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From temp to business owner … my tribute to an amazing lady

Unusually for me, this post is not about marketing strategies, writes Robert Clay of Marketing Wizdom.

Instead I want to tell you about an amazing and inspiring person who has touched my life and left an indelible impression. Her name was Beryl Miller. She was someone we can all learn from. She was my PA in my first two businesses, and a few days ago, sadly, she lost an 18 month battle with cancer.

Beryl was a remarkable person. Although she can’t be with us any more, I hope her example will inspire you.

Where it all started

At age 19 and 23 I set up my first two businesses, with no capital, based in Sussex. Both businesses took off and before long they were operating nationally. When we outgrew our premises on the south coast we decided to move to a more central location.

We settled on the Oxford area, took on brand new premises and moved in. We needed someone to organise the office. Beryl came into my life when she joined us as a temp.

She liked the look of us and what we did. And we liked the look of her and the way she did things. So the arrangement became permanent and she became my PA.

My strongest skills are my ability to look ahead and see possibilities; develop innovative solutions; inspire people; and open doors to new business. Beryl was an excellent organiser, even if nobody understood how her filing system worked; she excelled at building long term relationships; and she had a great sense of humour. The combination of qualities we could muster between us meant that working with Beryl was a match made in heaven.

I could just get on with what I did best. And Beryl could just get on with what she did best. We never crossed over or trod on one another’s toes. And there was never any need to supervise her. We both thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and of course developed enormous mutual respect.

Beryl could always be relied on to get the job done. And she was a pleasure to work with because she never judged anyone; she never complained about anything or anyone; she never criticised anyone; and she was always positive, selfless and proactive. If something had to be done, she would see that it was done without fail. And we never had a disagreement or argument.

There was a natural coordination in the way we did things. It was like finding the perfect dance partner, where try as one might, one seemingly couldn’t put a foot wrong.

Being able to focus 100% of your energies and abilities on doing something you’re good at has a remarkable impact on what you can get done. With our combined efforts we took the market by storm. Both businesses became major players in the UK market, then started to expand globally.

Becoming a global market leader

For some years one of the largest companies in Scandinavia had been suggesting that one of their business units and mine would be a good fit. They also stated that they would prefer to work with us than against us; and they reckoned that at some stage we would need the capital they could bring to the table in order to continue our growth. They were right, so eventually I accepted an offer from them and sold them both businesses.

The business that bought mine was a division of Astra Pharmaceutical (now Astra Zeneca), but soon afterwards it became a subsidiary of an oil company, also owned by the parent company.

It was a condition of the deal that I carried on working for the combined business, and my role was to develop new business with car, truck, bus and aircraft manufacturers, a task at which nobody had previously succeeded.

It took six months to land the first contract. And over the next three and a half years we picked up every contract we went after. Not one competitor got a single contract. Once again, Beryl supported me in that role. And once again we cleaned up.

The fact that many of those companies remained clients of the company for the next two decades without any written contracts speaks volumes for Beryl’s relationship building skills. We had a great double act.

Without Beryl’s support I would never have been able to achieve those results. She was outstanding at maintaining and building the relationships that I established, which left me free to develop new technical innovations and pursue further relationships.

While supporting me in my role, which involved a lot of international travel, Beryl also acted as PA to the Norwegian who had taken over my old role as Managing Director of the now combined UK company. She was magnificent in both roles. The combined business went on to become Number one in its field in the world, and we both played a significant part in that.

Buying the business back

I eventually left the company to pursue other interests, which was the start of what later became Marketing Wizdom. The Norwegian MD left soon afterwards, joining forces with the MD of our American company to set up the American Pizza Company, assisted by Beryl’s son. That business became Dominos Pizza soon afterwards when that company launched in the UK, and another legend was born.

Beryl then became the PA to the new Managing Director, and when he eventually left she herself was appointed as Managing Director. This was entirely fitting, as she had done so much to build up the company and keep it running like clockwork. Her journey from temp to MD is an inspiring one that I’ve told many times. It shows what’s possible if you approach things the right way. But her story doesn’t end there.

She went on to be appointed to the board of the global parent company, part of a group with £6 Billion annual revenues, an entirely fitting recognition of her amazing contribution to the company, not just in the UK, but internationally, where her competence and qualites touched many other people too.

The Swedish owners of the business eventually sold it on to a Swiss company who also supplied the automotive industry. Beryl later negotiated a management buyout of the UK subsidiary and ended up owning the original UK business that I’d started years before. And Beryl being Beryl, she kept it going magnificently.

Her husband, previously an RAF Air Commodore, and later a Business School Professor, soon joined her in the business. They ran it together until she decided it was time to retire. They then sold part of the business to someone who for some time had been, and still is, one of my clients. And right to the end she still employed several of the same staff that we had started with years before.

Retirement and world travel

When Beryl retired she devoted herself to her family, having great fun with her son, daughter and their seven children. Meantime we always kept in touch and it was one of my great pleasures to meet up with Beryl from time to time and catch up on the latest news.

In recent years Beryl also became very involved in Zonta International, an organisation founded in 1919 to advance the status of women, particularly women in business. Beryl’s competence was soon recognised and it wasn’t long before she took on a pan-european role which required her to travel all over the world. One minute she’d be in Moscow and the next in Chicago. I always enjoyed hearing about her travels, and sharing in the pleasure she derived from this association.

I never tired of telling people about my former PA who started as a temp and went on to own the company.

The secrets of Beryl’s success

So what were the secrets of Beryl’s success? In my view they were her strong work ethic; never judging anyone; never complaining; never criticising; always being positive, selfless and proactive; and an ability to nurture and build trust with contacts like few others I’ve ever met. That’s a formidable—and rare—combination of qualities. And she certainly deserved all the success she achieved.

Sad news

In March this year I received the very sad news from her daughter, by now a long-time friend, that Beryl had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and was beyond treatment. She had been ill and declining for more than a year, but until then nobody had managed to diagnose the cause.

I made arrangements to see her at the earliest opportunity. It was a very emotional reunion. We were both thrilled to see one another. And true to character she didn’t utter a word of complaint. She was positive as always, and only wanted to talk about me and what I had been up to. As I said, an amazing lady.

I wasn’t there to speak about myself, so we DID get to speak frankly about her situation, and I’m so glad we did. She was in surprisingly good form considering her devastating affliction, and even came out to see me off. I’m glad I took a photo by which to remember the occasion. All in all it was a wonderful afternoon.

Hearing that she was deteriorating, I was very keen to see her again a few weeks ago, but she was rushed into hospital just as I was about to visit. I arranged to see her there a few days later, but had to postpone again as she was being sent home that day.

Sadly that visit was never to be. She deteriorated overnight and passed away the following day. I’m glad that her husband, son, daughter and sister were all there for her in her last hours and minutes. I’m also so glad that her husband managed to pamper her and look after her every need for her last six months. His military planning skills ensured that she was able to take all the right medications at the right time. And he even learned to cook. By all accounts those six months were filled with fun, laughter and visits to lovely locations, as she and her husband grew closer than ever before in the knowledge that their time together was limited.

When Beryl passed away, it was of course devastating for her family, as it was for me and all who had been touched by her. It will take time for everyone to get over their loss. It was a great honour to deliver an address at her funeral last week, which was the least I could do to give her a good send off. She was an amazing and inspiring person.

Looking back, I’m thrilled that I was able to play a major role in Beryl’s life, starting her off on the major career of her life. I am grateful too that she played a major role in my life. If it hadn’t been for her I couldn’t have achieved what I did at the time. We created a partnership the like of which few will ever experience.

Those whose life she touched can be truly grateful, and none more than me. If you’re ever lucky enough to know or work with someone like Beryl just once in your lifetime you can consider yourself truly fortunate. What she achieved will always inspire me. And I hope it inspires you too. But more than that, I hope for you that you have the privilege of finding or working with someone like Beryl at least once in your life.

I’ve spent years looking for another Beryl, without success. But amazingly that person may have found me when I wasn’t looking, as with so many of the best things in life, just as Beryl did. If so I’m a lucky person indeed. But that’s another story.

Here’s to Beryl Miller, a great lady who will live on in my memory forever.

Please share your thoughts and add your questions to the comments below. I’ll try to provide as many answers as possible in my future online videos, seminars, workshops, masterclasses and blog posts.

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