Interview: MD of Volpa, Tricia Fox

Fox has yet to decide whether her second office will be in Scotland or south of the border. Picture: Fraser Brand
Fox has yet to decide whether her second office will be in Scotland or south of the border. Picture: Fraser Brand
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Inspiration has taken many forms for the successful business people Tricia Fox, the founder and MD of Perth-based PR and marketing agency Volpa, meets at entrepreneurial events. But few of them have a story that can quite match her own.

Fox was inspired to launch her business in 2002 after working for a management consultancy under a “terrible” boss and feeling she had hit an all-time low.

But the pivotal moment came when she was at a supermarket till and the cashier was wearing a T-shirt saying the retailer was the best company to work for. “I remember thinking, ‘What does that feel like,’” says Fox. “I got home and thought, ‘This is wrong – you shouldn’t be going to work like this’. I literally handed in my notice the very next day.”

She admits it was a gamble but was fortunate enough to pick up some PR work immediately, and three weeks later, Volpa – named after the Latin word for fox – was up and running in her spare bedroom.

“I just had an opportunity that came my way, and without even giving it much thought, I threw myself into self-employment.”

Her strategy when starting out was to “just jump in and not really give it too much thought… then work it out as I was going along”.

The firm celebrated its 15th anniversary in September, when it unveiled its “ambitious” scale-up plans and aim for turnover to reach £1 million in the following 18 months, with its staff set to reach 12 this month.

The agency also highlighted its client roster, including The Famous Grouse Experience, Perth Museum and Art Gallery, and The Enchanted Forest.

Clients have been mainly focused on hospitality, tourism, and food and drink, a bias which came about more by accident than design – “much like my entire business career”, says Fox.

She instead attributes it to the firm’s Perthshire base, where tourism is a key industry. “A lot of the bigger employers, the people who are spending money on PR and marketing, tend to be major visitor attractions and hotels, and it has just developed over time that we have a bit of a specialism in that area.”

That said, Volpa’s clients encompass other industries, with solicitors and estate agency Miller Hendry among other names on its books. And while she finds that people outside Volpa’s home turf may not have heard of the firm, and it has a “very low” profile, its clients are far more widely known.

One of the most high-profile of these is The Enchanted Forest, an annual autumn sound and light show set in Forestry Commission Scotland’s Faskally Wood near Pitlochry. Fox considers gaining this client pivotal to her success.

She had previously been sceptical about the accessibility of public sector contracts, but decided to submit her tender application nonetheless.

“Lo and behold I won it – and that was ten years ago,” she says, pointing out that visitor numbers have rocketed from 15,000 then to 74,000 last year, while the marketing budget has changed little over that time.

Fox also credits the event with providing her with a much-needed fillip, with the business then “at a crux” and an angel investor she had worked with on a business network proving to be less than angelic, leaving her “high and dry” and in debt. The contract breathed new life into Volpa, and “really has put Pitlochry on the map internationally”.

Having seen big visitor attractions like the Ryder Cup and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, come and go in recent years, Fox says: “I think the challenge now for the industry, in the absence of these major events, is what fills that gap?”

As she seeks to grow her firm, Fox has been selected to take part in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme, this month starting the four-month course aimed at leaders of high-growth small firms. It comprises residential learning at Oxford University and distance learning, culminating in the creation of a business growth strategy for Volpa.

“We’ve spent 2017 really cementing a lot of our culture and how we do things and why it makes a difference, and for me 2018 is about putting that into action.

“I think we’ve got the team to make it happen, I think we’ve got the resources to make it happen – it’s just about getting out there and getting our message out and bringing in new clients, which is really the next stage.”

Also on the horizon is the opening of a second office, although Fox is coy about the location. Presumably that would be in Scotland?

“Every time I come up with an argument for going to one place in particular, I come up with an argument for going to another place,” Fox responds.

“I think we’re probably of a scale now in Perth that we need to expand our footprint – there’s no doubt about it. But there’s as much of an argument for opening an office in Dundee as there is for one in York, for instance… or why not London?”

Also in Fox’s sights to help expand the business is technology, but growth may also come via acquisition. Has she been looking at any specific targets? “I may have,” she laughs.

Her attention is on people with their own businesses, able to add sales capability, contacts and local knowledge to Volpa, “and around that we can build a team… I have some people in mind, let’s just say”.

The company has been privately funded to date, but bringing in external capital is something about which Fox hopes the Goldman Sachs course will provide guidance, “because it’s an area of the business that I’m not comfortable with, I don’t know well, and I recognise that.

“I know fundamentally what the options would be, but I don’t know enough to drill down into their consequences.”

Fox has a diary bursting at the seams, with other roles including being a committee member of both Perthshire Business Women’s Network and the ARCHIE Foundation, regarding the project to raise funds for the children’s twin operating theatre at NHS Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. “When I volunteer for something you get all of me – there’s no holding me back,” she says. She has also done some visiting lecturer work.

Fox believes the concept of a work-life balance “doesn’t exist – I’m completely convinced of that”. Indeed, when she was a student, her hobby was doing marketing for the university’s theatre. “It just so happens that hobby developed into my job, which means I still enjoy it, so actually… if you’re enjoying what you do, it doesn’t feel so much like work.”

Volpa has signed up to be a living wage employer. In October, the Scottish Government raised the wage’s level to £8.45 an hour and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged more firms to embrace the scheme.

It’s a subject about which Fox is passionate. “I’m not a raving socialist by any stretch of the imagination – but I do think that there are certain responsibilities that people take on in life, and as an employer, I think we have a responsibility to our people. Everyone deserves a living wage, and on top of that, I think if you treat your people well your business will flourish.”

The world of work has “lost sight of the value of training people”, she continues, saying Volpa invests “very heavily” in upskilling staff.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges faced by Volpa, which has publicity, creative and digital departments, is finding candidates with a suitable level of wide-ranging digital skills.

Despite Fox’s pride in her creation, amid continued macroeconomic uncertainty, she is amenable to the prospect of the firm being take over by a larger player. “You never know what the future holds, there are so many challenges out there – and I think that’s what makes it exciting,” she says.

“And if somebody was to rock up and say, ‘We want a bit of you and how can we do this,’ then we would absolutely consider it. You’ve got to be open-minded.”