THRIVHER INTERVIEW: ROSIE PHELPS

Updated: May 21, 2018




Thrivher Achievements:

  • Was the first woman to work in her specific role in Intelligence for UK Joint Special Forces Aviation

  • Owned and sold her own successful Letting Agency business

  • Created and produced the innovative children’s cutlery brand Doddl with her sister



Thrivher Dive:

  • I can't start the day without: Breakfast, and then I'm set for the day.

  • Most effective productivity tool is: my fluorescent bright pink notebook.

  • Best read: The Five People You Meet in Heaven’ by Mitch Albom, it makes you think about the impact you have on other people.

  • Best book on business advice is: What Would Google Do?’ by Jeff Jarvis. Having come from military intelligence where you're really protective of information, to running a business, it was really helpful to apply the Google mindset of sharing intellectual property and being useful to people.

  • Non-negotiable: My mum-daughter time, and a little bit of me-time – be it a quick run or a soak in the bath.

  • Very first jobs: Working in a hairdressers (I was pretty good at sweeping up hair!) and being a lifeguard.

  • Top music track of all time: 'Don't You (Forget About Me)' by Simple Minds.

  • Mindfulness habit: Going out for a run in the fresh air.

  • Go-to for fun: Taking part in triathlons.



THRIVHER MOVES:


What first lead you to having a career in the military?

I studied politics, with economics and philosophy at university. I also joined the University Air Squadron (UAS) and learned to fly. I hadn't really thought much about joining the military before a friend of my Dad's suggested it to me. I get really seasick but I really fancied flying so wanted to give it a go. At the time the University of York had banned the UAS from attending Fresher’s Week, so luckily for me, I managed to get an interview through my connections and I was selected to join them.


I spent my weekends flying, which was pretty awesome. I really did want to be a pilot but I suffered terribly with air sickness and I didn’t pass RAF aircrew selection. This was a huge disappointment for me. However, I wasn’t ready to give up on a career in the military. At the time I was writing my dissertation on the Balkans conflict, and the RAF offered me a role in intelligence, which is what I ended up doing.



What were your biggest takeaways from your military experience?

I was really lucky in that I ended up being the first woman to do my job, which was working in intelligence for the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW). A lot of the special forces units we supported didn’t want a woman in that environment, so I had to really battle against that constantly. I had to prove myself over and above what a guy would have to do every time, and then the squadron would change over, and I'd have to start all over again. It took a long time, but eventually they got to know and trust me.


The great thing about the military is the amount of adventures you can have while at work, and I discovered it would challenge me mentally and physically. I really enjoyed that aspect.



I had to prove myself over and above what a guy would have to do every time, and then the squadron would change over, and I'd have to start all over again.


Did you have a significant turning point during this time to point you in the direction of your next career?

I did six overseas operations in total including Iraq, Afghanistan and other middle eastern countries. One of the biggest turning points was my last tour in Iraq. Previously, I had been on operations abroad where we had some major aircraft incidents, but no one until that point had been seriously hurt. I just had this feeling of dread that something awful was going to happen, then in my last tour in Iraq, it happened.


Our UK Special Forces unit were going to be doing a particularly dangerous operation that night. The guys had just launched on their operation and were flying into a highly dangerous area. I was based in the US Special Forces Command Center, and I just remember the American guy who sat in front of me turning round to me and saying “there's a Puma down”. Just as he said it, it flashed up on my screen. Even when I speak it now, I get goosebumps all over my body, just remembering. A second later he said, “there's another Puma down”, and then it flashed up on my screen. For some reason he was getting his data feed a split-second before me that both our UK helicopters had crashed. Not only that, it was in one of the most dangerous places in Iraq that they could have crashed.


Straight away I kicked into gear with complete calm, just knowing what I needed to do. The first thing I did was initiate the launch of the Combat Search and Rescue team. We ended up working for 36 hours solid, right through the whole night and through to the next day until the rescue operation had been completed. Eventually, in the early hours of the following morning, we all knew that two men had died. Because I had stepped up during that rescue operation, I proved that I could make quick and sound decisions under extreme pressure. It was the first time that I had certain elements of the SAS coming to liase with me directly about the rescue mission. They obviously saw my value in that I was able to operate effectively. I was helping them to assess and coordinate the rescue, and for me it was a real validation that I had been plugging away at and trying to get. It was a terribly sad incident, but one that tested my mettle and showed me a lot about myself.


Because I had stepped up during that rescue operation, I proved that I could make quick and sound decisions under extreme pressure.

From then, I felt ready to leave the military. It was also at that time where I was offered to extend my commission and stay or take the option to start my resettlement and I thought, "Yeah, I’ve done enough now" and felt ready for a complete change.



What were the steps to realising your next career?

A little bit was a coincidence in that when I had made the decision to leave the RAF, my parents, who had a property lettings company, indicated that they wanted to retire, and I thought, “I have a passion for property so I would like to join them and take it on”. I did my professional courses and qualifications during my resettlement period and then I relocated to Somerset (UK) and joined my parent’s business. Not long after I had started working with my parents, an opportunity came up for me to buy another property company. It was a larger company than my parent’s business, so I remortgaged my house to purchase it and merged the two companies together.



Did you enjoy working in the property industry after such a huge transition from working in the Military?

Yeah I mean, I really love working for myself. Having gone from being a little cog in a big wheel to being the big cog in a small wheel, I really did love that change. I brought a lot of my skill set from the military that enabled me to run an effective, efficient business. Also, I made a commitment to the standards and ethics of the company, and that's what I built the business around. We were going to do our job properly and do it well, and we earned an excellent reputation for working like that.



What was the biggest learning curves you had during that time?

Going from public service employment to self-employment is a huge jump and I had a lot to learn about running a business in terms of adapting my leadership style, profit and loss, management accounts, compliance and contracts etc. My husband Brad and I got married when he was still in the military, so he was away in London Monday to Friday. I used that time to work really hard, I'd often still be working until 9 or 10 o'clock at night in those early days. It's just putting in the hours and getting everything done, and keeping on top of it. I learned really quickly that attention to detail was crucial in running a successful business. The key thing for me is that I knew what I wanted my business to look like, and I just worked really hard to make sure that's what we delivered, and that is what paid dividends.



I knew what I wanted my business to look like, and I just worked really hard to make sure that's what we delivered, and that is what paid dividends.


Did you feel naturally driven to work those hours or was it ever a chore?

It wasn't a hardship at all, I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed working for myself. I think, if you enjoy it, it doesn't really feel like a hardship. I didn't feel like I was missing out or anything, and for me, it's really important to enjoy the work I do.



As a business owner, what were the main challenges you faced?

A lot of my role was as a business leader where you find you are constantly firefighting pretty much and coming up with solutions for problems. I'm not very good at taking no for an answer, I always try to work around things, and I think the military has always allowed me to think that way.


The other big thing is that having been in situations where you know people have lost their lives, nothing in business is ever going to be that bad.



having been in situations where you know people have lost their lives, nothing in business is ever going to be that bad.


How did your next Children’s Cutlery business Doddl come about?

My sister had the idea. She had three children all under fifteen months and mealtimes for her were horrific (the mess - she could hardly face it). So she came up with this unique idea of the children’s cutlery which allows children to successfully self-feed.


Why do we give children long cutlery when they can't cope with it? They make the food flip everywhere! One day, when they were on holiday, my sister’s daughter was struggling eating with a plastic fork. The fork handle snapped, and my sister was surprised how well her daughter carried on eating her pasta just using the end of the fork. This was my sister's “lightbulb moment" She thought, this is what we should be doing. Short handled cutlery for kids - give children the control.


From there my sister and I consulted with a child development specialist, and we researched over 18 months and produced all the prototyping. At that point, I had sold my company. I was working as a property consultant and then worked in a full time role, so I did have another job but was working alongside on the cutlery business with my sister. Once I fell pregnant with daughter and took maternity leave, I then committed that I would leave my current role and join my sister Catherine with this venture because I was really invested in it and I believed in it.



Did your sister always want her own business as well?

From her point of view, before she came up with the idea for Doddl she thought “I have three children, what am I going to do? I can either do a job a few mornings a week while the kids are at school, but nothing that would give me any satisfaction or do what I really want, which is to start my own business”. So she came up with a lot of brilliant ideas. Some of them she slightly missed the boat on in that it was either very similar to something that had just come out, or was coming out. Then she came up with the children’s cutlery idea and there was nothing else like it on the market, it was really innovative.



I can either do a job a few mornings a week while the kids are at school, but nothing that would give me any satisfaction or do what I really want, which is to start my own business


What were your biggest fears and hurdles you came up against with Doddl?

We both approached the business in different ways, in that I invested what I could afford to lose, where as my sister had to mortgage her house, take loans and use savings. It is a high risk - you have no idea whether it's going succeed and we really faced it with Doddl. Doddl cutlery is the most risky thing we've ever done. Starting it from nothing, and going in to the manufacturing industry with no experience. It was a huge cost to set up and it has taken us a long time to get to where we are in 4 years.


We've had a lot of mentoring from other people who have had successful businesses and that's really helped us because we put our hands up that neither of us had any experience in manufacturing, so we've had a lot to learn and it's not been without costly mistakes.




Thriving and Kicking


What skill would you still like to master, and why?

Time management. I'm poor at it. I think my parents still think it today, and maybe my husband; “how did I survive the military with time management as poor as mine?”. It's something in me - I have a really poor concept of time. I'm aware of it, but I have got worse since I had my daughter...



What three personality traits do you think have contributed to your achievements to date?

Tenacious - I don’t give up easily. Pragmatic – able to operate effectively in high-stress situations and I have an adventurous streak, which means I’m not adverse to taking risks, but calculated risks!



If there was one piece of advice you could have told yourself in your 20s, what would it be?

I think it would be “try not to ever say no, just say yes and do it”. I wish I was more confident as a youngster - but confident in the right way. I think I probably gave the impression I was bubbly and confident, but internally I wasn't as confident as I could have been.



Have you got a top “pinch me now” moment in your career so far?

One of my proudest moments, and it probably sums up the end of my military career was during the last few months of my resettlement phase (working to gain my qualification in the property business, but technically still in the military), I got a phone call out of the blue. They said, "Rosie, could you do us a really big favour?" And I said, "Yes, but it depends on what it is", "would you host Margaret Thatcher for us? We haven't got any female officers now that you've left, could you come back and host her for us?". So, my last ever time in uniform, was spent hosting Margaret Thatcher for 7 Squadron’s 25th Anniversary Dinner.


It was an amazing experience. For such a political heavyweight, I remember being surprised at how small she was! This was back in early 2008, after she’d had her stroke but she still held the room, and it was a huge celebration. I was just so privileged to be invited back and I had a lovely evening hosting her.


I guess the other one, from a business point of view, was getting some recognition and winning a national award for my Letting Agency. We just kept it simple and were focused on getting the core functions right, and to get recognition for that was a really proud moment.


"Would you host Margaret Thatcher for us? We haven't got any female officers now that you've left, could you come back and host her for us?"


Have you got any advice for women who are wanting to do more with their careers but haven’t made any kick-ass moves yet?

First I would say, look at what is stopping you. If you really break it down, and really look at the reasons that are stopping you from moving on, or getting where you need to go, most of the time it will be something that isn't actually there. Obviously, there will be some steps you need to take, but if you feel you're stuck or you're trapped or your current path is not getting where you need to go, try stripping it back and looking at why. If you listen to your heart and think “Do I really want to do this?“, usually there’s not a good reason why you can’t.


If you listen to your heart and think “Do I really want to do this?“, usually there’s not a good reason why you can’t.


SUBSCRIBE FOR UNMISSABLE INTERVIEW & ONLINE WORKSHOP DETAILS

  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black LinkedIn Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon