicator and I think that comes down to two things – my enthusiasm for what I do and my refusal to speak about things I don’t understand.

I’ve made it my mission over the years to learn as much as possible about the world I operate in. I have undertaken every job role I can to better understand safety and security in the events industry, from stewarding for minimum wage in the pouring rain on a wet Tuesday night at Crewe to becoming the safety officer responsible for the management of 14.5 million people during 2012 London Olympics. It’s that breadth of experience that enables me to engage people at all levels. Often it’s the anecdotal stuff that brings it to life; the ability to tell the stories in the training business is essential. Now I enjoy working at the top level, planning and training delivery throughout major events on the global stage.

Something else that I pride myself on is my thirst for knowledge. With every event, I learn new things which I then incorporate into my delivery for operational work or training.

Above all though, I think people buy into me because I get the job done and I work in an open and transparent way. We operate in a world where the stakes are high. Some of the disasters that have occurred over the years, particularly in football, should act as a constant reminder that we can never afford to be complacent.

How do you find time to constantly learn new things?

Most of my learning takes place on the job, but whenever someone asks me something that I can’t answer I make a point of going away and creating a document for them on the topic. It’s hugely valuable to them but also helps me maintain my constant development.

As important as the hands-on experience is, I do really value the more academic side of learning. I’m currently working on a PhD and have recently become a researcher and consultant for the UK Government on crowded places, writing and reviewing their national guidance. This kind of role ensures that I stay at the cutting edge of our sector.

How were you able to juggle being a single mum of 5 children with developing a rapidly expanding company?

To be frank, I did it because I didn’t have a choice. That’s the thing about being a mum; you quickly learn that there’s no point worrying or complaining. Each time you have another child you have no choice but to adjust and make it work.

I can’t think of any better training for the business world than being a mum. Can mum’s juggle various tasks at once? Yes. Can a mum problem solve? Yes. Can they manage budgets? Yes. Can they handle conflict? Yes. Can they plan schedules? Yes. As a mum, you have a long list of transferable skills that set you perfectly for the world of business.

What were the contributing factors to the business going under in 2014?

In one sense it was just a simple administrative error, but I do believe that there were underlying problems that made a mistake like this possible in the first place.

We had somewhat veered away from our core competencies. As we had taken on large Government contracts, our delivery had to evolve in line with the criteria of the contract. Consequently, we ended up doing all sorts of things that had little to do with our core focus.

In many ways, I think we were the victim of our own success. Ultimately people had been buying into me and that presents a real challenge when you attempt to grow a team around you. The larger we grew, the harder it became to maintain the offering that had initially defined us.

What lessons have you taken from this in developing your new business?

The biggest thing is deciding how much I actually want to grow. There is definitely the opportunity but there is a big part of me that feels this time I should just concentrate on continuing to being the best rather than worrying about the size of the business.

It’s also highlighted the critical nature of recruitment and staff development. You can teach people occupational skills but if they don’t share your values and ethics then you have a challenge. Bringing on the right people takes time but they are by far the most important decisions you will ever make.

What has enabled you to be so resilient throughout all of this?

I learnt long ago that you only learn when things don’t go to plan, so you have to embrace those challenges and see them as a positive rather than a negative.

Failure puts you at a crossroads and you then have new choices to make. When the company folded I reminded myself that 15 years earlier I had been a young single mum with 5 children and far fewer qualifications, and yet I had still been able to make that work, so I really didn’t have an excuse this time. I just have to maintain focus on the things I do best and ensure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

And I know my business!