Me And My Partner

William Sargent and Sharon Reed, both 43, met in 1982 and four years later founded FrameStore, the digital image creation company with a turnover of £18m. They got married and had two children. In 1997 they acquired the Computer Film Company and produced BBC's hit 'Walking with Dinosaurs'
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The Independent Online

William Sargent: I met Sharon in the queue for the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. She's a real classical music buff and has been all her life. I was into rock'n'roll but a friend persuaded me to go with a group of others. Sharon and I started talking and just got on. I wanted to see more of her, so I turned up at the Proms the next night, and the next, and the next. Which basically gave the game away.

William Sargent: I met Sharon in the queue for the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. She's a real classical music buff and has been all her life. I was into rock'n'roll but a friend persuaded me to go with a group of others. Sharon and I started talking and just got on. I wanted to see more of her, so I turned up at the Proms the next night, and the next, and the next. Which basically gave the game away.

About three weeks later in the pub, a group of us had a discussion about who was the youngest out of all of us. Sharon was adamant that she was, but I knew she was older than me. I had a beard at the time. She wasn't keen on me because she thought I was in my mid-forties, so I wasn't in with a chance until it emerged that I was actually younger than her.

We started living together. Sharon was working at Sotheby's but, as she says, you don't get far there with a name like Sharon. She was getting fed-up and decided to start at the bottom as a secretary in a commercial environment. She was offered a job in Robert Maxwell's office. We chatted about her strategy, and we felt you could work your way up only if you were at the centre of power where people noticed you.

I had come to London from Dublin, where I'd had a breakfast show on Radio Dublin. My aspirations were creative but I had deliberately studied business and law and helped build a company which rented sound equipment to rock bands, such as Thin Lizzy. We had the largest sound rig outside of The Who in the British Isles.

My father was determined I was going to be a chartered accountant, but by the time I came to London I was working on a book and began doing TV scripts and consulting. I was perfectly happy, making progress, but after a while Sharon became deeply unhappy.

Her talent had been recognised by Maxwell's number two, and she had put herself forward to run a small graphics subsidiary. She changed its focus and turned it around, but then someone came in over her and sought to reduce her role. To cut a long story short, we decided to set up on our own. We got together with a freelance artist we knew socially and raised £120,000 - far more money than we could afford to pay back.

When I first met Sharon she had a credit card but had never used it. I persuaded her to, and she's never looked back. I originally came to London with £50 in my pocket, thinking, "I'll just work it out". If you ever think too hard about something, you probably wouldn't do it.

We were a company that started with digital at a time when analogue was the only technology in the sector. We took a risk on buying equipment, which we wanted to use for a purpose different to what it was designed for. We started by doing anything we could get our hands on, and pushed ourselves up to the top end of the sector. Commercials became a quick core business; that was where the challenges lay.

We used to fret about not coming from a technical background but we had good people around us, asked the right questions and reduced everything to something we understood. Often Sharon and I see things from opposite sides of the fence. Over the next hours or months, we'll go away and think. When we actually make a decision, it's made in seconds.

During the recession in the early 1990s our profits dropped by 90 per cent to £50,000 but we knew we could build the business back. We borrowed a further £1.6m defensively: we were a niche boutique, providing customers with a small proportion of their material and our competitors started packaging our bit more cheaply. We felt we'd come a cropper if we didn't invest in editing equipment. Over the next four years, we became a full service operation.

I didn't become full-time at FrameStore until 1992. We had other business interests, including a branch in Barcelona. We also owned the majority stake in Spitting Image, of which I was the executive producer for four years.

In 1992 we decided to liquidate everything we had except for FrameStore. We were working all hours, day and night, and we had our first child by then. We paid off all the debt we could, simplified life and managed our way through the recession with tremendously loyal customers. We didn't have childcare support at home, so if one of our children was ill we'd just get out our diaries and say, "Who's going to cancel their day today?"

FrameStore is Sharon's creation. You can't run a company by committees, and she has created its philosophy and its ethos, and is much closer to the nitty-gritty than I am. Though we make decisions collectively, I will always defer to Sharon's judgement. It's better than mine.

We talk business at home only when there's pressure on. We've great people in the company who have the authority to get on with it, and the culture Sharon has created is open and honest, so if mistakes are made, people aren't afraid to own up. For 10 years we were desperate to keep the company small because you're only as good as your weakest link.

We've proved we can handle big budgets, and Walking With Dinosaurs showed we had the management skills. We worked our socks off to prove to the BBC that we could do the series, and on the back of what we showed them, they raised the money for it in 48 hours. Even so, we had to find ways to economise and re-engineer processes. Seamlessness is our mark. A lot of what we do isn't high-profile, it's not on screen making a big noise. We have focused on making things appear absolutely real.

In the future, we would love to do a motion-based ride. We would like to translate our admiration for the computer games industry into achievement. Toy Story was a major milestone, we felt. Sharon's ambition is to produce a 3-D animation movie. In the past five years, she has blossomed and grown confident in her own judgement. Before that, she was more ready to assume that our professional advisers were right, but the reason I defer to her is that her instincts are spot on. I'd never bet against them.

Sharon Reed: In the early 1980s, I was a season-ticket holder for the Proms and went every night after work. A mutual acquaintance was astonished that William had never been to hear any classical music and persuaded him to come along. One person in our group turned to me and said: "That's Bill. He's a bit weird." That was my introduction to him, and it became apparent he was pursuing me, because he turned up every night and offered to buy me drinks and things.

The first time we went out together alone, I realised he was the most interesting man I had ever met. That's not to denigrate the others, but he had a lot of colour in his life. Fairly quickly, I realised I had found someone who could be a very great friend as well as a lover. That's been the strength of our relationship. Our work and home lives are intertwined but the foundation is strong.

Antiques was my family's business and I was brought up surrounded by old things, with an appreciation of the quality of craftsmanship. I went to work at Sotheby's in a business-generation role but everybody was terribly well-connected and I felt it would be hard to progress. I was driven to get on and, talking to William, I hit on the idea of getting a secretarial job at the top of a different kind of organisation to learn about business. As a teenager, I was good at a lot of things but never fantastic at one thing, and I'd always felt I would be good at running a business.

In my interview at Robert Maxwell's British Printing and Communications Corporation, where I got a job, I said: "I'm terrified I will still be a secretary when I am 40." The man who became my boss replied: "I don't think there's any danger of that."

I suppose I was a bit of a pain; I carved out territory for myself, grabbed anything that looked interesting and eventually got sent on a management course. I wouldn't describe myself as an old-fashioned style leader, but in digital imaging I found an industry where doing it the way I do it works. I'm consultative and while I like to have my own way, I also like everyone to contribute.

At BPCC I took over a little subsidiary which operated a massive computer. I began ringing people and making appointments and was rewarded by seeing it turn into a business which began to make a profit, to which I added a graphics side. But I decided to leave after a new boss was brought in who didn't give me the equality that I asked for. The business was moving back into print, but I had been doing music videos and commercials and wanted to stay in television.

One or two people said: "Why don't you set up your own business?" I was still working full-time so William drew up a business plan, met various parties and put together the finance. He's a creative thinker, determined to make things happen. I was risk-averse, and one of my flaws is in not thinking big enough. I thought we were going to be a niche graphics company. William is this imaginative, daring person, while I'm a cautious East Anglian. I remember talking to Roger Law, the creative genius behind Spitting Image, saying: "William is always having these outrageous ideas." Roger looked really shocked and said: "You do realise some of these ideas are absolutely brilliant?"

We launched FrameStore with five people and William came in to help part-time. Ours was a market waiting to happen, with the vision of using computers to create magical images. It was extremely hard work. If we had raised more money, perhaps we could have been more substantial more quickly. I was making coffee for clients, typing invoices and the next minute going in to record work on videotape. It was fun.

Early on, we bought a machine called Harry from Quantel, with technology which allowed us to manipulate images with no degradation in quality. Other people were fumbling around in the market but we came at it from an art angle. While we had long thought that the Paintbox application had huge potential, it could handle only stills. Harry was an enormous bolt-on and we began to create these fantastic images.

I remember a client saying: "Everywhere I go at the moment, I hear that FrameStore is the place to go." I thought, that's a bit dangerous. It's an industry which is terribly fashion-conscious. I decided we were going to have to grow up a bit. It would have been cosy to stop and not get bigger, but in 1990 we decided we had to expand.

We'd always had an ambition to make dramas and feature films but our computers could handle only small amounts of video. We had to invest in more equipment, which we ordered at the same time as I got pregnant with my first child.

We were trading better than ever, and people kept saying, "The recession is coming", and I kept thinking, "That's ridiculous". Over the next six months business dropped off, and William's work at Spitting Image dried up. All of a sudden we were facing a black hole.

Having a baby was a great distraction for me, it kept things in perspective. I think it was quite a low point for William but he disguised it from me. Even so, at that point we looked at each other and said: "We've really got to focus our efforts."

In 1991, for the first time, we were losing money but we managed to break even. The thing that saved us was that we had spread ourselves across different markets and had a good relationship with the bank. We clawed our way out within 12 months and have grown from 35 people to more than 200 today.

William came in as finance director and was good at shaking up our strategy. He has the space and time to think more externally, and has often got other things on the go, which is quite a benefit. When we took on the Computer Film Company there was a difficult patch; we had to go through a formal redundancy process for some employees, which was dispiriting for the company. I found it hard going into a different culture, somewhere I wasn't necessarily accepted as the boss, so that was quite a challenge.

I am down-to-earth and I like to reduce things to their most simplistic, which makes it easier to see my way through. People tend to underestimate me, but I just do my thing and think that, in the end, people will realise I am not such a simple soul as they thought.

I have got more confident as I've handled all these situations, but I wouldn't have been able to do FrameStore without William. He's the confident optimist.