When Susan Moore turned from teaching to creating an educational recruitment agency, she never dreamed she’d become pals with a Malaysian prince after signing a five-year deal with his conglomerate to supply thousands of teachers to Asia. Coreena Ford talks to the STC Consortium chief executive about following the export dream.
Susan Moore and her colleague Pam Sutton rode in speechless silence back to their Kuala Lumpur hotel, barely daring to look at each other after signing a momentous, game-changer of a deal.
The chief executive of STC Consortium had just blown the ink dry on a landmark collaboration with a Malaysian conglomerate to supply thousands of teachers to Asia – an agreement she is certain will turn her firm from a ï¿½1.5m to a ï¿½10m turnover and ï¿½8m profit-making business in five years.
Impressed by Susan’s background, the Melewar Group’s chief executive Tunku Dato Seri Iskandar Tunku Abdullah – a member of the Malaysian royal family – is now relying upon the Gateshead-headquartered firm to source and supply teachers to hundreds of schools across 14 Asian countries as part of his mission to raise education standards.
The collaboration between the educational recruitment firm may have unfolded at breakneck speed – four months on from the initial trade visit, following months of preparation – but for this 58-year-old Newcastle-born businesswoman, it was a serendipitous, “all roads lead to here” moment.
“Everything I have done my whole life has led me to this point. Without my background I would never have got the business to this point,” she said.
The journey to that key deal-signing moment began soon after Susan was born in Newcastle, when she and her family moved abroad.
Susan spent most of her childhood living an idyllic, adventurous childhood in West Africa and Fiji, where her father Lawrence worked as a water supplies engineer and her mother Isobel was a correspondent school teacher, using a radio to reach children on the scattered islands.
Boarding school at Our Lady’s Convent High School in Alnwick, Northumberland, beckoned when she was 12, yet she always jetted back to see her parents twice a year – an epic 13,000-mile journey, often only completed after five flights.
She said: “It really was a fantastic childhood. Idyllic, very open and free. As a child I was encouraged to be very independent. Dad always used to say ‘God helps those who help themselves’.
“We lived in an ex-pat community and had no running water or electricity, it was all generated. It was an amazing experience that will stay with me forever.
“I suppose that made me the person I am now.”
As travelling, meeting and exploring new cultures was second nature for Susan it comes as no surprise to learn that she left the North East as soon as she’d passed her three-year teacher training Cert Ed qualification at St Hild’s College, Durham, in 1976, going to teach at the British International School in Oslo, Norway, for several years.
Susan then spent several years teaching in primary schools in Cambridge and for the Home Teaching Services in Birmingham, teaching in children’s homes, hospitals and children who had been excluded.
Drawn back to Northumberland to be closer to her family in 1995, Susan explored her creative side for several years by running a bridal dress firm with her former husband – a successful venture with a ï¿½400,000 turnover, employing several staff from its base in Blagdon until it was eventually sold, the lure of wanting to mould young minds enticing her back to supply teaching. Yet the agencies she worked for left her disillusioned.
“It was 2000 and at this time schools had been given control of their budgets and were able to go to agencies for supply teachers, so that opened up opportunities for recruitment agencies to move into the education sector,” she said.
“As in everything, there were good and bad agencies, and I felt at the time that they weren’t run by educationalists so had no experience and understanding of what it’s like to be a supply teacher. It would be like me setting up an agency to place doctors in a hospital.”
Using the knowledge she’d earned from running the bridal business – and with encouragement from her husband Peter Moore – she spent two years researching the idea of setting up her own educational recruitment firm, one that, with her “inside” knowledge, would have the edge over competitors.
After speaking to teachers, headteachers, and admin staff, STC Consortium was set up in 2002, with just two people on the payroll – herself included – and six supply teachers on the books.
A match-to-need model was created, in which the staff find out as much as they can about the teachers on their books, making sure they get the best match for their clients, rather than simply filling gaps in classrooms.
Within 14 months and through word-of-mouth referrals and client loyalty, STC had a turnover of ï¿½2.5m and more than 300 teachers on the books.
Now, there are nine staff, one in the freshly opened Kuala Lumpur office, and more than 2,500 teachers on the books – a figure which will grow exponentially through the Meymar deal.
After a brief move to Newcastle city centre, Susan – runner-up in the most innovative idea category in the 2002 North East Women Entrepreneur of the Year awards – expanded the business into its current base in Stonehills, Gateshead – and she is now eyeing up neighbouring office space which may be needed soon, thanks to the firm’s export success.
Exports, she believes, are the future of her industry.
“Budgets are being slashed in this country so you have to look abroad,” she said. “I’m very pleased to have this great little business in a great location, but this overseas expansion is huge. This is what’s really exciting me at the moment.
“I look on the last 11 years as being my period of learning all about the recruitment business and the pitfalls, and now we are going to take it to another level.
“We’ve done all the ground work and everything is in place in terms of ethics, necessary checks and the match-to-need model, so all we are going to do is replicate the model on a much larger scale to a much larger client base.”
A careful planner, Susan carried out a lot of research into new markets before settling on Asia, enlisting help from the UKTI to help to reach new clients before journeying out to Malaysia in March, with her colleague Pam Sutton.
“You’ve got to prepare, and don’t rush in. We spent a very long time preparing video presentations and also learned about the cultures and etiquettes – you have to.
“In Malaysia, for instance, it’s all about face-to-face networking. They can take two weeks to reply to an email but love to Skype and communicate in person.
“Etiquette and manners is also key – be careful with hand gestures, clothing, and always eat whatever is put in front of you, no matter what it is.”
Susan’s well-travelled background put her in good stead to broker the deal, and she took every Malaysian meeting in her stride.
“I think to me it was natural to go there. I felt very at home there – one day I’d love to retire there.
“They showed me such respect and I’m now friends with the prince of Malaysia on Facebook!
“It would be very difficult for anyone who hasn’t come from that background to be able to have the confidence to travel 10,000 miles and break new markets, particularly a woman.
“Some people may find it quite scary, but I just felt excitement . Working internationally is so exciting and rewarding.
“Most businesses can be exported, so long as you don’t rush in, prepare and don’t do it alone – use the UKTI who have been amazing with us.”
Taking a leap of faith in exports has sealed a potentially lucrative future for STC, and one that other firms can follow, says Susan, who is keen to explore other avenues.
As well as the Malaysia deal, further contracts have been won in Saudia Arabia and South East Asia.
Soon Susan will also be journeying on a trade mission to China where further deals could be struck.
Accordingly, the business will expand, possibly enlarging its Gateshead base, and by swelling staff numbers.
While Susan is happy to run a successful business, money has never been her key driver. Influenced by her parents’ inspirational careers, she simply wants to improve lives; those of her staff, her clients’ and the teachers who can travel abroad and widen their experiences as they earn.
“A business is a business is a business and the you have to provide a service that sells and make it profitable, but more importantly you have to look after your people,” she said. “I like to work in a cooperative environment where ideas are shared. I don’t like them to think they are working for me, but that we are working as a team.
“I’m not ruthless. Profits are important, but making sure people are enjoying what they are doing is important.
“If you involve people in a business and share ideas and value your staff, they want to drive the business forward with you. To them it’s a sense of achievement.
“Giving children the best education has always been the most important aspect. As for money, so long as I have enough to live comfortably and for people to have salaries and jobs, that’s my driver.
“That said, this will be a ï¿½10m turnover firm soon and the business will change. It will have to become more corporate, but I won’t change fundamentally the ethical background of the business.”
That theme continues away from work too. Flash materialistic living isn’t Susan’s bag. She would much rather be out on the beach with her husband Peter and their dogs Rocky and Seth, spending time with daughter Alison and six-year-old granddaughter Izzy, or tinkering in the garden of the family home, near Hexham.
She added: “I think I’m a nurturer at heart, whether it’s plants, animals, children or business.”