A rising star of Yorkshire’s business community, Clare Riches tells Lizzie Murphy how she has helped transform a small division into a fast-growing defence company.
She has negotiated with huge defence organisations and led operations in hostile, austere and restrictive locations across the world but Clare Riches’ most terrifying moment was setting up a bank account in Germany when she was a 21-year-old student.
“It was awful. I just sat there and thought ‘I don’t know how to do this,” she says. “You know when you just feel really on your own?’”
It was all fine in the end and Riches says the confidence she learned as a languages student at university has contributed to her success.
“When you’re a languages student, you have to just stand up in class and talk about a topic, like the weather, for two minutes. It’s a really scary thing to do.”
Even now, Riches admits she’s ‘not massively confident’, although ‘confident enough’.
However, the 33-year-old director of defence services at TBW Global, part of thebigword, was given a huge boost last month after she was named Rising Star at the Barclays Yorkshire Women in Business Awards 2018.
“When I first started at thebigword I never knew what I’d end up doing or how far I’d go but certainly Larry (Gould - chairman) and Josh (Gould - chief executive) have championed me for years now and it’s paid off. The award is the icing on the cake.”
Her 10-year career at the Leeds-based language services provider has been a meteoric rise to director-level.
After working as an administrator and then in the sales team, Riches identified a gap in the market for defence-related sales.
She played a central role in winning a UK Ministry of Defence contract in Afghanistan in 2012, the group’s first major work in the defence sector.
“It was a real turning point for me,” she says. “I was just a sales person working in the public sector sales team. I decided to go for this contract but breaking into defence is a really hard thing to do. We were a team of three and had to work like mad to get this contract up and running within about two months.”
On the back of the success, the team bid for more work and, according to Riches, the work just ‘snowballed’.
TBW Global provides language and culture services, role-play and scenario training, staff augmentation, security and human intelligence (HUMINT).
Customers include the UK MoD, the US Department of Defense, FEMA, the Canadian Armed Forces and a number of global defence and aerospace prime contractors.
New wins, including NATO at its Brussels headquarters and the US Navy across Europe, are driving growth at the division.
It has deployments in countries such as Ukraine, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, northern Africa and Jordan. The team has grown to 17 plus hundreds of linguists employed all over the world.
Riches manages all aspects of the division and reports directly to the shareholders. “It’s a massive job compared to where we were in 2012, that’s for sure,” she says.
Turnover for the division last year was £8m. “It’s been year-on-year exceptional growth and massive expectations that that growth continues,” she adds.
The company is constantly investing and expanding. Moving into the US about two-and-a-half years ago to work in both the public and private sector, was a significant step forward.
Most of the work defence division carries out is training between two armed forces. Although Riches doesn’t have any military training, her father was in the army and she grew up in a military family.
“It’s always been in the background,” she says. “Our division is made up of ex-military team members as well. Nobody treads carefully. Everyone says ‘this is what we’re doing and this is how we’re doing it’. It’s a great way to work.”
She adds: “Working in the defence environment, you have to be really flexible, really efficient. You have to make decisions quickly, stand by your decision and move with it.”
Fortunately, Riches says she’s always been a good decision-maker. “My mum and dad were really resourceful and they taught me and my brother to be like that too so it’s an environment I feel I can fit into quite well, even though I don’t have a military background. Nobody has ever made me feel like I shouldn’t be there.”
Travelling is an exciting part of her role. Germany, Luxembourg and the US are regular destinations for Riches. She has also been on two trips to Afghanistan in the last two years to see training work between the UK Army and Afghan national army.
“We’ve got a massive team of people out there. It’s amazing to see the commitment and the determination people have,” she says.
She adds: “It’s a war zone, it’s a very hostile place to be. Being there and seeing things in action really puts things into perspective for us.
Working in a male-dominated environment like defence could feel intimidating to some but Riches says it’s never been an issue.
“I’ve never felt like my gender’s held me back in any way. I’ve been very aware of the fact that in some meetings there are 20 men in the room and me but I’ve always been really well accepted.”
Born and brought up in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, Riches moved to Yorkshire to study German and English at Leeds University.
She applied for a job at thebigword in 2008 after graduating just as the company was embarking on a huge period of growth. She caught the eye of Larry Gould after a stint in the firm’s London office. “He could see I’d changed and started to really champion me. When I went into the board’s office one day and said ‘there’s a contract in Afghanistan and I think we should go for it’, he really believed in me.”
When it comes to the future, Riches’ dream is to move to France and own a vineyard. “That’s probably way in future,” she adds: “In terms of ambition now, I want to keep the morale that we have in the team. There’s loads of opportunity within our division. We’re only six years in the making. Come back and see us in another six years and we’ll need another office to house everybody.”
Title: Director of defence services at TBW Global
Date of birth: November 3, 1984
Education: Ellesmere Port Catholic High School; German and English degree at Leeds University
First job: Shop assistant at Cotton Traders
Favourite holiday destination: France
Favourite film: The Burbs
Favourite song: Something, by The Beatles
Last book read: Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden
Car driven: Audi A3
Most proud of: Buying my first house