Leave the office for a labour of love

Fiona Kennedy pictured at her shop Red Ruby Rouge in Holywood, Co. Down.
Fiona Kennedy pictured at her shop Red Ruby Rouge in Holywood, Co. Down.

‘To be your own boss, you have to be self-motivated’

“I’m the kind of person who can’t sit down, literally. I’m the person who is hoovering round your feet when you’ve just sat down with a cup of tea. I just can’t switch off.”

It was Jordanstown woman Kate Speers’ determination and inability to be inactive which led her to realising a long held dream and opening her own business just a few weeks ago.

The business graduate, who studied at Belfast High School and the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, is the owner of Comber bridal boutique, Ivory and Peal - and she is just 25 years old.

Prior to that, she worked for Diamond Recruitment as a business support executive, and before that was marketing manager at Shredbank.

Her leap into self-employment, and a totally different kind of industry, followed a decision last August - and by September, the wheels were in motion, and Kate had started her planning in earnest.

“I’ve had 14 jobs in every industry you can possibly imagine,” says the pretty brunette, who is a member of Women in Business NI, and got married to husband Chris nearly two years ago.

After they tied the knot, she set up a Facebook page called Sprinkles of Love, through which she began to hire out all her table decorations, as well as making bespoke signs for brides and grooms.

This helped her make contacts in the wedding industry, something which proved invaluable when it came to setting up her bridal boutique.

“I love working with people, so it was a good combination of everything I wanted to do,” she adds.

“I suppose I love the fashion side of wedding planning, and to be honest it just sort of fell into place. We were very blessed in that Chris and I just went out one day to try and find premises and we came across The Georgian House in Comber (where Ivory and Peal is located).

“I’m a real researcher, so I found dresses that aren’t in Northern Ireland and went over to London to speak to the designers, and just got a really nice collection that I was very happy with.”

With only a few exceptions, all of the gowns in Ivory and Pearl are exclusive to Kate’s boutique.

Sourcing such beautiful gowns, and indeed all the work that went into getting the premises up and running, and the business branded and marketed, took up practically off of Kate’s free time.

But she says that when it comes to being busy, she is by nature a motivated person.

“My husband works in Cork during the week, so I think that was one of the reasons I became quite independent, in that he is away all week and I had to keep myself busy. Sprinkles of Love kept me really busy in the evenings.”

Now that Ivory and Pearl is up and running, Kate is enjoying meeting so many brides, and working her way through her never ending ‘to do’ list.

As for what it’s like being her own boss, Kate says it does take a lot of self-motivation.

“I work off a to-do list, that’s how I get everything done. My to-do list a few weeks ago was about three file pages, long now it’s been condensed to maybe 10 lines, so I just continue adding to it.”

‘It was a gamble, but I love what I do’

PRE-2007, 34-year-old Fiona Kennedy was committed to a high powered legal career, living in New York, and enjoying her spare time seeking out off-the-beaten-track clothes boutiques and indulging her passion for fashion.

Today, she has turned her hobby into a career, and runs Red Ruby Rouge, her own boutique which exclusively sells US lines and designers, and is based in Holywood.

It’s a long way from her previous life in the Big Apple, but it allows her to indulge her passion for American designers and clothing lines.

“It was definitely a gamble but I’m glad that I maybe foolishly didn’t think much about it - I just loved what I was doing and threw myself into it,” says Fiona in her soft Scottish accent - she was born in Edinburgh and studied law in Glasgow.

Red Ruby Rouge is home to a unique collection of otherwise unavailable lines, including names such as Tucker, Porter Grey and Hunter Dixon, as well as accessories from By Boe and Mia Lara.

Life is busy for the mum-of-two; she splits her time between Belfast, Scotland, and New York, and also enjoys spending family time with husband David, three-year-old son Sammy, and one-year-old daughter Edith.

After finishing college, Fiona moved to Brussels on placement “with a takeover and merger company and worked there for over a year.”

She had also applied for a Masters degree in International and European Law at the College of Europe in Bruges, and so commuted there from the house she now lived in in Brussels with David.

When that ended, her career took a lucky twist.

One of the professors she had studied with was now living in New York and was working at New York University - and he needed an assistant.

“He had mentioned that he was looking for somebody and I’m quite sure I was bottom of his list,” laughs Fiona.

“But I persisted and persisted and he offered me the position.

“At the start I was a legal researcher for the Institute the professor was working at, and then I kind of moved on to a much bigger position with him - I was kind of his chef de cabinet,” she says.

Fiona was in charge of overseeing “the various scholarships, masters degrees and PHDs”. and got “to work on a lot of different projects”.

She adds: “It was definitely inspiring and varied and the kind of people that we were working with and meeting, and the work I was doing was fairly different all the time, so it was really nice to stay interested and be challenged.

“It was a nice place to be young and not have children ! It was a lovely city to enjoy working in.”

However she denies any suggestion that she was a Sex And The City type, strutting around the city in Manola Blahniks, channelling her inner Carrie Bradshaw.

“I wasn’t super stylish,” she insists.

“I was always quite creative and enjoyed arts and music and those types of pastimes, but New York is such an inspirational place and people are much more liberated in what they wear and what they look like and how they talk.

“Because I was working hard I chose to spend my free time doing things I loved - strolling around the smaller areas of the city and going to the little boutiques or designers’ markets. There is just so much more in terms of access to arts and design and inspiration.”

Fiona and David knew they wanted to return to Northern Ireland at some point and in 2007, the move ‘across the pond’ was made.

However for Fiona, the idea of moving home and reconnecting with her legal career held little appeal: “I did spend a lot of time thinking about moving back and into law and trying to do something a bit more regionally based, like family law, but it just didn’t make me feel excited.”

She believes that the move home facilitated a natural career break and “forced me to think of something I would love to do.”

She says: “I did think there was a gap in the market for American designers for people who maybe didn’t have access to international retail. I also felt a bit bereft that I would move away and not be able to shop where I wanted to!

“So I put all things together and decided to take the leap.”

‘I’m happier in myself’

FOR 38-year-old Clare Young, a change in her career may have led to a decrease in salary and the loss of perks like company car, bonuses and a hefty pension, but by her own admission, it has completely changed her life.

Six years ago she was a sales manager for Auto Trader, selling advertising to major car dealers, managing a team of field sales staff, and implementing new business strategies.

But after five years in a such a busy and stressful role, she took redundancy, and decided to make a living out of caring for animals.

“I had always loved animals, but I sort of fell into a sales job and found that I did quite well at it, and I worked my way up,” says the east Belfast woman, who now runs her pet care business, The Pet Connection, at her home close to the Glenmachan Road in the city, and holds a certificate in Animal Care NVQ Level 2.

“This job is early mornings and late nights but nothing compared to (Auto Trader) - it was a stressful job because you were responsible for a lot of people. I was flying back and forward to England quite a lot as well.

“When I took the redundancy I thought, ‘I’m going to be a veterinary nurse,’ - that was all I wanted to do. I studied animal care at night class and worked at the vet’s during the day, but I couldn’t handle it from the point of view that emotionally, you either had a good day or a bad day at the vet’s. I also struggled coming from a very blue chip management background to a small management structure.”

Clare decided to start walking her friends’ dogs for them while they were at work, and quickly realised that she “could make a business out of this”.

She also started cleaning - “to make ends meet” - and slowly, her business started to develop; the owners who left their dogs with her during the day started asking if they could board them at her home when they went away.

A dog lover herself - Clare admits she used to spend her lunch hours dashing home to walk her now deceased dalmation Ellie - she could understand why it was so important for pet owners to feel they could leave their beloved furry friends somewhere they would be safe and well looked after.

And her pet care service provides one similar to childcare facilities - except for animals.

Most of her house has been converted for this influx of canine creatures, and they have their own large living room with sofas, an open fire and a big outdoor play area.

“All the dogs get dropped off in the morning and collected in the evening,” says Clare, who recently had to make her only assistant, Victoria, full time, such is the demand for their services.

“The dogs keep themselves entertained because they play with each other, there are endless toys, games, and activities and I have a huge garden with long training leads for the ones that can’t be let off the leads.

“I guess this service allows people to have a full time job but have the love of a dog as well, because their dog can be well cared for and they can come home to it at night.”

Talking about the huge shift in her own working life that running The Pet Connection has meant, Clare adds: “Financially the first couple of years were a struggle for me. Emotionally, from the point of view of my wellbeing, it’s changed my life completely - I’m happier in myself because I’m doing something that I enjoy and love.

“It’s taken me some time to give myself a salary from the business, and I don’t have the salary I would have had as a sales manager, but I run my own business and it’s rewarding in that sense. It’s tiring, physical and hard work. But it’s enjoyable. I’m not having to sit behind a desk, or go to a disciplinary meeting, or worry about targets and budgets.”