Understanding Female Entrepreneurs

Beryl Vertue


Interview with Beryl Vertue

Beryl Vertue set up Hartswood Films over 20 years ago and the company has been responsible for producing Sherlock, Men Behaving Badly and Coupling amongst many other TV hits.
From an extraordinary start to her career as secretary and then agent to ‘The Goons’, she moved on to working as a producer with Robert Stigwood before starting Hartswood Films. Beryl never made a plan for her career. She is an incredible business woman with an exceptional career. Beryl is an intelligent, prudent, creative, deeply caring family woman with a talent for spotting great opportunities turning them into television and films that people love. For Beryl her focus is all about finding the next idea and enjoying life working with her talented “family” team.

Aviatrix: What was the catalyst that led to you starting your own business?

Beryl:  I had been working with an amazing man called Robert Stigwood. We were a successful company – we produced Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar in the theatre, amongst other shows. I did the television side of the company, mostly in America because in those days you couldn’t be an independent producer here in the UK. Then one day Robert said, ‘My family has turned into an empire and I don’t want to do it anymore.’  He didn’t sell the business, he just stopped it.
Because he was such an extraordinary person to work for, I didn’t think I could work for anyone else, so I formed my own company. That was that.  It was quite sensible because they were just changing the rules for independent producers, so it meant we had opportunities.
I did find it hard in the beginning – I have always been an independent person but I’d also always had lots of people around me at Robert’s company. My husband left me at the same time, so suddenly all my best friends in the world weren’t there.

Aviatrix:  How did you come up with the name for Hartswood Films?

Beryl:  We had lived in a lovely house called Hartswood Manor. In the grounds was this rare tree that became the Hartswood tree and logo.
I then needed to decide where to sit and, of course, immediately you start worrying about money.  I worried about money in quite a silly way in those early days. If I was making a long distance call and they didn’t answer or they’d say hold, I would put the phone down to save the costs.
I thought about working at home but then that seems terribly lonely when you’ve been used to all these people.
Then I decided that I would rent an office at Shepperton Studios as it would look good on paper. Hartswood Films, Shepperton Studios.  It sounded like I was really doing things, plus there would be people around.

Aviatrix:  Did you have a big idea?

Beryl:  I was always involved in comedy so I thought about that, but nothing was working despite my efforts and the money I invested.
I began to lose confidence and to think that I didn’t know how to produce.  It takes so much energy to start a business and you get tired and then demoralised.
After five years of working on my own, I saw a little bit of paper on a desk, with all these different books, and it said ‘Men Behaving Badly’ and I thought that would be a great title for a film.  I sent off for the book and read it.  I liked the characters and the feel of it.  I asked to meet the writer and discovered he worked in a bank.  I took him to lunch and asked him if he would like to write a television series. He had never done that. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I know and then we’ll see how we go.’
Men Behaving Badly was not a big hit in the beginning. After two series, ITV decided they didn’t want it. I was so cross, as I believed the show had real potential. As a result of my anger, I decided to go to the BBC, which is where Men Behaving Badly became a whopping great hit. I discovered afterwards that nobody had ever moved a programme from one network to another like that before.
I often use that story to people who are starting out in business. Be clear what you are making and believe in your ‘thing’.
When I did Men Behaving Badly there was one person in the business. Now Hartswood is a successful company and we’re eight people. People are astounded when I say only eight people, but they’re the right people, they work.
When we are in production there are hundreds of people working for Hartswood, but they’re all freelancers and when the production ends they go away.  We come back to our core purpose which is, what is the idea, what are we making?  If we sell an idea, then in come the freelancers again.

Aviatrix: In those five years before Men Behaving Badly, when you were working hard to get Hartswood started, why didn’t you give up?

Beryl: I didn’t feel I could afford to give up and it was the job I had chosen to do. If I gave it up then what would I do?  I’ve always worked, my whole life since I was sixteen, I didn’t go to university so not working was not an option.

Aviatrix: Did your confidence return?

Beryl: I was off and running after Men Behaving Badly. I don’t know why I ever thought I wasn’t competent because I did know how to do it. If you’re going to have a business it must be something you really care about, that really interests you, otherwise it’s just a job and you might as well be an employee and not have all the worries of running a business.

Aviatrix: Earlier in your life, did you ever think, ‘I’m going to have my own business?’

Beryl: No. I hadn’t thought of it. My whole life I’ve not planned much. When I first started out I worked as a secretary for some writers, which I was really good at. I quickly became their agent, but it wasn’t until someone asked me ‘How long have been an agent?’ that I knew I was one.
As I get older, I don’t think I’ll ever direct anything, I don’t feel like giving that a try because I’ve seen what it involves and I’m not sure I’d be best at it. I’m better at being a producer and helping the director. You do learn about yourself as you go along.

Aviatrix: What’s the difference between producing and directing in terms of skills?

The producer is the team leader who chooses the team – hopefully wisely – including the director. You somehow run the family well and everybody knows what their job is. You’re ultimately a creative enabler.

Aviatrix:  How do you think being a woman affects the way you manage the business?

Beryl: We have a small office and we run it like a family, half of it is in fact my family and the others feel like my family. Everybody here cares about each other a lot, which is probably a female thing.
You know, ‘Oh you look tired, don’t do that,’ or ‘She’s a bit worried about this or that.’ I don’t think you can say men are thoughtless, it just isn’t part of their thought process.
I’m not a great feminist. Feminism annoys me to be honest. I think some women do have a tougher time but I personally have never been held back because I was a woman, because it never occurred to me that that was a problem.

Aviatrix: Can the obstacle of ‘being a woman’ sometimes only exist in your own mind?

Beryl: Yes, I think so.  But we also need to support each other. I’ve recently become a supporter of The Prince’s Trust. They realised they were helping lots of young boys and not so many young girls so they set up a committee – the Women’s Leadership Group.  There are some extraordinary, powerful women there – the founders of Molton Brown and The White Company.  I had a great conversation with Christine Rucker who described how she started The White Company because she loved white things herself.  Her online business is now bigger than John Lewis!

Aviatrix:  Women can suffer more from a lack of confidence than men, perhaps. How do you feel that they can be helped with this?

Beryl:  It’s silly when you think about lack of confidence but I did feel it, and when you see someone really good losing their job, I can’t wait to drop them a line.  Because you think, ‘Oh, they’ll be panicking.’

Aviatrix:  What do you think was the biggest help to you in those early days?

Beryl:  My family are always so supportive and we are a close family. Love is the biggest help, being with nice people.

Aviatrix:  Have you had a mentor?

Beryl:  Robert Stigwood was someone who did things very calmly which I liked and admired. I speak to him on the phone and we still send each other flowers on our birthdays and Christmas even after all these years.
Robert was very creative and the way he did business was clever, he always had a very good lawyer, a very good accountant, but he always had fun people. When we first set up the office there were always flowers and furniture, not desky furniture but homely furniture, artistic things, because he said, ‘Well, we spend so much time in the office it should be comfortable.’ I love our new Hartswood offices – we come in every day and feel so happy about it. We have been here just over a year and we bought the building so that’s an achievement.
Everyone works well and the office has a calming influence about it. People are very envious when they come.  In fact the MD of a company was here the other day and she said, ‘None of my staff must ever come here!’

Aviatrix:  At what point did you know your business was going to be a success? 

Beryl:  When Men Behaving Badly was a big hit. Then I began to do other things. I had always asked my daughter Debbie – who was working in films as an assistant director – if she would like to come and work for me. I knew her hours in films were ghastly. I said ‘Why don’t you come and work on this television film I am working on, and see if you like it?’ She did, and has been here ever since.
Then I said to my other daughter Sue, ‘If ever you feel you want to come and join, just say.’ She went somewhere else first and that was right for her, but then she did come. They are both very, very clever and they both do different things so they’re not competing with each other. I won’t have competition within our own office, or politics. If anybody was to ever show that behaviour I’d just get rid of them, I’m not having it. I think it’s not healthy to be competitive in the office, the competition is out there, not in here.
When people ask me if I ever think about retiring I say no, because every day I go and see my family.  What’s the point of being home all by myself?

Aviatrix:  What is the one thing that has made the business a success (apart from Men Behaving Badly)? 

Beryl: Ideas. It’s always – what is the next idea, be it drama or comedy? I did documentaries quite by accident.  I was on holiday with Sue in Majorca and across the pool she saw someone that she’d known at Oxford Poly with his friend Stephen Woodhams, who talked about flowers passionately. I said to Sue, ‘Do you know, he’s really interesting the way he talks about flowers, he’d be good, we could (thinking I was giving this young man his big chance) get him to do the flowers for Debbie’s wedding.’ So we kept in touch, arranged for him to do the flowers for Debbie’s wedding and then, of course, I get back to London and realise I’m talking to one of London’s leading floral designers. I only knew that when I happened to mention to the caterers I got a man call Stephen Woodhams to do the flowers, and they panicked about the lighting.
The more he talked about the way he did things, the more I thought it would make a good programme. So I went to see the head of documentaries at ITV who was intrigued that I wanted to talk to him because I did Men Behaving Badly. I was chattering on and he said ‘I’ll tell you what is a good idea – filming the making of a garden for the Chelsea Flower Show.’  He thought I should make it. He asked me who I thought the director would be, and I thought, ‘I don’t know any documentary directors.’ I came back to the office and said we needed to find a documentary director, and watched lots of other documentaries until I found one I thought would be right.
During filming, we were waiting for a magnolia tree to be delivered from Italy and this lorry arrived, and when they opened the door to bring the tree out, it had died. Stephen Woodhams went white, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘That’s good television.’
While we were at the Chelsea Flower Show at The Royal Hospital, there were these Chelsea Pensioners and Michael Davies, the director, became fascinated with them so we decided it would be great to do a documentary about the Chelsea Pensioners. While we were doing that, some of them talked about being prisoners of war and we thought that was a good idea.  So we did The Great Escape and we interviewed people who were there and dug the tunnel.
It just shows you that if you’ve got an enquiring mind, things bob up that you absolutely didn’t know were there and then it’s either seeing the opportunity or not.  Sometimes I’ve done things I’ve thought, ‘God, I could have done this years ago.’  But I couldn’t have, it had not occured to me until then.

Aviatrix:  You have to have an open mind and be reasonably attentive to what’s going on to be able to see those things don’t you?

Beryl:  Yes, and they have to interest you otherwise you can’t be bothered to find out. You also have to know your limitations, know when to say, ‘No don’t do that, other people can do that better.’
When you’re running a business you haven’t got to do everything, you can always go and hire someone who does things well.

Aviatrix:  What do you love about having your own business?

Beryl:  I like the freedom of it.  We have had offers to buy us and we nearly did it once. And then we all rushed in the next day and went ‘Oh no, don’t let’s do that.’  You’d get more money and a big house and a new car, but we all said ‘We’ve all got a house, we’ve got a car.’
It’s a pressured business anyway and if you’re working for someone else who gives you a lot of money, you’ve got to keep delivering to them, pressure, pressure, pressure and we suddenly thought ‘No I don’t really need all that.’
When you are stressed you cannot think freely.

Aviatrix: What don’t you like about having a business?

Beryl:  I suppose this technology encroaching on our lives.  I think everybody works hugely hard and you must, otherwise you can’t get on.  Also, I think everything takes a long time, if you thought how long anything was going to take you’d probably never start so we don’t think like that, we just kind of move with it.  Sometimes when you’ve actually got it all finished you think, ‘Gosh, do you remember when we first had that idea?’ and it could be five years ago. I think it’s just finding time for yourself and remembering to stop, take time out and that’s quite hard.  Even if we’re watching the television, we’re probably watching it for a reason.

Aviatrix:  If you could start again what would you change, if anything?

Beryl: I don’t know that I would change anything particularly. I would be sure that I’d find the right people to help with the business side, the money side.  You have to always be careful of the money.

Aviatrix:  There was a study where they looked at how much women pay themselves when they have their own businesses compared to their male equivalent.  They found women pay themselves less – why do you think that is?

Beryl: I don’t feel that women think they are worth less, I think I would take a salary according to the running of the company.  There’s no point taking something when you can’t afford it.

Aviatrix:  If there were one piece of advice you could pass on to a new female entrepreneur, what would it be?

Beryl:  Just be sure you really like what you’re doing, what you’re selling. Ask yourself, why have I formed the company? Also, always try, if you can, not to work with people that you really don’t like. Going into an office every day with your heart sinking is an awful way to live.

Aviatrix: If you had to identify any particular female traits or aptitudes that make you a great business owner what would they be?

Beryl:  I’m quite calm, I’m not a shouter – I can’t bear people who keep screaming. I think I’m quite caring about people and I’m loyal to people and all of that buys you back loyalty from them, caring back from them, kindness back from them.  It’s quite catching.

Aviatrix:  What do you feel female-owned businesses contribute to society?

Beryl: I don’t know the answer to that because I think it depends on what the business is. I don’t think we make a different contribution than a successful company run by a man.

Aviatrix:  What makes you feel successful?

Beryl: I’m proud of the company, especially when we get big successes like Men Behaving Badly and Sherlock, which is huge. You get a great sense of pride and I look around at eight of us and think, ‘That’s really good, all that.’

Aviatrix:  If there were one thing that could change to enable more women to have their own businesses what would that be?

Beryl:  Make sure you’re supported, that you’ve got the enthusiasm and support, if it’s your family for example, that they’re behind you. They haven’t got to keep helping but they mustn’t dismiss it as a silly idea.

Aviatrix:  How do you feel your approach, especially in your industry, is different from other production companies?

Beryl: Working with my family, to start with. And I haven’t done this deliberately, but we seem to be all women apart from Matt, though we’ve stopped talking about him being a token man and now he is one of us, one of the family.

Aviatrix:  What is the reason that more women don’t own more businesses?

Beryl:  It depends on their lives I think. If you’re busy with your family it’s probably a lack of time. Some people say, ‘Oh, I’d love to have my own business,’ but they haven’t quite thought of an idea yet. The idea comes first, and then being able to take that and go and work with someone else or do it on your own.

Aviatrix:  What do you do to keep yourself sane?

Beryl: I love going on holidays, having breaks. I like gardening. I like pottering about. I live in the country and I love planting little seeds and stuff. I’ve got a pottery at home because I was learning pottery but I haven’t been in it for so long I’ve really forgotten how to do it and I used to like doing that. I’m quite conscious lately that I’m a bit lacking in time for myself. I think that’s also because I live alone. If you live with other people, they say, ‘Oh you’re not going read that now are you?’ On your own, you have to be quite strict with yourself, I don’t think I’m being strict enough lately.

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