#50over50: Clare Parsons
About the author
Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
A conversation about community, charity and consultancy
Clare Parsons has run a business with Tony Langham for over thirty years and I was keen to talk to her about relationships – with the colleagues who are co-owners in Lansons; with long-term clients; with the startup businesses that share the building they now own in Smithfield; and with the life partner who is also her business partner.
Clare was keen to emphasise community. I can now see that we were talking about the same thing.
But first, the backstory. It’s a reminder of the energy that existed in the 1980s: the time of Britain’s first female prime minister and of a confident, entrepreneurial business culture.
‘I had worked at Dewe Rogerson as had Tony and two of our colleagues. They were doing proper integrated communications around privatisations. It was an exciting place to be.
‘I’d been in this environment, had been doing well. But was that because of the business environment, the agency, the clients – or was it because I was talented? At that time, as a woman you were often just ‘one of the girls’, so it’s difficult to recognise where your attributes are. I was always a feminist; the whole of the board at Dewe Rogerson were men. As a woman in that environment, you were getting the drinks sorted – even if you were offering quality advice.
If you went to El Vino’s in Fleet Street, they didn’t serve you as a woman. At a restaurant, even if you were paying, the menus with the prices on them were passed to the men, not the women. The wine lists were always passed to the men.
‘In the City you were supposed to wear a skirt, not trousers. You had to conform and make your difference a virtue to be able to thrive.’
‘Yet I never saw obstacles; I only saw opportunities. My clients, entrepreneurs who had made money by selling their businesses, said they were prepared to back me by putting money into a startup.
‘But Tony and I decided we didn’t want to work for anyone else again. We didn’t want their money. So we remortgaged our flat and hoped to fund the business on credit card debt. I was in a position to start the business immediately because I already had clients; Tony would come as soon as he had a client.
‘I started Lansons in a dealing room with the same companies who had kindly offered to back me – and who were still gracious enough to come to me as clients. Tony joined me soon after, launching Churchill insurance.
‘We had so much business coming in that we had to grow quite quickly – and the first team members were women.
‘Tony and I wanted the same things. A third of our people are partners, owning a part of the business, and we felt that was part of our community philosophy.
Back then, partnership agreements were always written in the masculine (‘He will’). I insisted on it being ‘her’, ‘she’. It was a female partnership agreement, which it still is today. It was an important part of our notion of equality.
‘We enshrined in the agreement that one per cent of our profits would always go to charity. At times, we’ve wished we’d put more in there; frankly, in the past year, I think we’ve been very sensible keeping it to one per cent. For 31 years every one of our partners, and therefore our colleagues, have all given up what they might have had in their profits to support a charity. In good years, that’s been substantial.
‘In the first year, it was £250 which went to Guide Dogs for the Blind. After five years, all staff gained the chance to nominate and vote for the beneficiaries, and if Lansons gives 1% then we aim to fundraise to match or exceed that target. This year it’s The Felix Project, last year it was Centrepoint. We use this process to educate ourselves around the cause.
‘Our son is Type 1 diabetic and we’ve always been great supporters of Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (I’ve been a trustee for many years too).
‘I’m interested in family businesses and longevity. Now that businesses have stepped up to recognise their role in society, this notion of legacy – and purpose – is much more overt.
‘What we see at Lansons now is a company that’s created an amazing footprint and we just don’t talk enough about these things. We know how hard it is making the decisions to embed those in your culture; and what you give up for some of them, too.
We’re carbon neutral – and have been for 11 years. Now we are positioned as a good fit for businesses that care about sustainability and about ESG.
‘We are a well managed and well structured business. We have done well. Our international work comes through PROI Worldwide – a fifty year old agency consortium. I’ve been chair – the first woman in 48 years. We could have sold, but we’ve utliised our international network to scale the business.
‘We have long-term relationships with our clients. One example I can cite is the Isle of Man Government; we’ve come through three re-tendering processes and we’ve worked with them since 2004. At the last pitch, 50 agencies were in competition for this work.
‘Our business champions diversity and inclusion; we champion equality and social mobility; more women than men own a share of the business. Our long-standing stewardship of our business has created a footprint that few can match, putting purpose at the heart of organisations and society.
‘We bought our office building 20 years ago. Our office was always a place that nurtured new talent. When Hope & Glory formed, we offered them space and invested in them. They aren’t the only business that’s been in there and benefited from the space. We had a charity, a finance business and a sponsorship business in the building before lockdown. We use the space and enjoy it.
Over the past year, another part of her life has come to the fore.
‘Suffolk was always our weekend holiday retreat. We’ve never spent so much time here as we have since last March because of the various lockdowns.
‘My career is not just Lansons. I’ve had over 25 years on charity boards, on committees, and on making a contribution outside of Lansons. My first trusteeship was with Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation; I’ve been on an international committee for the Royal Shakespeare Company; and the High Tide theatre company in East Anglia. They’ve been looking at creating new work and encouraging diverse voices in underrepresented communities in Suffolk. I’m about to come off the board to become chair of their development council, to help them with fundraising.
Finally, she’s keen to respond to the question about another key relationship. ‘Many people couldn’t work together and be together. Philosophically it works for us because we both care about the same things.
Looking back on our business, Tony and I believe in community: it’s about locality; it’s about a sense of responsibility to all people in a community.
And that includes obligations to society: Lansons has already repaid all the furlough money it has received during the pandemic.