Hi, I’m Denyse Whillier and I’m so pleased to welcome you to my website, Built To Succeed, a space dedicated to helping you to start, grow and scale your purpose-led business.
There are many things that go unspoken on a blog. It’s for this reason I wanted to introduce myself to you properly so that you know what I’ve done in the past, and how I came to work as a business consultant and set up Built To Succeed™.
I grew up in a regular middle-class family in Worthing, West Sussex. My dad trained as a carpenter in the family building business, and opened a paint merchants in Brighton’s North Laine, now home to the Bohemian quarter of the city. My mum completed her nurse training when I was little and worked her way up to ward sister. She left the NHS to run a private care home which was twice awarded ‘outstanding’ by CQC.
On my father’s side, I come from a long line of stone masons, carpenters and builders dating back to 1540. (Genealogy is an interest of mine). Following the arrival of the railway, my great, great-grandparents moved to Brighton to build houses for the influx of people moving to the coast. The family construction business built houses between Hove and Bexhill in East Sussex, and was passed down through the generations.
The value of hard work was instilled in me from an early age. I can’t remember a time as a kid when I wasn’t working during a break from school. I spent my summers teaching English as a foreign language in the mornings and working shifts in care homes to fund my way through university, and to pay for trips abroad and my driving lessons.
Growing up, I was a huge tennis fan. As a kid, I practised for hours at a time and my dream was to see my heroine, Chris Evert, play on Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court. I go to Wimbledon most years, and my dream is to a debenture ticket holder.
Education played a powerful role in shaping who I am today. I believe a good education can be life-changing and a route out of the most difficult circumstances. It was a refuge for me when my parents went through a nasty divorce.
I had the good fortune to receive an excellent and well-rounded education. I loved the arts, languages and science. I can trace my pro-European and anti-war beliefs to my high school English teacher who taught us about the writing of WW1 poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
I was the first in my family to go to university. While I was at university, reporting on the Ethiopian famines of 1983-85 shook the national consciousness. I remember being shocked as I watched Michael Buerk’s report from Ethiopia about what he called a “biblical famine”. A few weeks after watching Live Aid, I travelled to Kenya to visit a close friend who was a teacher with VSO. This sparked my interest in international development.
After graduating with a degree in French and Spanish from London’s Queen Mary & Westfield University, I went on to study for a Masters Degree in International Development at Leeds University. Later, I trained at Cranfield School of Management, the UK’s leading business school. More recently I became an accredited business mentor with the Institute of Enterprise & Entrepreneurship.
A CAREER IN MANAGEMENT
After university, I worked my way up the corporate ladder, taking on a number of senior management roles. I led staff teams of 120+ people and was responsible for overseeing multi-million pound budgets, multiple workplaces and complex change management projects. As a manager, I aimed to lead my teams with a few simple values: be the hardest worker in the company, lead by example, treat people well, recognise good work, challenge prejudices and assumptions, build relationships, and always be honest and fair.
Early in my career, I experienced a sustained campaign of sexual discrimination and harassment by my boss. I wrote about this experience during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, which brought back memories I hadn’t thought about in years. But which shaped my strong stance on gender equality and fairness.
My roles involved running PR and launch strategies for numerous highly successful campaigns, both in London where I lived for 30 years, and nationally. Highlights included lobbying MPs at the House of Commons, being interviewed on the BBC and featured in The Guardian and The Telegraph.
THE CEO YEARS
The highlight of my corporate career was promotion to a CEO role. I say ‘highlight’ now, but it didn’t always seem that way. Towards the end of my first month in the job, I recall pulling the door to my office to, staring at my desk and wondering what on earth I‘d done. The finances were a mess. The annual company audit was due. I had to find a way to bridge the huge hole in our budget – or slash our services and make 50% of the staff redundant. Our key strategic partnerships were in poor shape. And as if my to-do list wasn’t long enough, the Board wanted me to fundraise for a multi-million pound flagship project.
Frankly I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead. But giving up was not an option. The turnaround happened when I realised that I couldn’t do it all alone. If I was going to help the company get out of the mess it was in, I had to put in place systems and processes so that my team and I could work collaboratively to deal with the challenges ahead. I sought help from a series of Executive Coaches who supported my personal development and generously shared their experience and wisdom.
My experiences as a CEO taught me the essential skills required to be a successful business leader – business planning and strategy, building a brand, people management, job creation, cash flow and financial management, problem solving and ideas generation.
THE TRANSITION FROM CEO TO BUSINESS CONSULTANT
Entering my forties, I started to ask the question ‘what next?’ After eight years as a Chief Executive, I was ready for change. The opportunity to be creative, on my own terms, was a huge driver in my decision to start my own business.
Ten-hour days and a three-hour daily commute across London meant I had little time and energy to develop a business plan for my new venture. Instead, I focused on creating my ‘financial freedom plan.’ I structured my finances so that I had a financial cushion large enough to fund both a sabbatical, and my first eighteen months in business. Once achieved, I handed in my notice and headed to Spain for a much-needed sabbatical rest.
A keen yoga practitioner, my aim originally was to set up a yoga studio with a yoga teacher and friend. We struggled to find suitable premises in East London, and reluctantly concluded that substantial third-party investment was needed to make our yoga business dream a viable reality. Neither of us wanted to go down that route.
Meanwhile, I reflected on my own experience of Executive Coaching and decided I wanted to put my experience as a CEO to good use. I took a course in business mentoring at the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, and worked with six female founders pro bono in order to gain my accreditation. I loved coaching this small group of women and our conversations gave me a brilliant insight into the daily challenges of running a start-up business.
WHY PURPOSE-LED BUSINESSES?
We all have our own definition of success. For me, success means living my values and having a positive impact on the world. That’s why I’ve chosen to work with purpose-driven business owners whose businesses make a positive contribution to society.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF BUSINESS
I live two minutes’ walk from the beach on the West Sussex coast, within easy commute of Central London. My offices are in West Hove, near Brighton. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I spend as much time on the beach as I possibly can: coastal walks in the winter and picnics on the beach (with a good book) in the summer.
I’m a bookworm. Aside from watching my favourite Scandi dramas, In The Line Of Duty and my favourite, Cold Feet, I’m never happier than when I’m curled up on the settee, reading a novel, a biography or book on business or leadership.
I love going on ‘big adventures.’ Traveling in South Africa inspired me to write What A Tour Of Robben Island Taught Me About Leadership. An amazing month in rural Rajasthan, India led to me writing 'How Reading Half The Sky Inspired My Brand Purpose. In 2015, I headed to California for a road trip to explore the spectacular Yosemite National Park and drive along Big Sur.
TO WORK WITH ME
To start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together:
Check out my Services page where you’ll find details of my business consulting executive coaching and marketing services.
THE WEEKEND EDIT
The Weekend Edit is my weekly newsletter, sent out every Friday morning to my subscribers. I love putting together this email, and my intention is that it supports you on your business journey.
If you are interested in signing up to The Weekend Edit, you can do so here.