Founder of Aesthetics Event Staff and runner up in the Business Woman of the Year 2014/15 awards, Lee Thomas has carved a successful career in a competitive but highly lucrative market. George R Vaughan caught up with the woman who adopted a new approach to a familiar industry model.
Aesthetics Event Staff was established by female entrepreneur Lee Thomas in 1996 and has gone on to win contracts with some of the world’s biggest names in sport and business. From Wembley Stadium to Silverstone, Ferrari and Bentley, premium brands have turned to her company for a variety of tasks.
“We offer a variety of staff to events, companies and venues around the globe to include services such as promotions, data capture, brand awareness, conference and exhibitions staff right through to hospitality and catering. We want to be the one stop, high end shop that companies can turn to for a polished, start to finish solution.”
It’s a competitive market space and the experience of live events is often a difficult one to get right. You have the responsibility of a brand’s association with its fan base in your hands at that moment. What sets you apart from your competitors?
“Aesthetics has developed a reputation for providing high-quality staff, who deliver outstanding customer service and is working on behalf of some of the biggest names in sport and industry.
“The company, while active in marketing, continues to win the vast majority of new business via word of mouth and also has a strong record in keeping clients due to its attention to detail. This remains a big focus for me. Staff are carefully selected for each contract and trained to exacting standards to ensure they offer the level of customer service expected by both Aesthetics and their client as they are usually customer-facing roles and must represent world-renowned brands in the correct way.
“As well as continuing to win new business and also retain clients, Aesthetics receives extremely positive feedback from companies regarding its staff’s commitment to ‘going the extra mile’ something I embed into the team from day one. The company has an outstanding record of providing more than 20,000 event ‘staff days’ each year and has a no-show ratio from staff of 0.00001 per cent – almost unprecedented for the industry.
“Achieving these standards is a team effort and a philosophy of never settling for anything but the best. It’s what my clients expect from us and something I expect from those working with me.”
Clearly part of your successes are in no small part down to the selection processes you use to recruit staff. What do you specifically look for from your employees?
As a business we look for staff with previous event experience or experience such as hospitality, retail or catering. The ability to communicate and absorb information is paramount as is honesty, punctuality, enthusiasm and being able to think on their own initiative. Staff need to be self-motivated but also integrate with the team. Unless everyone can work together, the system cannot operate efficiently.
“If staff do not have previous event experience but possess most of the above qualities then we introduce them by “buddying” them up with a member of our existing team.”
Having built up such a strong and successful brand I guess the one thing I’m keen to understand is what drove you to first start this business?
“It was more of a natural progression. I had been organising events for a large motor brand and had employed a number of agencies to supply staff. It quickly became apparent to me that there was a lack of understanding from the agencies employed as to what types of staff were needed for each individual role and brand. Having worked in promotions myself and then moving client side I had a unique inside into both sides of the spectrum. I saw a gap in the market and decided to set up the agency."
Was it challenging as a woman when you first started?
“I have had to overcome personal and professional challenges in order to make Aesthetics the success it is today. Having left school with just one O-Level and after a short stint as a lifeguard and later working in the events sector, I launched Aesthetics at the age of 27 in 1996 with no formal business qualifications but understanding how the industry worked.
“The company operates, largely, in a man’s world of sport, finance and automotive but I have worked hard to ensure that the company is seen as a professional, high class organisation whose staff are more than just a ‘pretty face’. There is no doubt that Aesthetics has developed and maintained that reputation thanks to hard work and attention to detail over nearly two decades.”
So has that often mentioned “glass ceiling” really been removed in terms of gender or are there still hurdles for women?
"I wouldn’t say it has been removed but that’s it has become more like a retracting roof on a stadium that can be opened and closed when circumstances present themselves, unfortunately more to the benefit of men. We only have to look at the gender pay gap to highlight the inequality between the sexes.”
Was being an entrepreneur and businesswoman always an ambition?
“Not really. I was always unsure of exactly what I wanted to do in my life but have been comfortable taking responsibility and adopting a leadership role in everything that I pursued. Opening the agency was a natural progression of events that happened in my life, which I embraced. Being an entrepreneur means that I am risk taker and that I embrace challenging situations. Some I will win and some I lose but I take each and every experience as a positive rather than a negative and learn from it.
“That’s a more difficult approach to take when you are working for someone else.”
Who has most inspired you in your life?
“My mother. There are a million reasons I could give you but anyone who has a supportive mum will know exactly why."
What advice would you give to other women looking to start their own business?
“I left school with one O-Level and coming from quite an underprivileged background there were very few role models for me. Women don’t need somebody else to provide it on a plate for them; they can achieve what they want if they put in the time and effort.
“One of the main keys for me was personal determination. Maintaining this self-belief and drive can make your ambitions so much more achievable. When the buck stops with you - especially in the early days when you are doing most things on your own – you have to possess a strong, inner belief in what you are doing. This is the main reason why my business has grown, with a turnover in the millions and an enviable and prestigious client list.”
Are you a 24-hour businesswoman or can you separate yourself from your work?
“I used to be – you have to give up everything at the start if you’re really going to make it work - but now I have am very close to that perfect work/life balance."
Do you have a family? If so is it difficult being a working mum?
“I am a mother to two teenage daughters and therefore have had to face up to challenges in my home-life that have, rather than impacting on the business’s success, driven me to grow the company and make it a thriving agency. Because of personal reasons I – at times – was running the business and also bringing up my two daughters single-handedly but I was determined to make the business successful for their benefit as well as my own.
“I have always been a thoughtful and caring person but being a mum has helped me to empathise with staff. That comes from two perspectives. Putting both myself and my daughters in the shoes of the employee when an issue arises. If something goes wrong or a member of staff makes a mistake, I can look upon the issue with a sense of ‘how would I want my daughter to be treated?’ Equally, if it is a member of staff with children and an issue arises, I understand that there are times when family has to come first.”
What do you do to relax?
“My number one way to relax is just to spend time with my children, friends and family. We can sometimes take the closest people in our lives for granted and perhaps forget just how quickly our children in particular grow up.”
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of work?
“Bikram yoga, golf, historical fiction and travelling. A fairly even spread of interests but they certainly help keep my mind off the business when I am not working.” If you would like more information on Aesthetics Event Staff and Lee Thomas then visit her website here.
George R Vaughan