Emma Harrison: stitching together a business behemoth

Emma Harrison transformed her father's training agency and increased turnover almost tenfold in just one year. Then she had to start all over again on her own and has never looked back.

Emma Harrison, 44, would like to think that when her father handed over the keys of his Sheffield business in 1987, it was because he saw something in her. "But I think that's nonsense. Dad was getting remarried and wanted to go to Germany to live with his new wife."

Indeed, within 18 days of telling her he'd spend two years preparing her to run the Industrial Training Agency, a company which retrained ex-steel workers in other trades, "he said I think you've got the hang of it. I'm off." Harrison was left with a £125,000 business. She was going to have to fend for herself.

But then, Harrison's no stranger to a fight. At her Sheffield comprehensive, "all the girls had to do cooking, domestic science and sewing and dad said sod that, Emma's been able to cook since she was eight." Instead, she did design technology. There was uproar, but Harrison insisted. "Instead of sitting with a bunch of girls doing Broderie Anglaise I was in the craft workshop", building canoes and operating forges "which was much more useful and practical". That led to a degree in engineering from Bradford University, and then the inauspicious handing down of ITA from her father something that really brought out fighting spirit in her.

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Harrison "went out banging on doors" looking for business from Government agencies, offering to take welfare to work schemes off their hands and train the unemployed herself. "It was survival stuff really", she says, but it worked: a year later, ITA was turning over £1m. That's when another bombshell hit. Her father got Parkinson's. He went from being "incredibly supportive" to being "paranoid" and "intrusive". Worse, he began helping himself to money from ITA. So Harrison left: "I said, Dad, you can have all the assets, all the money, I'll just have the people'. He said OK'."

In 1991, Harrison took 40 people from ITA and set up A4E, which was designed to do what ITA did, but with one key difference. Instead of charging the Government a fee for the job-finding process, she charged for each time she found someone a job. The bums on seats' model was a hit with Government agencies especially after the success of the first project Job Creation 2000', designed to find 2000 jobs for the people of Barnsley and Doncaster. "And I did. We rang up every single employer in the area to find the hidden jobs, and then matched all the jobs to people." Today, all contracts are based on this model.

By 1995, A4E was turning over £35m. "I was absolutely delighted. It was driven by a purpose to improve people's lives," says the winner of last year's NatWest Everywoman Award. Critics might argue, though, that the crucial component in the business's success, which today turns over £130m, was the burgeoning public sector, which allowed Harrison to siphon off Government funds and do the work that agencies should have done themselves. Harrison isn't having it: "We might charge £1,500" for each person who ends up in work, but, "that's just saved the taxpayer £35,000" in welfare and healthcare costs.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.