The founder of the North East’s best known events company has built the business from the bottom up, clambering over hurdles whenever they have blocked her path – and even cancer has not been enough to bring her down. Graeme King talked to Nickie Gott.
YOU do not have to speak to Nickie Gott for long to realise how she has achieved all she has. It is not so much that she talks at quite a pace, but she doesn’t waste words and makes a point of explaining all the support she has had along the way.
Hardly ever is the telling of an anecdote complete without reference to her parents, her husband, her children, her team – all the many people who make up her life and business.
Last year Nickie won the Susan Dobson Award for Entrepreneurship, the top award at the North East Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.
Standing on the stage of Hall One in the Sage Gateshead, she was clearly ecstatic and, unusually for her, almost lost for words. It was vindication for her career after many years of ups and downs, and within days her company’s biggest ever contract for the Winter Festival in Edinburgh was in full swing.
The 42-year-old’s route to the stage that night was a long one. She left education without any qualifications having never ‘got’ school.
She could never understand why she had to learn all the subjects thrown at her and still remembers being chastised for querying what she was going to do with Pythagoras’ Theorem, when she had no intention of being a maths teacher.
Born and bred in Durham, Nickie and her family moved to Malta for her teenage years where she attended a convent school, but she was back in the North East by the age of 17.
She got some qualifications on day-release at college while working for her father, but then wanted to make her own way.
She says: “I just wanted money and a car and I decided being a sales rep would give me that. In my first job I was the only female sales rep in a team of 40 so I was spoilt rotten.
“Then I got a job as an advertising rep in newspapers, for a paper called The Trader, and I worked on a patch covering Houghton, Hetton and Seaham. That was the best training I could have possibly had in standing up for myself.”
The young Nickie was already with her husband Ian by this point, and moved on to work for a greetings card company, then she became pregnant with her daughter Francesca. She says: “When I was three months’ pregnant, I was made redundant on New Year’s Day.
“Financially it was really hard, but being forced not to go to work was one of the nicest things which could happen when you have a new baby. My son Harrison was born two years later and it was my intention to get the kids into school, and then start my career.”
Harrison was very ill when he was little, with what turned out to be chronic asthma, but which doctors had initially thought could be meningitis or cystic fibrosis.
Nickie remembers how she and the family struggled through but even when Harrison’s health was better, she still felt flat.
“I did not feel proud of myself. I did not feel I had any worth. I was heavily overweight too – seven stone more than I am now.
“I was 30 and I sat on my bottom step at home, tearful, thinking ‘Is this it? Is this life? Is it going to get any worse? I just thought I had to give myself a huge shaking.
“I got myself on a distance learning course from Newcastle College on life coaching, to coach myself, and I set goals – wrote them down as a 10-year plan of what I would achieve.
“The goals were to have enough money to have two holidays abroad per year, lose seven stone, own a convertible car, run my own business and feel proud of myself. I gave myself 10 years, but I did it in five.”
Nickie got into the events business almost by accident after helping out with a project at her children’s toddlers’ group to turn a patch of wasteland into a play area, which eventually won Millennium Green status. That led to work with local councils and eventually to the launch of She’s Gott It, in the less than glamorous surroundings of the family garage.
Her mother and sister soon came on board and eventually the firm found proper offices.
The business developed rapidly with high profile clients such as One North East and the Culture10 Programme.
Then a four-year contract for the Winter Festival in Edinburgh was secured, one of the crown jewels in the UK event industry. Nickie won her award and everything was going fantastically well.
She explains the next part of the story in the most touching, matter of fact manner, but the emotion is still strong.
“I was given the Woman Entrepreneur award on November 19 last year and I can honestly say – because I had many years of self-doubt – that award was the icing on the cake. It was a real ‘I’ve done it’ moment. It was just fantastic.
“Then on December 18 I went to see a specialist as my doctor had a concern about me, but he was 99% sure it was nothing.
“I was sent for a mammogram and diagnosed (with breast cancer) that day. I had tests to confirm the extent of it and they said I would have to have a lumpectomy on Christmas Eve.
“I had three of my lymph glands removed. They said they would keep me in over night on Christmas Eve, but I don’t accept what’s told to me, ever. I walked out of the hospital in my dressing gown, with my husband and the children. On Christmas Day the in-laws brought Christmas to me.
“Then the hospital found the cancer was in my lymphatic system so I had to go in on New Year’s Eve to have the rest of my lymph glands taken out. I had to be in hospital for four days. Fortunately we had found it early so it actually was only in the one lymph gland.”
Next was the challenge of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and Nickie was in her usual questioning mood.
She says: “The type of treatment they recommended, I decided I was not happy with as I knew it could cause long-term heart problems. I asked why I couldn’t have a different kind, which took longer, six months, but it did not make your hair fall out.
“I had chemo and radiotherapy at the same time. I asked to combine them and they agreed as I was doing so well.
“I used to come into work through the week, and time my chemo sessions for late afternoon Thursday, then take Friday off and have Saturday and Sunday, and be back in on Monday – My way of dealing with it. The last thing I wanted was for people to think I could not do something.”
Nickie does not try to hide how tough the treatment was, but it is in her nature to recall the funny incidents along the way.
“One day, I was lying on the radiotherapy bed and the nurse came rushing through, concerned about me. She said she could see my lips moving so she thought I was trying to say something to her. I was singing.
“They play music and project things on the ceiling of the room for you to look at, so I was singing along. It was a Disney song – One Day My Prince Will Come!
“The nurse said ‘We don’t get many people singing on the radiotherapy table’.
“There were certainly some comedy moments. They have to put tattoos on your body to mark you for the radiotherapy. I asked if they could do an anchor on my arm and put ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on my knuckles while they were there. We have cried together a lot, and laughed a lot too.”
Now Nickie has had the all clear to say her body is clear of cancer and is going for regular monitoring. She says the experience has taught her a lot about herself, her business, and her approach to life.
She says: “I always tried to be all things to all people, nebbing in where I was not needed. This experience taught me that people cope quite well without you sometimes. My team did a bloody good job last year and it’s taught me not to worry too much. I approach things with a very different attitude now – I’m not a stress junkie like I was.
“When I was going through it (the cancer treatment), I did not talk about it. I did not want lots of sympathy. It was my way of dealing with it.
“I wanted people to see me for who I was, not think of the breast cancer. But now I’m ready and comfortable talking about it.
“Things I used to think were important don’t matter – it’s changed my whole perception. I love what I do and want to carry on doing it. Long may it continue.”
However, some things still don’t make sense to her.
She says: “I try to look at things logically – I do that whole ‘why?’ thing. But this is the first time ever I’ve not been able to get an answer. The hardest thing is not having the answers.”
At the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Awards this year, Nickie spoke as the holder of the Susan Dobson Award, telling of her horribly tough year dealing with cancer – as well as her success.
Her award was inaugurated to remember a great champion of entrepreneurship who died from breast cancer. Everyone in the room understood exactly the significance of Nickie’s words and there was a huge ovation as she finished speaking. Susan Dobson’s family were on their feet.
She knows exactly how fortunate she is to be where she is now.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas this year. I’m so proud of the family and the way the children have coped with things.
“I was very frightened, never felt fear like that though I would never allow myself to believe it would kill me. I’ve got so much left to do and a new list.
“I have two kids I want to see do well in life. Grandchildren maybe. I want to go white water rafting on the Colorado River, and scuba-diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I have a lot to live for, a fantastic family, a great business. I’m a lucky person.”
Page 2: CV and questionnaire >>
Nickie Gott: CV
1979-1982 Convent of The Scared Heart School, Malta
1983-85 Worked for family business and part time at college
1986-1988 Area sales merchandiser for Cuprinol
1988-1990 Area sales rep for Trader Newspaper series
1990-1991 Area sales and marketing rep for Carlton Cards
1991-1994 ‘Stay at home mum’ and did various part time jobs including working in a café, running party plan business (dried flowers), and telesales
1994-1996 Undertook volunteer fundraising in local village for a Millennium Green project
1996-1999 Various freelance contracts working on project delivery of events for local authorities and regional organisations
1999-2002 Sedgefield Borough Council working on delivery of arts projects and marketing. (part-time role and part-time developing the business idea)
2002-present Founder and managing director, She’s Gott It!
What car do you drive?
It’s a Renault Megane cabriolet with a hard retractable roof. I hate it. I used to have a soft top, then replaced it. I want to get an Audi convertible next year.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Kamper Park in Prague. I love the city and this restaurant overlooks the river.
Who or what makes you laugh?
I love comedy generally, but my favourite comedian is Lee Evans – I saw him at the MetroRadio Arena recently. I love Norman Wisdom too – it’s the school yard behaviour, the slapstick, the stupid comedy.
What’s your favourite book?
Anything by Jodi Picoult. I also love Enid Blyton books for the storytelling. In the Winter Festival we run in Edinburgh, we had Santa arrive with 10 reindeer, and then he was telling stories to the children.
What was the last album you bought?
The Script by The Script.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
I have two ideal jobs – a TV presenter and an archaeologist. I love talking, so I think TV would suit me, and I love the history behind things, so being an archaeologist would be great.
If you had a talking parrot, what would you teach it to say?
”Ask your Dad.” I have two teenage children and as soon as I get in the door every day, it’s “Mum, can we do this, Mum, can we do that,” when I just want 10 minutes to sit down, so I would teach the parrot to say what I say.
What’s your greatest fear?
Bats. I have a real fear of them. I once got one stuck in my hair, and we get a lot around our house on summer nights. I don’t like vermin generally – mice, rats, hamsters.
What’s the best business advice you have received?
Never hire anybody after the first interview. I used to do that, and I made some big mistakes. Now I sleep on it, bring them back, and then you always learn something new about them.
What’s the worst business advice you have received?
A lot of people say “Before you go to bed, write a list of all the things you need to do tomorrow”. I disagree, as those things can just prey on your mind more.
What’s your poison?
Chocolate and champagne.
What newspaper do you buy, other than The Journal?
I get the Mail on Sunday, and I read a lot of trade magazines.
How much was your first pay packet, and what was it for?
I worked in a clothes shop in Durham as a Saturday girl when I was 17. It was a pittance, maybe £8 per day? Then I went to a shoe shop which was even worse.
How do you keep fit?
I’ve just started going back to the gym. I used to go quite regularly before this last year. I also have a dog called Snitch, so I walk him.
What’s your most irritating habit?
I talk too much, and I’m a bit of a control freak.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I have a massive shoe fetish. I’m told Pisceans tend to have a shoe fetish, so that’s my excuse. I have about 120 pairs of shoes and 30 pairs of boots. The higher and shinier, the better.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
This will sound strange, but when I was little, I always wanted to be Wendy in Peter Pan because she could fly and she did something new and exciting every day.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
I have a crush on Robbie Williams, so definitely him. Richard Branson, because I admire his guts and his ethos. And the other two would be Ant & Dec. I really admire how successful they have been at being themselves. I would like to cook for them all as well.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who liked to do things well – and who had a lot of passion and enthusiasm for lots of things.