Profile - Catherine Shuttleworth: Smart moves let Savvy operator build her business and a family

Catherine Shuttleworth
Catherine Shuttleworth
Have your say

Founder of award-winning marketing agency Savvy and mother Catherine Shuttleworth is proof that you can do it all. Suzan Uzel met her.

At the age of 18, Catherine Shuttleworth’s “back-up plan” was to be Prime Minister, she tells me.

As I get to know Ms Shuttleworth, who is founder, chief executive and owner of Savvy, I realise this statement is a perfect example of her ethos – that anything is possible.

“Never in my whole life have I thought I couldn’t do something,” she said.

From a three-man team with a laptop and a printer, to a business with a turnover of £6.5m, a 70-strong head count and a blue chip client base in five years, Savvy, which specialises in shopper marketing, has become one of Leeds’s biggest success stories.

Asda, Unilever, Adidas, Debenhams and Shell are among its clients, and the company, which now has offices in London and Leeds, has won a string of awards.

Ms Shuttleworth, now 45, got her first taste for business while at Notre Dame School in Sheffield.

As part of a young enterprise initiative, she was part of a team of students who made chopping boards out of wood from old desks that were being replaced with new ones.

By the age of 16, she was working in a chemist in Sheffield and drew inspiration from the owner of the business.

Ms Shuttleworth said: “He must have been in his early 30s and he was a really good businessman. He kind of inspired me about running a business.”

But it wasn’t until many years later that Ms Shuttleworth set up her own business.

She said: “People always said to me, why don’t you set up your own business? But I’d never felt the need to because I loved the businesses I worked for.”

After studying retail marketing at Manchester Polytechnic, Ms Shuttleworth went to work for Lowndes Queensway in Kent, which later spun out into Allied Carpets.

A stint as marketing manager at Legal & General in Leeds followed, where she was marketing manager for its Whitegates Estate Agency, and then Ms Shuttleworth returned to London where she worked for Dixons Stores Group as warranty marketing manager.

But when Ms Shuttleworth’s other half got a job at Asda the pair moved back to Yorkshire. Her next job introduced her to the woman who would later become accounts manager at Savvy.

Linda Skelton and Ms Shuttleworth met at Yorkshire Bank, where she was advertising and promotions manager.

While at the bank, Ms Shuttleworth bumped into a man from an agency. “He took me out for lunch and said have you ever thought about working for an agency and I said, absolutely not”, she said.

This was during the 1990s and the Leeds agency scene was “full of blokes who had set up agencies, made lots of money and were driving around in fancy cars”, said Ms Shuttleworth, adding: “It was long, long lunches and the girls were there as adornments. I couldn’t see any career path in it.”

The agency, called The Marketing Store, had just won the Asda account. Ms Shuttleworth ended up working at Asda on its loyalty project, before being asked to come into the agency itself. She stayed there for a decade, becoming managing director of the business.

“Luckily the guy who owned the agency let me get on and run it. I almost had a practice before I did it on my own”, she said.

After The Marketing Store was sold to an American business, and Ms Shuttleworth had had two children, Sam and Jessica, she felt ready for something new.

She said: “I now had two kids under the age of two. I think the business had changed and I’d changed. I felt it was time to go and do something new.”

After doing some consultancy, she had the opportunity to pitch for the Asda business. She won it and set up Savvy as a result.

Three people made up the business, including Ms Shuttleworth and Ms Skelton, plus company secretary Andrew Jones, who is now MP for Harrogate.

She said: “We had no office, so we set up in the attic in my house in Weetwood. A guy called Dirk Mischendahl had a business called Logistik. He had an office in Armley and gave me some office space.

“We had three people, a printer and a laptop. We stayed a year and by the time we left we had about 23 people.”

Savvy was set up in May 2006 – only three months after Ms Shuttleworth had given birth to her third child, Daisy.

“I didn’t sleep for two years. When I started Savvy I had three children under three. It was hard.

“It’s almost like that is my other job. Being a mum is the hardest”, she said.

Great support and good diary management are key, she tells me. “I think what’s difficult is having two careers in your house and three children. Both of you working and bringing up three kids is hard.

“But it’s possible through diary management and in a funny way it’s easier if you have your own business because you have flexibility.”

But she explained: “It’s those little things that kill you like remembering half-way through an important meeting that you’ve forgotten to put 50p in a purse for someone for Children in Need.”

However, she added: “I genuinely think I’m lucky because I’ve got choice. I’ve got a choice to work.”

Savvy started from small beginnings, but it has grown and grown and now works with some of the biggest brands in the world.

Ms Shuttleworth explained: “If you’ve got loads of ideas and people want to talk to you there’s no barrier to entry.

“That’s the Savvy way for thinking.

“Do it all a little bit at a time. You don’t need to have an office at the centre of London to start off with.”

She said “offering fabulous client service”, recruiting good people, running the business a “sensible, straightforward way”, and having great ideas are the recipe for the success.

“I also had the view that we would not grow at any price”, she said.

She added: “I didn’t pay myself very often in the first year. Cash flow was everything. We didn’t borrow any money.

“That’s been the critically important thing.

“I bought this building (located off The Calls in Leeds) but at a price that I could afford and at a rate I could pay the bank back.”

But what does the future hold for Savvy? “We’ve had enormous growth and now we are entering a phase after five years where we are no longer the new kid on the block.”

She said the company has to strive for more profitability, adding that acquisition is likely to be on the agenda. “Digital is a growing area for us”, said Ms Shuttleworth.

Next year is about consolidation, she said, and although the economic climate is tough it’s important to remain optimistic.

She added: “I’m really lucky. I’ve got three happy, healthy children, a husband and a business that has grown, what’s not to be happy about?”

Catherine Shuttleworth Factfile

Title: CEO and founder of Savvy

Date of birth: 21/11/66

Education: Notre Dame School, Sheffield; degree in retail marketing at Manchester Polytechnic.

First job: Worked in a chemist in Sheffield

Favourite song: The Look of Love by ABC

Car driven: Mini

Favourite film: Gregory’s Girl.

Favourite holiday destination: Suffolk and Majorca

Last book read: The Tiger who Came to Tea

What I’m most proud of: ‘My two families – my husband and children and my Savvy family.’