10 Questions: Helen Whitfield

October 30, 2017

Helen Whitfield is the chief operating officer of one of the fastest growing companies, NBS, a global provider of construction information and knowledge management services. Originally appointed to lead the finance function of what was a struggling business, Helen has been instrumental to the growth of NBS, which now boasts a turnover of over £23 million, employs more 250 people in the UK and has sites in Canada and Australia. A qualified accountant, Helen holds the IOD Diploma in Company Direction, completed a scholarship at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, and was the first female director at NBS when she was asked to join the board when she was 40 years old

What was your first break in business? 

Not long after joining NBS, it went through a major reorganisation of the teams in what was then a group of companies. I was asked at that point to join the board. For me, to be trusted at such a young age to work alongside the other directors in shaping the business and developing the investment plans was very empowering.

What did you want to be growing up? 

I was always pushed to do academically well at school but the careers guidance I received was awful. At a young age, I wanted to own a coffee shop, so I suppose I’ve always had that desire to own or lead something. Accountancy seemed a sensible and stable option at a time when you were viewed as an achiever if you had letters after your name. I never felt there was encouragement to be entrepreneurial which, thankfully, is encouraged now.

What attracted you to your current role? 

Before NBS I had a secure role with personal development opportunities at a top accountancy practice, but I needed a change. While most people thought I was losing my mind, NBS was the opportunity and challenge I’d been looking for and my way to gain new experiences and insight. I thought I’d stay for three years to set-up an accounts function in the business. But even at this point the directors at NBS were ambitious, supportive and challenged the status quo so I ended up staying.

What is the organisation’s mission? 


To lead the built environment with powerfully connected knowledge and services around the world.


How do you get the best out of your team? 

I think I’m clear about the direction of the business and that contribution is valued. I’m delivery-focussed and help create an environment that is honest, caring and supportive. I have so many talented colleagues that there is an overflow of innovation and ideas; it’s a brilliant team to be part of. But there’s a fine balance between keeping up the passion and excitement, to delivering against our promises and expectations.

What has been your career highlight? 

Becoming a board director at NBS, particularly when it came at a time where there was little female representation on company boards in the market in which we operated. The board members were incredibly supportive which demonstrated how forward-thinking our leaders are.

What has been your biggest challenge? 

I’m my own worst critic. People sometimes confuse this with lacking self-belief or confidence, but it’s neither. You can have endless supplies of both. You set yourself standards around performance, achievement and how to motivate and treat people. If, at the end of the working day, you don’t believe I’ve met those standards, it feels like a disaster – regardless of how many other brilliant things you’ve done.

Who or what inspires you? 

Amelia Earhart’s quote: ‘The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity’, has always stuck with me. I admire people who are authentic, who don’t give up and who show character whatever is thrown at them. A person who inspires me is NBS ex-chairman Clive Carr. He’s incredibly accomplished in business, a perfect gentleman, understated and softly spoken. He also speaks with experience, conviction and belief. I feel very privileged to have had his guidance and support.

What are NBS’s short and long-term goals? 

Having acquired Digicon in Canada and set up a subsidiary in Australia, we will continue to develop our products and services to support our customers who operate globally.

But we are committed to the North East, creating quality jobs and being seen as a centre of excellence in Building Information Modelling (BIM) around the world. To help us do this we made a significant investment in buying the Old Post Office building in Newcastle city centre and spending £5.8m on its redevelopment.

How do you achieve a good work/life balance? 

Looking after yourself so you can make the right decisions for all the colleagues that depend upon you, was one of the hardest lessons I learnt when I completed my scholarship at Kellogg, Chicago. For me, family, good friends, laughter, spending time outdoors and being active are the tonics I need. The best ‘balancer’ is also due to arrive in a few week – my first grandson!