Businesswoman of the year left school with only ambition

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The Independent Online

She left school at 16 with no qualifications and worked as an office junior, armed with only a fierce ambition to be her own boss.

She left school at 16 with no qualifications and worked as an office junior, armed with only a fierce ambition to be her own boss.

At 23, Chey Garland decided to invest all her £600 savings into creating her own debt-collection agency. Now, 25 years later, her business is among the biggest in the North-east, with an annual turnover of £28m. Yesterday Ms Garland was named the Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year.

Ms Garland, who has two children and lives in Kirkby, North Yorkshire, employs 2,800 workers in a thriving call-centre business, with contracts that include Vodafone, Cable & Wireless and Virgin Mobile.

When she left school in Middlesbrough to work in a roofing company she quickly became fascinated by business. "When I left school, all I could think was I was going to be a receptionist but the moment I got inside this company, I felt so excited and thought I would one day love to be making decisions that would shape a company," she said.

"I was not motivated by making lots of money but doing something well and having recognition for it."

Within 48 hours of quitting her job as a credit controller at 23, she had created a business plan and was earmarking premises for her first enterprise. Her Middlesbrough-based agency rapidly grew to employ 60 staff, and won a contract to handle overflow customer service calls which led to the formation of Garlands Call Centres.

Her company has expanded to three places in the Tees Valley, she owns five buildings, and has plans for a call-centre village, which could create more than 800 jobs.

As the daughter of a fruit-stall owner, Ms Garland, who works up to 60 hours a week as well as looking after twin sons, aged 11, said she was raised in a typical working-class environment with the ambition to better herself.

"We lived in a typical two-up, two-down, and money was tight," she said. "There was a desire to achieve and better ourselves in my family. In my case, my business acumen has definitely been down to my instincts because I could not afford the luxury of formal training."

Her business style is certainly feminine - the interiors of her call centres are decorated with obelisks and water features - and there is a positive focus on the pastoral care of her employees.

"I have made the interiors as nice as possible. This is important if you value people. It is also important to have an awareness of people's personal circumstance and needs. If someone is having difficulty at home, even a broken boiler, they carry that with them."

John West, brand director of Veuve Clicquot, said: "In six short years, Chey has created a highly successful business in a difficult sector, becoming the second biggest private employer in Teesside. She has shown a similar level of audacity and business instinct and has shown a steely determination to develop the quality of her service through the development of her staff, her prize asset."

The other shortlisted candidates for the award were: Lara Morgan, 47, founder of toiletries firm, Pacific Direct; Carole Nash, 62, creator of an insurance firm for motorcyclists, Elizabeth Wagstaff, 56, founder of Robinia Care, a healthcare business, and Sarah Tremellen, 38, who owns bra company, Bravissimo.

Previous winners of the award have included Linda Bennett, who runs a chain of shoe shops and Barbara Cassani, then chief executive for low-cost airline, Go.

SELF-MADE WOMEN

* ANITA RODDICK

The founder of The Body Shop was born near Brighton where her Italian immigrant mother and American father ran a café. She married Gordon Roddick in 1971 and began concocting cosmetics from "every little ingredient with a story" she had in her garage. She opened her first shop in Brighton with 15 products.

* LINDA BENNETT

She opened her shoe shop in Wimbledon 15 years ago with £13,000. Today, her LK Bennett stores are an international chain which gave her a fortune of £18m. She said: "I wanted to produce something in between the designer footwear in Bond Street and those on the high street." Ms Bennett won the award last year.

* RITA SHARMA

Twenty years after she set up her travel business from a "broom-cupboard" office, Ms Sharma is worth £95m, the richest Asian woman in London. Born in the Punjab and raised in east London, her father made women's garments for C&A. Her online business, Best At Travel, employs 100 people and has a turnover of £50m.

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