Empowerment, determination and the belief that she could do anything she set her mind to, sums up Kate Lester’s approach to business. It’s an ethos which has stood her in good stead as Guildford-based Diamond Logistics, the company she set up in 1992 at the age of just 20, is forecasting revenues of £40 million by 2018/19. She says it has taken her 20 years to become the 'overnight success' which has won her a string of top business awards and, as an entrepreneur, media commentator and published author, she has provided business consultancy and turnaround advice to many small businesses. Courtesy of one of her award wins, shortly before this interview Lester was about to go into debating battle with Charlotte Proudman, the barrister who hit the headlines when she challenged sexist behaviour on LinkedIn.
Kate Lester’s parents were “£10 Poms” and, with her two younger sisters, she grew up in Perth, Western Australia. A return to the UK in the mid-1980s saw the teenager arrive in Winchester midway between her O and A Levels and, with the mindset that she could do a better job than her teachers, she left school before taking her exams, landing eventual scores three grades higher in each subject than originally predicted. Rejecting offers at Reading, Kent and Sussex universities, her first “proper” job at a large relocation company reinforced her belief that she wasn’t cut out for corporate life either, and she joined the courier company which today has become Diamond Logistics. Having grown the business slowly over the years, her fortunes changed when she realised the opportunity to franchise the Diamond name and business model. The company now has some 25 franchisees from Bournemouth to Glasgow, and she expects to finish 2016 on at least 40. Away from the office, Lester is mum to Chloe, 23 and Oscar, 21, and enjoys reading and travel.
Where does your passion for business come from?
I always believed I could do anything and I knew I had potential to fulfill. My father ran his own business and my sisters and I are all powerful girls. The making of me was when I read Troubleshooter by Sir John Harvey-Jones MBE; it made a lot of sense.
You clearly didn’t enjoy corporate life?
I think big businesses are now striving for the authenticity that small businesses have always had. Corporate life is so soulless. I couldn’t bear all the office politics and hierarchical structure. I believe in socialist capitalism. Shared Success© is my mantra and I believe you can run a different type of company.
Tell us more about starting your own business
When I joined the courier company it was effectively going bust. I offered to buy the client list and set up my own company. The business went under before this could happen, so I asked the clients if they would use me and the rest is history.
I originally had another partner who helped with the working capital for the first three months, but it wasn’t working out and when my grandmother left me a small inheritance of £4,000. I bought him out.
I don’t know if it was good or bad planning, but I conceived the business and my daughter in the very same week.
In the early days I did the deliveries myself in a bright orange D reg Astra van called Jaffa and I nearly went into labour while delivering a parcel.
What’s the business model behind Diamond?
We’re a third-party logistics provider, offering same day, overnight and international courier services. Because we have our own warehouses, we also manage the logistics and outsourcing for companies who need support for storage and despatch of stock. We have our own network of people for the same-day service, but we also work with all the carriers such as Yodel and TNT, ensuring our customers get the best service at the best price. They can also use our software to book and track consignments and we proactively monitor every delivery so we can manage expectations.
We’re unique because we’re effectively opening the door for small businesses to be able to use those services which normally need a large minimum spend to set up a direct account.
What prompted the move to a franchise operation?
By 2011, I’d been running Diamond for almost 20 years in the Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire areas and I was incredibly frustrated at how small the company still was. I just couldn’t see how to upscale it to recognise the potential I was sure was there, but then I had what I call my “lightbulb” moment and realised that franchising it could be the breakthrough I needed. I met Daniel Allin, who joined the board to help me make the necessary changes. Our first pilot franchises were in 2012 and since then it’s really taken off. Turnover has increased from £2m to £4m to £8m over the past four years.
I say it’s taken me 20 years to be an overnight success and finally I feel I am fulfilling that potential, everyone is motivated and on board with the vision and we still have the ethics and values which are so important to me.
Who has inspired your success?
Alongside Sir John Harvey-Jones, it would have to be Anita Roddick, who set up The Body Shop. I loved the fact she was creating her own business and I liked the ethics behind the company, it didn’t fit into a square box and that’s how I felt – like a round peg in a square hole.
One of the first books I read was The Color Purple and I also followed Oprah Winfrey’s own story. She’s the true definition of someone who had a bad start in life and turned it around. She’s very inspiring.
How did you move from running a courier company into business consultancy?
I joined the Despatch Association in 1996 and when I went to my first event, I didn’t know a soul. I met a lady who was raising money for a new wheelchair for her son, so I grabbed the microphone and auctioned off a scarf, then someone offered some tickets and it went on from there, raising several thousand pounds.
Afterwards, the chairman was so impressed he asked me to come on board, so I was co-opted onto the committee, eventually becoming chairman, and I managed to quadruple membership numbers.
From there, people approached me and asked if I could do the same for their business, which is how I began giving business consultancy advice. I love working with SMEs and getting involved in turnaround projects or start-ups and take-overs. It also showed me all the ways not to run a company and provided me with the vision for our unique business model or network partners.
What made you become an author?
Through my books, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned over the past 24 years – hopefully enabling people to take the most from my last four more successful years and not make the same mistakes – then I would be very happy.
Life has taught me some tough lessons to pass on to others, I’ve been very naïve and trusting at times and although I always believed one day I would do it, I put up with a lot in the interim, particularly when I didn’t cross the Ts and dot the Is.
What’s your greatest achievement?
My two children. I’m also very proud of the business and the quality of the network, I make a point of visiting the Diamond sites to catch up with the franchisees and help build our spirit of Shared Success©. I have emails every week from people who say how cool the depots are – and I don’t even run them now. Gratifyingly it means our model of delivering excellence is being replicated nationally.
Social responsibility is clearly very important to you
Giving back is really important and I think if you are privileged enough to have the opportunity to do so, then it is only right. Among others, we’re involved with B1G1, which helps SMEs make a big impact through everyday business transactions, and wherever possible we try to directly support micro-charities which make a real difference on the ground. The depots can also nominate charities to support.
I love to travel and when I went to Cambodia, I saw the work the Wells for Hope Association was doing. Direct funding enabled us to see really tangible results – we funded the Diamond Logistics well, providing families with fresh drinking and washing water and, for example, we have previously bought bicycles for girls in India to be able to go to school, helping to empower them for the future.
Your awards include New Woman Franchisor of the Year 2015, Business Woman of the Year UK in the A1 Business Excellence Awards and winner of the Entrepreneur category in the Real Business First Women Awards 2015. How important are accolades like these?
I’m chuffed to bits, but Diamond is not one woman on her own – it’s a team approach and the awards are great for the team because it is public recognition of what they have invested in the business. We’re busy creating a new generation to run the business and I’m trying to encourage them to step forward and leverage their success.
What’s your next big goal?
I would like to see Diamond reach 40-60 depots through a national marketing campaign we’ll be launching next year. And then we’ll be rolling out our services nationally.
As to my role, I want to become chief talent spotter for the business and do more “people stuff”, while also doing more speaking, leading and mentoring because that’s what I’m really enjoying.
What do you do on your time off?
Travel – I’ve just returned from Laos and Vietnam, which were amazing, and I also love reading. Iain Banks and Ian McEwan are my favourite authors.
Details: Diamond Logistics