How I got here: Create your own special effect

GRADUATE CAREERS
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The Independent Culture
Sharon Reed, 43, is joint chief executive of FrameStore Group, the Soho-based visual effects specialist. FrameStore, together with its sister company, The Computer Film Company, have created the special effects for films such as Notting Hill, Eyes Wide Shut and The Beach, and TV commericals such as John Smith's beer and Blackcurrant Tango. Reed's latest project is Walking With Dinosaurs, the prehistoric natural history series recently shown on BBC1. Framestore has just won its fourth consecutive Emmy in the Outstanding Special Visual Effects category for Hallmark's Alice in Wonderland.

Background and education: My family has an antiques business, and even as a child I was encouraged to buy things and sell them for a profit in our shop. So I subconsciously learned a lot about business and negotiation from a very young age. School wasn't too bad but I always felt I was pretty good at lots of things without having any overwhelming talent. That's when I decided I'd probably be OK at running a business. It's an ideal job for an all- rounder as it's so varied. If I aimed for anything like accounting, which means working on a single project for ages, I knew I'd be dead bored.

The big idea: After doing a history degree at Manchester, I floundered around for a bit as arts students do. Then I got a job at Sotheby's. That was great fun but I soon realised that I wouldn't get far with a name like Sharon. I'd assumed people get on through ability, but they're big on connections in that world. My next decision was to become a secretary high up in a good organisation. I thought it would be a great way to learn about business and spot a good opportunity. So I got a grant to do a secretarial course and started working for Robert Maxwell's directors at the start of his BPCC period. I still can't believe that at the interview, I warned them I had no intentions of still being a secretary when I was 40. My future boss just looked at me and said: "I don't think there's much danger of that." It's the biggest compliment I've ever had. After a while, I created a managerial job for myself. I knew I was out of my depth but when a boss pointed that out to me, I became adamant to prove him wrong. So when the company bought into special effects, I worked like crazy and decided to set up my own business - Framestore - in that field. We borrowed money and equipment and hoped for the best.

Worst moment: When Framestore was about four years old, we found ourselves pioneering most of the techniques of special effects in this country, and so it was impossible to find employees with any experience. Eventually, I got so impatient that I poached an American who claimed he had lots of experience. But it all went horribly wrong. He wasn't any good and our junior employees got upset that they weren't getting the chance to learn anything. It was a near catastrophic lesson in recognising that you have to rely on the staff you've got. If you don't give people space to develop, your company won't develop. That's been my main motto ever since. I've got lots of employees now who started out making the tea and now command millions of pounds of business.

I wish I'd known: In the summer of 1990, Framestore was a classic small business doing really well. When everyone started talking about a looming recession, our turnover just kept going up so I assumed it wouldn't affect us. I spent pounds 1.3m on expanding the company and, of course, when the recession finally arrived, we rocketed into a colossal overdraft. It was only because our bank manager was supportive that we didn't go bankrupt. The trick is never to get complacent about the good times lasting.

Greatest achievement: We've had a blistering couple of years working on top movies and television programmes. There are two main rewards I think you get when you work in special effects. First, the results are both tangible and glamorous. You can go and see the latest film and know you're partly responsible for it. Second, it's an informal kind of business. We've built our company from five to 120 people and it's still like meeting up with a bunch of friends every day.

The secret of my success: Being hands-on and always trying to understand what everyone does who works for me. Without that, how can you work as a team?

My top tip: Be pushy, especially if you're female. I know from experience how easy it is for graduates to faff around at the bottom through fear rather than lack of ambition.

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