Until the age of four and a half, Sharon Richey could neither walk or talk but, after gaining mobility and finding her voice, she has been making up for it ever since. Her entrepreneurial career began when she formed her first business aged just nine and today, as founder and CEO of brand experience agency BEcause, Richey is a veritable powerhouse with global ambitions. Headquartered in Ascot, with offices on the South Bank and in Sydney; the award-winning business has a turnover nearing £9 million and employs a core team of just over 45, plus around 900 field staff.
Born in Durban, South Africa, Sharon Richey and her sister grew up in what she describes as an “entrepreneurial” household. From organising a beer festival aged just 15 to running her own modelling agency at 17, she was so successful that she dropped out of a business degree after just a year in order to focus on her company. By 21, she discovered a taste for adventure and sold up to go travelling, ending up in Monte Carlo where she enjoyed an “incredible life experience”. Three months later, she arrived back in England with just £500 in her pocket, working first in the perfume department at Harrods before a chance encounter led her to the doors of a promotions agency. Fast forward a few months and she bought the company which, over the years, has evolved into BEcause. Richey, 42, is married and lives in Sunningdale with her husband and two small children, and she also has two stepsons aged 14 and 20.
Tell us about your childhood
I was born with a dislocated hip and not only did the doctors say I would never walk, but I also didn’t speak. Mum’s best friend was a physiotherapist, so I went every day and eventually I started to walk and talk. Mum says I had a real look of determination, as if I had hundreds of thoughts running through my head all the time, which is true.
What was your first business venture?
Growing up in South Africa, we had domestic staff working for us, so when I was nine, I set up a home industry utilising their sewing skills to produce clothing for an overseas brand. Now I look back and think it was really quite something to have done that.
When I was 15, I organised a huge beer festival on our front lawn – I sold tickets so I could get round the issue of not being allowed to sell alcohol. Unfortunately the police came along and confiscated all the drinks, but as I was a minor they couldn’t arrest me. I made enough money to set up my first proper business, which was the modelling agency.
I modelled from a young age and, unlike the UK where there are plenty of activities for children, there was nothing similar in SA, so I started a modelling, grooming and deportment school. We quickly grew from just 5 to about 500 pupils and it was great for building their confidence. I taught the younger ones and every three months we had graduation ceremonies, which was a good way to drive revenue as all the parents wanted to come.
By the time I was 20, I realised all my friends had been having fun travelling and I decided I needed to do the same, which is when I sold up.
Where does your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
My mother says it was from my grandfather, who was a director of Liberty Life; one of my great grandfathers had a shipping line and another was a diamond hunter.
I’ve always been driven by the need to work hard and be productive. I don’t sit still very often. I have a lot of personal drive, and it’s never been just about the money.
What happened when you arrived in London?
It was the early 90s, while I was working in Harrods, I was introduced to promotional work and then met a photographer who took some photos for my portfolio. He sent my card out to an agency and when I went to see one of the business owners he offered me a job instead. That was MHP and I ended up buying the business.
How did you raise the money?
The bank manager said every year he could take a gamble on one or two people and he decided to lend me £100,000. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for but hard work didn’t scare me and I worked 24/7 to build the business up. At the time MHP provided promotional staffing and it quickly evolved into working direct with brands and running national campaigns. From there, the business developed into LoewyBe and finally BEcause, which I founded in 2003.
Tell us about BEcause
BEcause is a live brand experience agency, dedicated to enhancing brand love. Brand awareness won’t always drive sales, brand love is what drives desire, loyalty and advocacy. So we help people fall in love with brands through meaningful, memorable and magical live brand experiences.
Ours is a people business in every sense of the word, and if you have the right principles and a strong culture, then you attract the right people and you have a successful agency. We are incredibly fortunate to have a portfolio of 15 fantastic clients, mostly blue-chips and large corporates such as Heineken, BP, Sainsbury’s, British Gas, as well as several public services.
Name one campaign that really stands out
One we are especially proud of was for Procter and Gamble’s Pampers brand. It was called “The World of Babies”, it was very ahead of its game and won over a dozen industry gold awards, including a Globe (for the world’s best experiential event). The campaign was created around a giant caterpillar with different pods, each pod representing a different baby stage of development. A caterpillar turns into a butterfly and using a similar analogy we brought the world to life through the eyes of a baby, so it was both educational and scientific. Parents loved it and sales were incredibly high.
We also do a lot of campaigns with Public Health England, especially on the “Be Clear on Cancer” campaigns, raising awareness of health issues, encouraging people to see their doctor and participate in screening programmes. The work is incredibly inspiring and we have thank-you letters from people who say an early diagnosis has helped save their lives.
What have been some of the challenges?
The business was originally in Central London, but after having children, sitting on the M4 every day didn’t feel like a good life, so we relocated to Ascot. Naturally we lost a lot of people in the move and the business directors and myself had a year of putting the business back together. Four years down the line I know it was the right decision and now I just have a five minute commute to work, which allows me to be heavily involved in my children’s lives. Since then, we’ve reopened an office on London’s South Bank, as having two locations helps us attract and retain the best talent, and I spend two days a week there to get my “London fix”.
Where next for BEcause?
We are in the process of franchising the business worldwide so are trialling some different options, such as licensing the brand. I don’t have the desire for the core business to get bigger and bigger because I don’t want to lose touch with the clients. At 50 staff we are small enough to keep that contact, and big enough to do the job very well. Rather I want to be able to duplicate what we do in different global markets.
We already have offices in Australia and a licensing agreement in Russia and I want to see a community of BEcause partners across the world, I think it will be inspiring to help mentor the next generation of entrepreneurs while giving them the platform and the toolkit to fast track success.
In my day-to-day role, I spend a lot of time looking after the enterprise value of the brand, seeing how we can continue to stand out within a very crowded market place and grow our bottom line.
Digital and social media means our industry is evolving very quickly; we’re constantly learning and adding new skills into our service mix. We’re currently developing new market research tools to help clients better evaluate marketing spend and I’m also working on a rebrand and new website which will be live in July.
How would you describe yourself?
Fair – I always do what I think is right; firm – because in a senior role you have to be decisive; and fun – life’s too short to take yourself too seriously.
Are you involved in charity work?
We do a huge amount of CSR and give back 5% of our profits to good causes. We do a lot in Africa, we’ve just finished building a township education centre, giving 120 children safe and secure care for 12 hours a day, when otherwise they would be left home alone.
We’re about to launch a new non-profit arm called Add Positivity – I want to bring together other agencies and make it easy for us to work together to give something back. My vision for the new brand is to be able to positively influence 10,000 lives a year.
What’s your greatest achievement?
Happy children at home, and a happy team at work.
What do you do on your time off?
A healthy body is a healthy mind, so I have a personal trainer three times a week and I also run to keep myself sane. My weekends are for my family – and enjoying a glass or two of wine with friends.