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21 years in business, millions of pounds in the bank which she shares with the masses, mum of four, a wife and an entrepreneur… And she’s from Sheffield. Emma Harrison talks openly about her life, from the very beginning…
As I sit in my office in Sheffield and prepare my sat nav for the trip to Thornbridge Hall (where Emma lives), I realise I’m not just going to any old house. I reach the gate and buzz. I enter through the gates and look in awe, not believing that somebody lives in such a big house like this who isn’t Henry VIII.
Thornbridge Hall isn’t just a home but also the home of A4E which is the business Emma is Chairman of.
There is no door mat that says ‘welcome’ to wipe your feet on. This for me is a castle - and I may be the dirty rascal? I go into a room, I’m not sure if it’s a living room, drawing room or music room. A grand piano, sofas with the finest of intricate detail, white cupboards with gold edging, chandeliers sparkling in natural daylight through the big windows and I see the back garden, it’s not a back garden though. It’s 100 acres. I like it here.
Emma walks in with a warm smile, fabulous glasses, purple dress, black waist coat, power walking black boots and a pearl necklace that I can’t take my eyes off. I know this isn’t one that I’ve seen before on the high street…
I’m sat there without an agenda, no questions. I just want to know who Emma Harrison is…
“My mum and dad are Roy and Theo, although they aren’t alive. I was born in Jaywick, Clackton-on-sea in Essex and when we were young we moved to Sheffield via Nigeria. [Emma’s dad worked in training within the oil business, hence the Nigeria stopover.]
A moody 15 year old Emma with her dad
“We moved to Sheffield, went to Hallam School and Tapton School both of which have been knocked down and rebuilt. I lived on 184 Crimicar Lane, in the Lodgemoor/Fulwood area and then we moved to Belgrave Road in Ranmoor which was dead posh!
“Dad bought the house in Ranmoor at an auction and it cost £25,000. The biggest amount of money I’d ever heard of and we absolutely couldn’t afford it. So we moved to this great big house where we also had lodgers too. Mum had left by then, she’d decided motherhood and wifedom wasn’t for her and she’d often leave on a regular basis.
“There was me, two brothers (Adam and Harry) who were a year older and a year younger than me. One amazing dad and we all lived closely together. We were the Cridlands.”
Living life without money, was it tough?
“What was tough, was my mum not being there a lot. I remember she wasn’t there very much. She used to leave and then come back so that’s what was tough. I wasn’t deprived of love, I wasn’t hungry or not having fun. That would’ve been tough. There was a limit on material things. Not having my mum around was the worst of it.
“I was one of the naughty ones at school. I was clever but also naughty. I’m sure if I had worked harder I would’ve passed my A-levels but I didn’t.
“I thought it was the end of the world, but thank goodness I did fail them otherwise I’d have become a doctor. What I found out when I was younger is that I always had to find my own way. The normal paths weren’t going to fit me.
“At the age of nine, I was running an illegal tuck-shop at school. Everyone at school was getting pocket money, it was a way to make some money.
“I was raising money for charities at the age of 12/13 on a serious basis – bring and buy sales, auctions.
“And at the age of fifteen I got myself elected as the Governor of Tapton School which is the funniest thing I ever did. I found out that the school was run by a board of governors and thought, ‘I could be good at that.’ I was shaking like a leaf in every meeting. Looking back I think it’s a bit weird.
Emma Harrison’s company ‘A4E’ turns over in excess of £100 million. A4E delivers employment training to over 60,000 people across the world every year. In 2007 they helped 11,000 unemployed people get a new job. I ask the question, ‘ So why didn’t Emma do well at school?’
“I didn’t have any plan about anything that I wanted to do with my life. There wasn’t a reason for me to pass them. It was the wrong place at the wrong time. Socially I was having the time of my life, looking back I was learning how to be an entrepreneur - I was networking and being social. I ran the best parties in my dad’s cellar. I loved being a student and being in sixth form, it was the studying that got in the way.
“I was living my life and I still am. I didn’t realise I was being me and at the time it was all about friends, family, parties and fun, organising things.
“When I failed four A-Levels, (well I got D’s and E’s) my dad just smirked and was like, ‘Right, what are you going to do now?’ I decided that I was going to be an engineer which is what I always wanted to do. I remember telling my careers teacher what I wanted to do and she said, ‘My dear, nobody will marry you.’
“I got myself a job working for the Health and Safety Executive department off Broad Lane in Sheffield. I was doing basic engineering work and then I realised I needed to go to university because I thought I’d enjoy it and I knew I wasn’t stupid. I was just on the wrong path.
“I went to Granville College which is now Sheffield College and knocked on the door without an appointment and got myself on the OND course for Engineering. Eight months later, I passed with distinction. Doing that course was my only way into university.
“I borrowed a friend’s motorbike and put L-plates on it and drove on the back streets of Sheffield to Bradford University, once again without an appointment and asked for the professor of mechanical engineering and that very day I was offered a place at the University.
“I was told I needed a sponsor so I could afford to go to University and he explained that a company would pay for me to go and I thought he was joking. On the way I’d seen a company called ‘British Steel’ on Dead Man’s Hole and it said training centre. I went and found a guy from there called Roy Weston, I explained what I’d done and told him I needed a sponsor and that I wanted him to show me the furnaces!
The motorbike which took her to Bradford
“Roy said, ‘Yes’ and my four years at British Steel began. I never stopped working for those years, they were hard. I was either working in the steel industry, fixing furnaces or studying. They were incredible years. They certainly got their money’s worth out of me!”
Sometimes it’s hard being a woman…
“In the steel industry being a woman, I was unique and all sorts of things went – good and bad. I was just me and being me had to work. It had to be enough. When I was at the steelworks they had to build me a shower because there weren’t any showers for women. I was terrified that they were drilling holes to watch me and other things that used to happen…
“In a way, I didn’t have a problem with it, it was the bosses. They were worried that I might see some pornography on the back of a locker door, I was like, ‘get over it, seen it, not bothered.’ I enjoyed it, hopefully I fixed a few furnaces and make some rolling mills work a bit better. Just an amazing industry to work in and I miss it.”
Life for Emma has never followed ‘the trend’ She’s embraced the world of engineering as the only female. Where did life begin to change?
“My father started this small business called the ‘Industrial Training Agency’ on Bessemer Road and he wanted to remarry and move to Germany. At that point I was working at British Steel and about to graduate. He asked me if I would come and work for the company otherwise he would have to close it down. He promised me 18 months training and to turn me into a fine business woman and that he would pay me half of what I was then being paid. With the offer of the training, I said, ‘Yes.’
1980 saw the first national steel strike for more than fifty years over pay. British Steel reported half-yearly losses of £145.6m. The decline of Sheffield’s strongest industry began to fall as jobs were lost to create a revenue. Not only was the steel industry in decline but Thatchers Britain was in dismay with the coal miners strikes.
“I left university on the Friday and started work on Monday. I started with a serious intent of making a good job of this. My dad left after 18 days and said, ‘You’ve got the hang of it, right I’m off.’ I was left in charge of a small business turning around £100,000 a year, with a few members of staff and re-training unemployed steel workers.
“These were the people I’d worked with and I had to make a good job of this. Using my fun, humour and intent of doing a good job, that’s what I did; a bloody good job. Instinct kicked in and I knew the business had to grow to stay alive. I walked the streets and talked to anybody I could. Bit by bit; the government, people with money started to talk to me, those on the streets who were unemployed.
Picking up her degree from Bradford Uni
“Within one year the business had grown from £100,000 to £1million. The big question I used to ask people was, ‘What is it that worries you?’ The response would usually be youth unemployment, long term unemployment. I would go away and think of the answer and some ideas. I’d go back and see the companies/councils etc… I’d ask if they would give me the opportunity to do it. They began to trust me and they paid me to do it and it grew from there.
Made In Sheffield
Emma has worked within Sheffield’s strongest industry – steel. She’s worked against the grain and gained the qualifications to back up her vision. What is Emma’s vision for Sheffield?
“I always look forwards, it’s unrealistic to say I want heavy industry back – it’s not going to happen.
“The future lies in guessing what people want next. Making sure you are in the right position to help them with what they want next. If no one wants it, you can’t do it.
“For Sheffield, I want it to aspire higher and have a bigger ambition. I find it sad. My heart is in Sheffield and I meet a lot of people in high positions and I feel they haven’t got a forward looking vision for the city. I just think somebody could grab hold and be so ambitious so much so that people laugh at them. Education for example, we aspire for average. That won’t attract some of the finest head teachers in the world, will it.
“We should say ‘Made in Sheffield’ means it’s the people. If you are one of the people from the city you will be one of the finest, most highly skilled and highly educated, most able people in the world.’ That is something to aspire to.
A photo album, one of many is taken from the book case and my eyes helplessly fall on beautiful and decadent colours. It's Emma and Jims wedding photo album. They were travelling around the world in 1993 and whilst they were in Jaipur, India they decided to get married on 29th December, the next day - they were married for the cost of £75.
Who is Emma Harrison when she isn’t working? How did Emma have time to have a husband and kids?
“You only have one life to live. I never struggle with a work/home life balance. I think you’re reading the wrong book if that’s what you struggle with. I’ve got one life and living it the way I want to live it.
“I adore work, running this vast company that employs over 3,000 around the world. Every single day we improve people’s lives and that’s my vision.
Emma and Jim on their wedding day
“I don’t have a struggle because it’s all part of one life. In my personal life I have four kids, 15 years old through to eight, two boys and two girls. They are the best things in my life, they’re fantastic. I’m married to Jim and he’s cool. He runs his own businesses as well. He has a brewery and recently bought ‘Champs’ on Eccesall Road. He’s enjoying that.”
Nothing about Emma is predictable, as I walk in to some of the rooms of Thornbridge Hall even the décor is quirky and, modern yet suits this 12th century building.
Emma Harrison has lived in Thornbridge Hall for six years. Emma doesn’t have a traditional home but one with a fantastic twist…
“I live here with 20 of my friends and family, so it’s like a very big posh commune and we live this very strange life.
“I’ve always wanted to live with all of my friends and family. When I was 15 I visited Thornbridge Hall on a school trip. I thought, I wanted to live like this and I do. It’s a fairy tale. I pinch myself every morning when I look out of the window, I can’t believe I live here.
Money, money, money
“Money is an amazing thing. It gives you choices. That’s all it gives you. I can make good and bad choices. Every day I have to make sure I make good choices. There is no point in me having loads of money and none of my mates having any.
“Why on earth would I like to live like a princess in an ivory tower, it would just be ridiculous. I share my money. My friends have been with me since school. Me and my husband have managed to be successful financially and my friends have done other things. Between us it’s a team effort. They often call me the donkey, when I complain that I’m knackered they just say, ‘Go on donkey, go back to work.’ It’s the running joke between us all.
Emma with brothers Harry and Adam
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop working, I’m doing with it the things I want to do.
“As much as I’m proud of the job I do. I will continue with that.”
I have to tackle Emma on the one point that maybe everyone else is thinking like me… ‘You’ve got enough money, you don’t need to work?’
“Hearing my story, you’ll know I never went into business to make money. I went into business because I thought I could make a difference and the money followed. I never ever thought I was going to be wealthy, I never set out for that. I set out to survive and do the right thing.”
Will you ever be satisfied?
“I’m never satisfied, it’s part of my personality. I’m really scared of making mistakes and getting it wrong. I always want the next 5%, but not money, it’s 5% of what I should be doing. I’m always thinking, what bits have I missed?
“I love my job, it’s a real buzz. I’ve now spent 21 years in business. Mentors have helped me and given me a nudge throughout my years and I’m just passing that on, a legacy.”
The Secret Millionaire
Emma Harrison was filmed in 2006 for the Channel 4 programme ‘Secret Millionaire.’ Emma went to Dagenham, East London to scrub the floors of a working men’s club and be ‘under cover.’ From this programme an awakening happened…
“It was a life privilege. I was so chuffed to have done it. I was given a tiny budget to live on, minimum wage – that was easy. I had to live like that when I was a kid.
Sharing tips with Richard Branson?
“The bit that got me was working amongst those who had no future, were racist and blaming other people for all their problems, and drinking eight pints a day. I had no idea that that was still going on. It upset me, I wasn’t allowed to say anything because I was under cover. Normally I would have a go but I wasn’t allowed to.
“As part of that programme I gave money to charities and I realised all they were going to do was spend it. They had no ability to raise money or know how to spend it. I have now committed myself and my money with a non-profit organisation that I’ve set up ‘Foundation for Social Improvement’ (FSI). I’m now supporting and helping small charities who don’t know how to fundraise which the big charities are good at doing.
“The team who helped me raise money for NSPCC [which Emma is a patron of] are now working for me. The team run free workshops, get out there and support the groups that need help. It all came from that programme.”
“We can only do our little bit. Some people despite their problems still do things for other people and then there are those who don’t. You have a choice.
“I also supported many other charities which the programme didn’t show and they all made a choice to make a change and they did something.”
last updated: 03/10/2008 at 11:45