Monday interview: SmartPA managing director Sarra Bejaoui

The traditional personal assistant role may conjure up images of someone dutifully seated outside a chief executive's office.

SmartPA co-founder and managing director Sarra Bejaoui. Picture: Contributed

But while that is still a commonplace scenario, the sector is also subject to the increasing changes to convention being brought about by the digital world, where duties can be performed remotely.

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Sarra Bejaoui, co-founder and managing director of SmartPA, points out that the business actually started out, about nine years ago, as a service to help time-poor, high-net-worth individuals.

Sarra Bejaoui says industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie is her business icon. Picture: Contributed

But it became apparent that their requests were moving into their work lives and the company took the decision to change the focus to working with businesses rather than consumers.

It saw greater opportunity there, also expecting that, with the financial crash kicking in at the time, people would be looking to cut costs.

The Edinburgh business now has offices across the UK, including sites in Glasgow and Aberdeen and its main operations in the Scottish capital and London. Bejaoui says she started out as a “smart PA” herself with the firm, having previously worked as project manager.

Sarra Bejaoui says industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie is her business icon. Picture: Contributed

It now has about 160 smart PAs, mainly women, who work with clients on a temporary or ongoing basis on the likes of traditional PA activity such as diary management and travel co-ordination, as well as preparing for board papers and compiling meeting minutes.

Its remit also extends to what she describes as “gatekeeping” activities, being the first point of contact for a client, as well as project work and translation, and PAs can draw on the skills of others across the firm if need be. PA and secretarial work is “such a broad space”, says Bejaoui.

She explains that clients range from one-man bands to corporates, and SMEs have been a real growth area, mainly comprising owner-managers with one to ten staff who can quickly make a decision. “We’re winning an SME customer every working day,” she states.

This type of client is also likely to be stretched for time, resource and having to multi-task, with one survey of 500 SMEs finding that the average business owner in this space spends ten hours a week on non-profit-related tasks, with 85 per cent of this covering admin, reports and finances.

The 2017 BIG Small Business Survey from Instantprint also found that male business-owners spent about an hour and a quarter less a week on non-profit-related tasks.

Bejaoui sees SMEs as a key focus, as is growing its larger customers, which she acknowledges is a longer process. “We have a huge ambition to penetrate the corporate market — we’ve not even scratched the surface there.”

Staff are mainly recruited on a partnership model, which evolved from a franchise model, and it aims to have 2,000 partners globally in the next three years, “and obviously that will continue to grow thereafter”.

The business’s expansion also dovetails with a growing desire from women to work from home and/or have their own business, and the flexibility and work-life balance that this brings. SmartPA is also hoping for customer numbers to reach about 10,000 over next three to five years.

“We’re on track, and our strategy that we’ve proven so far [means] it’s achievable for us to get to that number,” Bejaoui insists, also stating that turnover is set to reach £2.5 million this year.

It now has presences in areas including Spain, South Africa and the Middle East, in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, and has just carried out a soft launch in the US, which is “going particularly well”.

Bejaoui says the US is in fact a real focus for the firm and a region very much accustomed to remote working. Additionally, “although we don’t term ourselves a virtual assistant business, they’re very familiar with that concept out there so it’s a natural fit for us”.

The firm is covering some of this growth by working US hours from the UK, and is also hiring Stateside with a view to growing numbers gradually in tandem with the expansion of this part of the business.

With its inquiries and applications for this arm, “we’re assessing all that data now to allow us to actually refine our growth strategy for the US”. Also in SmartPA’s sights is the oil and gas sector. “That’s one of our hotspots,” says Bejaoui.


Born: 1978, Edinburgh

First job: Receptionist for a design and marketing agency

Ambition while at school: To join the police, be a primary school teacher or to be Kylie Minogue

What car do you drive? Chili red Mini Cooper S

Favourite mode of transport: I love flying and trains!

Music: Cheesy Quaver – I love everything from Steps, Backstreet Boys, Haim

Kindle or book? Book

Reading material: I am currently reading a book on emotional intelligence and how to get results

Can’t live without: Friends, family and exercise

What makes you angry? People with no manners

What inspires you? Having the ability to empower and support women to be as successful as they can be

Favourite place: Rome

Best thing about your job: Supporting people to flourish

Business icon: Andrew Carnegie