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The SMART Interview #16 Hilary Devey

  • TN-SmartInterview-HilaryDevey
  • 17 Sep 2014

Hilary Devey revolutionised the freight industry by developing a new model for transfering smaller consignments - creating a business worth £100M from scratch. She’s one of the UK’s most successful businesswomen – so what has she learnt along the way?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Hilary Devey CBE.

Are people born entrepreneurial or is it something they learn?

I may have been born with some natural gift – however, the drive came from understanding where I was at my best. Being an entrepreneur is simply being good at seeing and seizing an opportunity.

Thinking smarter, being creative; it’s something many people struggle with – is there a secret?

People commonly think that creativity is a pleasant and easy thing – it’s not. It’s a craft, and it’s hard work. In the early years of Pall-Ex, I spent hours staring at a map to strategise who to recruit for which area, ensuring I wasn’t emulating the competition. And creativity and innovation is not just something that generates an idea, it’s a way of sustaining one – key to growing a business.

Having a good idea is the easy bit. How do you take a good idea and make it commercially successful?

I think most good ideas in business are commercially successful, by definition. The idea for my business came from a frustration of seeing where others were going wrong, and knowing I had the solution. It’s important to take measured risks at the beginning. These days there is a lot of talk about taking risks, and jumping into a new idea, gearing people up about ‘being their own boss’, that’s not a reason to create a company.

Hilary Devey
Image: Hilary Devey

You've invested in several businesses in the BBC's Dragon's Den. What drew you to these businesses in particular?

In 2011, I invested in Duvalay, which specialises in memory foam mattress toppers, pillows, and travel toppers. I saw immediately that the concept was original and had lots of room to grow. In 2012, Theo Paphitis and I both invested in Shampooheads, which designs and creates hair care products to appeal to children. It reminded me of when my son was a baby and how much I would have loved to use this product with all the fun characters.

Getting finance for your first business Pall-Ex was really difficult. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs struggling to raise funds?

I ran my business like I ran my home as a single parent, and accounted for every penny. If you know your plan is solid, do everything you can. Before I risked everything, I made sure I’d thought through my entire business plan. The beginning of a company is the most important time to be brutally honest about what is achievable.

Finding time for family life is tough for most business people. Any suggestions for striking the right balance that you've learnt along the way?

It is all about time management. I’ll admit that prioritising my work had consequences in my personal life, but I was also providing for my family using my work. It was difficult, and always will be if you’re starting from the bottom. However, I’ve always believed that dwelling on the past won’t build a successful future.

Charity work is very important to you. Do you think that your charity work has made you a better businesswoman?

I’m currently involved with the Carers Trust, a charity that works to improve support, services and recognition for anyone living with the challenges of caring, unpaid, for a family member or friend. Another fantastic charity I work with is the Stroke Association, which is the only UK wide charity solely concerned with combating stroke in people of all ages. I also work with Fresh Start – New Beginnings, which was set up to provide a therapeutic service for children who have reported being sexually abused and to offer support for their families. All these are amazing causes that are relevant to me personally.

Do you travel much? Is there a particular part of the world you love to visit?

I don’t really take holidays, but I did go to Casablanca on holiday a few years ago and hated it. I called my PA and asked where I could go, she found me a hotel in Marrakesh with a brilliant spa, and I immediately fell in love with the city and bought a house there.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

I’m fortunate enough to own various houses abroad, and so when I travel, I’m usually going to a place which has everything I love in it already. I have a soft spot for my all my dogs, but my favourite is a teacup Yorkshire terrier called Micha.

Read more of Hilary’s business advice at

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