My Story

Denyse Whillier at Igigi in Hove

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. 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 passed through the generations, and my family built houses between Hove and Bexhill in East Sussex.

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 pay for trips abroad.

Growing up, I was a huge tennis fan. My dream was to see my heroine, Chris Evert, play on Wimbledon’s hallowed Centre Court. I’ve been to Wimbledon many times since, and my dream now is to a debenture ticket holder.

On Education

Education played a powerful role in shaping who I am today, and I was the first in my family to go to university. My pro-European views are a direct result of studying the First World War poets who, like Wilfred Owen in Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem For Doomed Youth, described the terror of the trenches and the futility of war.

Read: Why People’s Vote Is The Best Option For Business and;

Lest We Forget: The EU Has Brought Peace To Europe

While I was at university, reporting on the Ethiopian famines of 1983-85 shook the national consciousness. I remember being transfixed as I watched Michael Buerk’s report from Ethiopia about what he called a “biblical famine”. The images shook me. A few weeks after watching Live Aid, I travelled to Kenya to visit a close friend who was a teacher with VSO. I can trace the origins of my brand values back to these seminal years.

Read: The Origins Of My Brand Values

After graduating with a degree in French and Spanish from London’s Queen Mary & Westfield University, I went on to study for a Master’s degree in International Development in Leeds. 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.

After university, I worked my way up the corporate ladder, taking on senior management roles where I led large staff teams and was responsible for overseeing multi-million pound budgets and projects. 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.

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.

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 distinctly remember 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 gap in our budget – or else 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 - something I thought was the height of insanity given the poor shape the business was in.

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 also sought help from a series of Executive Coaches who supported my personal development and offered guidance on the road ahead.

Within 18 months, with the hard work and support of my team and the Board, the company was on a surer footing, with turnover and staffing levels doubling. After another 18 months, turnover and staffing had increased by a further 50%, making the company a ‘scaleup.’ As less than 5% of companies at the time met the criteria to be considered a ‘scaleup,’ this is an achievement of which I’m immensely proud.

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.

Read: 7 Leadership Lessons From My Years As A CEO

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 2.5 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 to create a financial cushion large enough to fund both a sabbatical, and my first eighteen months in business. I then handed in my notice and headed to Spain for a much needed 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.

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 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.

You can read more about my business journey here:

My Commitment to Purpose-Driven Businesses

I’m a deep believer in the connection between values driven leadership, a purpose driven culture and business success. There’s a saying by Henri Thoreau:

'It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?'

This is why I prioritise working with purpose-driven business owners whose businesses make a positive contribution to achieving one or more of the 17 global Goals for sustainable development. This could be working with:

  • A street dance academy that promotes health and well-being to children and adults of all abilities.

  • A printing company that promotes youth employment through training, education and apprenticeships.

  • A restaurant that wants to serve locally sourced food.

  • A joinery firm that wants to transition to sustainable business practices.

  • A construction firm that wants to bring more women into the industry.

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.

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m a total bookworm. Aside from watching my favourite Scandi dramas, I’m never happier than when I’m curled up on the settee, reading a novel, a biography or book on business or leadership. 

You can find my book recommendations HERE.

I love going on ‘big adventures.’ In 2013, I spent an amazing month travelling in rural Rajasthan, India. This journey led to me becoming an Ambassador For Half The Sky. I wrote about this in my post 'How Reading Half The Sky Inspired Me To Take Action.'  In 2015, I headed to California for a road trip to explore the spectacular Yosemite National Park and drive along Big Sur.

Over To You

I’d love to start a conversation about whether we’re a good fit to work together. Use this form, or the button below to get in touch. There’s no hard sell. Just solid advice and a straightforward, honest assessment of whether our services will be right for you.