Interview with Sally Alington - Founder of Ethos Farm Group

Sally Alington is the founder and CEO of the global consultancy firm Ethos Farm, a group of companies including Ethos Farm Limited and Ethos Farm Incorporated. Turning the traditional view of consultancy on its head, these businesses offer: customer and employee experience consultancy, employee learning and development and innovations and staffing solutions to their clients. Ethos Farm are widely recognised leaders in the field of global customer and employee experience.  

Sally’s passion for this sector came from over two decades of working with airports, airlines, travel retailers, hospitality, and leisure organisations. It is this frontline and hands-on experience that drives the belief at the heart of Ethos Farm.    

In December 2023, Sally received the everywoman Next Level Award, sponsored by SG Kleinwort Hambros.

Sally is also part of the everywoman 2024 judging panel aiming at identifying the best female entrepreneurs within their field.

Sally Addington photoSally, you received the everywoman Next Level Award in December last year. This new accolade comes in addition to the list of awards Ethos Farm previously received. How did you end up here? What were the first steps on the path which has led you to being trusted to advise the most popular brands on their customer experience?

My journey is an interesting one as I fell into part-time customer service jobs whilst I was a student at university in the early 00’s. At that time the phrase ‘customer experience’ wasn’t as widely used, although it perfectly captured the approach, I applied to every one of those customer-facing jobs. In a nutshell, I’ve always loved helping people and knowing that I had made a positive difference to their day. For me, this made working with customers so incredibly rewarding.

Working as a brand ambassador at an event, or a customer service host in a shop, were early learning experiences for me. However, one of the most impactful frontline roles I had was working as cabin crew for British Airways. Being at the point of customer interaction with guests onboard made me realise just how important the human factor is in the customer experience equation. More often than not people like to engage with people, and so focusing on your employees as custodians of your brand experience, setting them up for success, investing in their training, giving them a beautiful uniform to wear with pride, listening to their feedback and valuing them with recognition, are all fundamental elements if you want your workforce to create memorable and exceptional customer experiences.

After I graduated, I progressed from part time, front-line customer service roles to becoming the Managing Director of a large UK staffing business over the span of just four years.  I took on the Managing Director position when I was 29 and led that business from GBP5M to GBP18M turnover in just 36 months. In 2013 I guided the business through an acquisition by a Fortune 500 New York Stock Exchange-listed organisation and became part of a USD6B, 150,000+ employee company, where I continued as one of their UK Managing Directors until deciding to leave in 2016 to start Ethos Farm. Between 2013 and the end of 2016 when I left, I had also completed the acquisition of two other staffing organisations, one in the UK and one in the Republic of Ireland. These were amazing learning experiences and life lessons at such a young age.

I would say four crucial elements that led me and the Ethos Farm team to being recognised as trusted Customer Experience advisors to some of the largest organisations in the world are:

  1. Reputation – the work you deliver throughout your career creates a lasting impression. Approaching every single opportunity as if it could be the one that leads to someone noticing your passion and effort is essential. Enjoy doing the very best job possible. That reputation applies to work you deliver for clients as well as how you treat your colleagues, peers, and line reporters. Today’s direct report could be tomorrow’s client – never forget the power of treating people how you would like to be treated.
  2. Front-line experience – having worked and managed large frontline operations in some of the busiest environments in the world gives an unparalleled understanding of first-hand customer experience delivery, which adds to credibility. In most cases I believe I can speak with authority to clients when I say, “I understand your customer experience challenge” and that is because often I have witnessed that situation first-hand or solved a similar challenge elsewhere. This is a unique selling point at Ethos Farm when it comes to our strategic consulting work and training, as our incredible team brings that degree of credibility and first-hand experience meaning that we talk with real world-knowledge and evidence of problem solving and delivering positive results.
  3. Network – as a people person I have always made time to meet with others in business, taking every opportunity to listen and spend time with people at industry events. Getting to know peers and building a network is so valuable as the people you meet today may well remember you tomorrow. It is incredible how often professional paths cross over the course of several years.
  4. Team – from the outset my plan was to bring in the very best talent to complement the skillset I had and add further credibility to what we offer. The power of having the very best team should never be underestimated and I am so proud of the Co-Founder team I created and the Senior Leadership team we have subsequently built. Our most precious assets are our people, and I am grateful every day to all Ethos Farm colleagues who share the vision for customer experience excellence and deliver on that promise.

How did you initially finance the business?

Knowing that I wanted to bring the very best talent into business from early on, meant that I initially needed funding. I decided to be bold and approach the same Fortune 500 organisation (that had acquired the business I was leaving) to talk about investment opportunities. I turned up in New York with my business plan in hand and met with the executive board to present the concept. The purpose of seeking funding was to accelerate growth, which was a core feature of the investment proposal, backed up by solid forecasting and an ambitious (and fairly aggressive) five-year growth curve. What I hadn’t anticipated was a global pandemic that would shut down all customer facing industries (essentially all of our clients) just three years into the business.

Thankfully, if working in aviation has taught me anything, I recognised that successfully navigating challenges is often about thinking on your feet, acting quickly, and decisively. Having assessed the situation it was very clear that managing finances during that time was fundamental, we were too small to have a Finance Director, so this is a part of our history of which I feel particularly proud.  I truly believe we were one of the first businesses in the UK to secure the full GBP250K Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). I can vividly remember speaking to the bank the first day these loans were being made available and they didn’t even know how one would apply! I suggested that I simply write an emergency funding plan for them, outlining why we needed the money, what it would be used for and how we would pay it back. It worked and it was nothing short of a lifeline through the pandemic. Roll on just two years and not only was the company skyrocketing, but we were also well into clearing our CBILS and by mutual agreement I coordinated the buy-back of shares from our United States investor – we remain great business partners, still working together on various joint projects in the United States.

What would you say has been the most challenging point to get the business to where it is today? Was there ever a point when you thought you would throw in the towel?

Getting our first client was a much bigger challenge than you might realise. Ultimately, it is quite a bold statement to say that we wanted to be the ‘Go To’ business for everything customer experience (the original vision statement) and naturally, in the early days, everyone wants to know which other companies work with you. Every potential client wants some assurance that someone else took the risk of being the first – let’s face it, no one ever got fired for picking one of the Big Four (1).

You have to be creative in those early days and actually sometimes just offering your services on a small project for free to get a case study can be the best way to build a portfolio and start building your reputation for your new company. What amazes me is that today we find ourselves competing on customer experience bids alongside big consulting companies – winning against any one of the Big Four (1) is just the most unbelievable and humbling feeling.

The biggest challenge of all however was the pandemic. I have experienced many global disasters or unforeseen upsets in my career, particularly with a background that has been so involved in aviation. SARS, The Volcanic Ash Cloud, 9/11, Bird Flu, Swine Flu…you name it, in aviation you get used to riding the storm and working out a plan for survival. The pandemic felt entirely different and if I am totally honest, it felt totally terrifying. Being at the helm of a business, shouldering the risk and knowing that people’s livelihoods are in your hands is a heavy weight when you are also watching the news and just hoping that your family and loved ones don’t become ill or worse.

That took a lot of mental strength, but having incredible people around me was a total game-changer. Ethos Farm is a family, we have always treated each other like that, and we all kept each other going. Ridiculous Zoom quizzes, virtual flights (my husband flew a live flight simulator over MS Teams for all our colleagues, families, and friends to take people on a virtual trip every week for 19 weeks!) kept us together. The Ethos Farm spirit and support for each other got us all through that challenging time and made us stronger for the future.

Coming out of the pandemic we were raring to go and with our team back from furlough we were able to hit the ground running with real energy. Less than two years after the last lockdown, we were named a Sunday Times 100, becoming the 38th Fastest Growing Privately owned organisation in the UK. This saw us move from circa 40 employees to over 650 in one year!

You’ve expanded in New York and Singapore. How challenging is exporting the model given each location must bring its own unique environment?

The United States was a goal from day one as a frequent visitor to the States, I could see the potential for a customer experience specialist business and as timing would have it, one of my previous wonderful colleagues (Lauren Walsh) had moved to the USA, so I asked her if she wanted to join the business and head up Ethos Farm Americas. Prior to Ethos Farm, Lauren and I had set up a subsidiary company for our former employer in the United Arab Emirates, so I knew that together we were not afraid to navigate the ways of doing business in new territories.  

In some locations we tend to run contracts through the UK or US entities or as a partnership. As someone who loves world-travel, I don’t get bogged down with worrying about how we make things happen in other countries and relish the opportunities to learn new ways of working to get things done in new places, especially where language and culture could be barriers. Singapore is a partnership we have with another former colleague and great friend of mine, whilst locations like Saudi Arabia, Chile or Canada are territories where we offer expertise and find solutions to deliver what our clients need from our UK or US companies.  

What is next for Ethos Farm? What excites you about the future of the business? Or what keeps you awake at night?

The Ethos Farm journey is one that never ceases to amaze and surprise me with every turn. I know that continued international expansion will happen (we already have exciting new opportunities in Nassau, Bahamas, and the Middle East). That excites me hugely as we continue to find ourselves involved in some of the largest developments on the planet, designing customer experience, training people, and often running large customer service operations.

I want to ensure that with the continued growth we never lose sight of the early adopters of our business solutions and always place our people at the heart of what we do – they are so important and make us who we are. That is the ethos of Ethos!

Nothing keeps me awake at night, that isn’t meant to sound arrogant or detached in anyway, I am just not a worrier. I am a positive thinker and always like to ensure we do things correctly, safely and mitigate risks. For that reason, I don’t lie awake at night worrying about things, I approach each day with optimism and positivity. If things go wrong, and let’s be honest, life throws curve balls all the time, then there will always be a positive solution to overcome those hurdles.

1 The Big Four is a term used to refer the four largest professional services networks in the world, consisting of the global accounting networks Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC.

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