It’s the year 1995; Emma Lawrence is 22 years old and working for a publishing company based in Leamington-Spa. Her father – industry legend Dave Sargent, is frantically working all hours around the clock to establish his company, David Sargent Associates Ltd. Eager to lend a helping hand to the family business, she spends her evenings at the kitchen table handwriting carbon-copy invoices and faxing them to his clients (remember, it was the 90’s). Rapidly becoming clear that Dave needed an extra pair of hands it wasn’t long before Emma joined him full time, and she was soon standing in the queue at Staples for an industrial sized stationary order to kit out DSA’s first office in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
21 years on, we talk to Emma about where she started and how she has grown from a shy twenty-something to the Managing Director of DSA Ltd, a successful global company.
I remember my first day well, it was at the beginning of April 1995 and dad had rented a building in the centre of Stratford, it was a rabbit warren of rooms and I would sit at one end of the building and he at the other. He used to have to shout ‘Emma!’ through the walls to beckon me into his office – it was a bit rough around the edges but it was a space which we intended to fill. In the early days, it wasn’t that long until our twosome grew and as we succeeded in scoring a contract then a new desk would be shuffled in. I started my career supporting Dave with administration, compiling proposals, presentations and quotes. It was in the days before email where hard copy manuals, fax orders and five sets of drawings submitted by post were the norms.
In my twenties, there were a few occasions where I branched out to work for other companies to increase my experience. When I was 24, I worked in Marketing for a company who created mixing desks for recording studios. I remember my manager well, she was an amazing woman, incredibly unique and she wasn’t afraid to say what she thought about a situation. Notably, she walked into the office one day wearing a blue skirt which was covered in white fluffy cloud print, with a suit jacket to match. Why do I remember this? Well, I suppose it inspired me to be sure of myself, to voice an opinion and to make sure I exert the confidence to successfully lead a team.
I would probably be in some sort of creative, marketing or events field. For a short time, I worked at ‘The Partners’, an advertising agency in London. I loved that experience; it was great to be able to see how a different office environment functioned, I remember the walls used to be plastered with designs, which meant you were able to visualise the real thinking behind some of their concepts, taking you through that journey with them.
Well to start with I was a quiet 22 year old who, at the beginning was too scared to pick up the phone when it rang. I have picked up such a large proportion of what I know now through my experience along the way. Having a father/boss who was constantly travelling across the world forced me to learn quickly; from day one I undertook a large amount of responsibility to assist him with his hectic workload.
I am able to sleep at night in the knowledge that we have a fantastic business with endless opportunity to create exceptional concepts for our clients. If faced with adversity, I thrive on the challenge of finding the appropriate solution. Being a friendly bunch, DSA enjoys making our clients happy by doing a fantastic job and it is the great sense of achievement which comes with this which motivates us to keep putting a smile on people’s faces. What keeps me awake at night? I tend to worry about the team’s health and wellbeing; however, I’ve recently introduced a ‘Recovery Time’ policy for the Project Management team which makes sure they get the rest they need after long, stressful exhibition builds.
There’s always something to do – you can have a list as long as your arm only to be thrown a curveball when you arrive at the office and sent off on another tangent. You can keep working until 9/10 o’clock at night and the work will still keep piling – it’s easy to get overloaded in this sort of intense environment so I make sure to stay mindful and create my own cut off point.
It would be the emails which you receive asking if you’re ‘free for a phone call?’ I’m a big lover of the good old fashioned telephone so I always make sure to encourage partners, clients and staff to pick one up and give me a ring for a chat instead.
I would say our greatest achievement would be that we are still continuing to operate as a successful global business in 2016, 21 years from when we started. During the financial crisis of 2008, a large number of companies similar to DSA, unfortunately, folded for a variety of reasons – our clients had decreased financial budgets and we needed to make sure that we were flexible to this when providing them with solutions.
My ambition for DSA is to continue to develop our passion, knowledge and expertise in the live events arena, maintaining our position as an integral and influential supplier to the exhibition industry. As Managing Director, my ongoing aim for the company is for us to be recognised as an outstanding agency which strives to achieve the best return on investment for our dedicated clients.
Richard Branson famously said, ‘If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure how to do it, say yes and learn how to do it later’, my best advice would be to continue to challenge yourself to be real, be brave, and if you feel that something is worth doing then just do it.