What grand plan?

July 20, 2019

Fiona Cruickshank couldn’t wait to leave her native North East and swapped rural Northumberland for the bright lights of London as soon as possible. But her remarkable career brought her full circle and she is now one of the region’s most renowned business people, not only as a successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur but as a prolific angel investor and local philanthropist. In 2016, Fiona was appointed chair of the Community Foundation Tyne and Wear and Northumberland – adding to her legacy of non-executive and board positions. She speaks to Alison Cowie about a journey never planned for

Fiona Cruickshank was born in Corbridge, grew up in Heddon-on-the-Wall and attended Ponteland High School. Her parents were adamant she should be the first in the family to attend university.

In choosing her degree, Fiona took a remarkably pragmatic approach.

“I saw a table in a Sunday supplement that listed the degrees with the highest employment rates; pharmacy was top with 99.9 per cent.”

Fiona successfully applied to study pharmacy in London but, in the late 1980s, had no intention of spending her days “standing in a white coat in Boots the Chemist.”

Instead, the Northumbrian set her sights on a career in industry and successfully secured a placement at Wellcome Foundation (now GlaxoSmithKline) – no mean feat given that Fiona estimates there were only 24 industry placements available for 7000 pharmacy students nationwide that year.

Fiona isn’t sure how she landed one of the rare placements, which ordinarily went to the “very brightest students.”

She recalls: “During my interview, it started to rain and at the end, the interviewer said ‘here, take my umbrella’. I remember thinking, does that mean I’ve got the job?”

After qualifying, Fiona began her career at the Wellcome Foundation as a night-shift supervisor in Dartford and was involved in the manufacture of the first anti-viral drugs to treat AIDS. But she soon became restless.

“Wellcome was a brilliant company to work for but I knew if I stayed there, I’d be there forever,” she says. “They wanted ‘cookie-cutter’ people and that didn’t fit with my personality; I get bored quite easily.”

Fiona applied for several positions, including one in a tampon factory, and eventually became a pharmacy locum – a lucrative job where she moved around the country.

After working in the North West – where she manufactured asthma inhalers – Fiona found herself in Scotland on maternity leave with her baby son.

“As lovely as my son was, I decided that being a stay-at-home-mum wasn’t for me,” she says.

Fiona started applying for jobs and secured a position at a small laboratory that specialised in unlicensed medicine. The job was to bring her back to her native North East.

Within months, the sister company decided it needed to sell the part of the business where Fiona worked. The enterprising pharmacist immediately saw an opportunity.

“I remember thinking, this is a very niche part of the industry and there are not many people who know what I do, so I said to my boss, ‘I’d like to buy the business.’”

Fiona wrote a business plan and developed a strong bid for the niche company with the advice of a corporate investment team.

But her first offer was rejected outright – much to the amazement of Fiona and her financial advisors.

“It was my first realisation that deals are done with businessmen on golf courses in Surrey,” she says.

A despondent Fiona spoke to her dad who, after leaving school at 14, had joined the printing industry and risen to director level, where he had been involved in several management buyouts.

“Why don’t you do it yourself?” he asked.

Fiona and her father decided to go into business together and established The Specials Laboratory in 1999.

“I brought the technical expertise and the knowledge of the industry, while my dad brought good governance and a sensible voice,” Fiona says. “We did everything properly and even had minuted board meetings – just dad and me.”

After successfully applying for its drug manufacturing license, The Specials Laboratory launched its services to the industry – in turn, becoming a direct competitor of the company Fiona had tried to buy.

“They must have thought ‘oh, it’s her; it’s that fluffy blond-haired woman who used to run things up in Newcastle and wanted to buy the company’,” she muses. “Throughout the whole [sales] process, no one bothered to ask me what I was going to do when I didn’t have a job anymore.”

Fiona spent £22,000 on manufacturing software she was used to working with in larger, corporate environments. She also hired a customer services expert who she’d worked with previously and had a stellar network in the industry.

The Specials Laboratory, which manufactured unlicensed drugs, became a storming success and within nine years grew to five sites, based in Prudhoe and the surrounding area, employing almost 300 people. Impressively, the company achieved this feat with no external investment.

Almost from the offset, Fiona was approached by people interested in buying The Specials Laboratory.

“It’s far more fashionable these days to have an exit strategy, but I wasn’t remotely thinking about that,” she says. “I had people knocking at the door within the first year and I remember thinking if they want to invest in me, I must be doing something right. I just used to smile politely and say, ‘no thanks.’”

But Fiona changed her mind in 2008 when she decided to take up one of the many bids.

“I hadn’t planned to, but I’d started to get a bit pissed off with work; things weren’t as good as they had been in terms of relationship behaviours and ethics,” she recalls.

“It was the right conversation at the right time, and I thought ‘why not?’”

Fiona’s next venture saw her become the owner and non-executive director of SCM Pharma Ltd, a former part of The Specials Laboratory that she’d negotiated as part of its sale.

But SCM Pharma, which specialised in small-scale sterile products, did not enjoy the same initial success as Fiona’s previous business and the financial cost of ever-changing regulations took its toll. The company was forced to transfer its assets in 2014.

Fiona reveals that SCM Pharma has gone on to become very successful, but the girl from Northumberland has not shared in this.

Despite admitting to “losing shed loads of money,” Fiona remains sanguine.

“Entrepreneurs tend to be at the high end of the risk spectrum and I’m happy with that,” she says. “It’s all or nothing for me. And if it’s my money, I’m going to do it my way.”

She continues: “On paper, I’ve had this brilliant success and this big failure, but I don’t see it like that. I’m proud of the quality of work we did [at SCM Pharma]. People were brilliantly trained, and we were the only company in the world to make some amazing products.”

Around the time of SCM Pharma, Fiona was approached by North East entrepreneur Caroline Theobald, who told her about a group of women angel investors in Sweden. She asked Fiona if she would like to be part of a similar venture in the North East of England.

“It sounded like a great idea and I thought, ‘that’ll keep me out of mischief ’,” Fiona says.

Gabriel Investors was established in 2012 and became one of only two female investor groups in the UK at the time.

Fiona invested in a range of companies as part of the collective, who used their expertise in entrepreneurship to provide support and advice.

Reflecting on the reaction to the all-female investor group, Fiona says: “Some people were vehemently against [Gabriel Investors] and unbelievable patronising. But the younger business owners were different. They didn’t care that we were women. They wanted our money and wanted what was in our heads – that’s important when you’ve got entrepreneurs doing angel investing.”

Fiona was also invited to join the Ignite 100 programme – the Newcastle-based tech-focused accelerator programme that was privately funded through angel investors and venture capitalists.

She spent three years at the programme, invested in around 30 companies, but says that ultimately, experience taught her funding tech start-ups wasn’t for her.

“I learnt a lot and made some really good contacts, but I prefer more tangible businesses that are more advanced in their life cycle and are already revenue generating.”

Fiona has continued to invest in companies but chooses to keep the details of these private.

One of the North East-based angel investments she is prepared to talk publicly about, however, is It’s All Good Ltd, a Gateshead-based snacks manufacturer that was established by Calum Ryder in 2012. Fiona met Calum and was impressed with his knowledge of the industry. She invested in the company along with another angel investor and now sits on the board of It’s All Good, which she describes as “stonking” and “going from strength-to-strength.”

The second investment she’ll discuss is ramarketing, a Newcastle-based pharmaceutical PR and marketing agency that recently expanded into the US.

“I’ve had an existing relationship with ramarketing’s founder Raman Sehgal for years,” says Fiona. “He was the account executive of the PR company I used to use and then he joined my business as marketing director.

“Raman left to build his PR business and we would regularly speak about how it was going. We’d discussed me investing in the company, but the timing wasn’t right. Then one day I said, ‘ok, let’s do it, but we’ll do it properly and I’ll join the board as non-executive chair.’

“I’ve made a significant investment in ramarketing, which has put the company on a proper footing, with a proper valuation. I understand the sector and I understand the client base. We’re having a blast!”

While business success has provided Fiona with the capital to invest in companies that interest her, it has also given her the freedom to explore another form of investment – philanthropy.

Her charitable giving began while she was the owner and managing director of The Specials Laboratory.

“When we became successful, we kept getting approached to donate to this and that, but it was always a bit random. Then one day my financial advisor recommended I should meet my local Community Foundation.”

Community foundations are primarily a US model. They provide a vehicle for individuals, families, entrepreneurs, companies, charitable trusts and public sector bodies to donate to community-based activities in a defined geographical area.

There are currently 46 charitable organisations of its kind around the UK, of which the Community Foundation Tyne and Wear and Northumberland is the largest.

Fiona met the Community Foundation Tyne and Wear and Northumberland and established a corporate fund to help the community of Prudhoe, where The Specials Laboratory was based.

“We gave a percentage of our profits each year to the fund,” says Fiona. “I wanted it to go to the local community, but I set up a committee and let the people within the business choose exactly which projects.”

The same charitable commitment was made when SCM Pharma was established, after which Fiona set up a personal endowment fund.

Fiona joined the Community Foundation board in 2012 and four years later joined a working group to discuss who should replace Ashley Winter, the incumbent chair who was coming to the end of his tenure.

“At the first meeting, everyone turned to me and said, ‘you should do it’.”

Fiona initially had doubts.

“I wasn’t a man in a pin-striped suit with a load of high net worth friends,” she says. “Not much has changed in my life. I have a few shinier things since I sold my business, but I still hang out in the same places with the same people, doing the same thing.

“I am who I am and I’m not going to change.”

She continues: “I told the group I didn’t think I was the type of person they were looking for but in the same breath listed all the things I’d do if I were. They said that’s exactly why we need you!”

Fiona successfully pitched to become the new chair and she is now more than halfway through her four-year commitment.

As chair, Fiona has made it her mission to use her business experience to promote best practice and improve the daily operations of the organisation, while opening the fund up to a wider range of donors.

She also spreads the message about the Community Foundation wherever she goes.

“If I travel to America, I always go to the local Community Foundation to see what they’re doing,” she says. “I’ll also go to networking events in London where everyone is from within the M25. I ask them if they know about the Community Foundation movement or that the Tyne and Wear and Northumberland one is largest outside North America, with more than £80 million in endowment. They look at me and say, ‘where are you from – Newcastle? Isn’t that up North?’”

Fiona will continue to be chair of the Community Foundation until November 2020 when she’ll pass the mantle to another.

The entrepreneur and investor – who has previously sat on many charitable boards including the Calvert Trust at Kielder – already knows what her next non-executive chair position in this sector will be, but it is yet to be publicly announced. In the role, though, she’ll be able to combine both her charitable and scientific knowledge and experience.

Fiona will also remain committed to the companies she has invested in and doesn’t rule out funding more.

“I don’t have a plan when it comes investing, I just do it whenever I find a company that floats my boat,” she says.

A lack of long-term planning is something that follows Fiona throughout her career.

“Everyone is supposed to have a grand plan, but I’ve never had one; my favourite word is ‘bimble’,” she says.

“I’m still ‘bimbling’ along and, so far, it hasn’t done me any harm.”

Community Foundation