Nan Williams - Widening horizons

The Four Communications founder has worked her way from rural Wales to running a PR firm growing at a lightning pace, finds Hannah Crown.

Nan Williams: 'She knew what she wanted'
Nan Williams: 'She knew what she wanted'

Llanidloes, a rural beauty spot situated in the Powys heartlands, is now described in the Rough Guide as a 'popular town for ageing hippies'.

But back in the 1970s, when Nan Williams was a pupil at the town's only secondary school, the 2,000 residents had even less experience of the cut and thrust of international business than they had of free love.

Williams, 50, had wider horizons, however, and has now built a top-level comms consultancy in Four Communications that grew an astonishing 43 per cent last year after a spree of high profile acquisitions.

The younger Williams had lofty ambitions, setting her heart on studying at Cambridge - a move so unprecedented she chose not to tell her teachers she was applying. 'Most people in my sixth form didn't even apply to university. I thought: "Well I am going to because I want to give it a go but I won't tell them in case it doesn't work out,"' she says.

The clear-headed 18-year-old was accepted to study a French and Italian degree at Christ's College. She then took a post at Barclays Bank, in a bid to find a job which would take her abroad. After a placement in the marketing department, her fate was sealed.

'I decided I wanted to work at Charles Barker as they were the top PR company in the UK in 1985 and they were taking on graduates for the first time.'

Angela Heylin, former chief executive of Charles Barker, bought by Weber Shandwick, interviewed her for the position. 'She was very bright and lively but had a quiet confidence and maturity to her,' she says. 'She knew what she wanted.'

Thirteen years later she became chief executive of what was then Charles Barker BSMG UK. Williams' specialism - corporate PR and crisis comms - was honed partly during the General Motors restructuring and redundancy programmes of the 1980s and 90s. 'It was a terribly difficult time for the company but it was a very interesting time to learn corporate PR issues management,' she says.

She had also won a scholarship for Cranfield University's prestigious MBA scheme, which she completed while working full-time, a move Heylin calls 'unprecedented for someone at that stage of their career', and raised two children as a single parent. But the 'next thing' was never far from Williams' mind.

'I had this tremendous position where I had a year's notice, so I could think about what I wanted to do,' she explains.

Out of this came Four Communications in 2001, so-called because of its founding quartet: Williams, her younger sister Einir, and Ray Eglington and Tim Lewis, all previous employees at Charles Barker.

Williams says it was 'just logical' she team up with her sister. 'She's cleverer than me. She's a brilliant writer. I guess I am more issues-focused. We're very different and have compatible skills,' she adds.

The 'vision' was to challenge the big name agencies right from the start.

'In the integrated space, you had large companies or boutique specialists and nothing in between,' she says. 'We had all been in big agencies and we knew the difficulty of keeping the focus on the client. It was arrogant but we really thought we could do it and we have tried to keep it as a set of specialisms in one place.'

She adds pointedly: 'I sold my flat to set up Four. It really makes a difference. Clients are your lifeline. They need to be happy.'

One of her first major pieces of work was the national information campaign on the roll-out of chip and pin.

Sandra Quinn, head of comms at the Payments Council, which led the campaign, said Williams 'has taught us how to be better at our job'.

She adds: 'Being able to look at a campaign and see the bigger picture - that is part of Nan's make-up. She is also calm. You know if you put Nan in front of banking executives who might be suspicious of PR she will have them eating out of her hand.'

The Four team worked quickly, expanding into Dubai in 2005, Liverpool in 2006 and Abu Dhabi in 2007, with a digital team created relatively early on in 2003.

This expansion has ratcheted up in recent years, starting with its first acquisition of 'good quality specialist' travel shop bgb in 2010, and a majority stake in culture stalwart Colman Getty earlier this year.

Williams admits 'not all of it has been right', noting the company lacked the specialist skills to make a success of an aborted foray into healthcare in 2004.

Four is now 22nd in the PRWeek Top 150 PR Consultancies league table, one of just a handful of independents in the top 25.

Williams has a no-nonsense attitude to business, because 'you can't faff around with it - I have targets and goals which are measurable, which is very satisfying'.

Nevertheless, she and her sister sometimes go on holidays together, and they do not spend the whole time talking about work: 'We always have Christmas together with my parents. Weekends and evenings aren't sacrosanct. Holidays are. Ish.'

As for next steps, many an acquisition-hungry, fast-growing PR business has found itself in the shop window, and Williams admits Four will not stay independent forever: 'We have no plan as to when to sell, but I am pretty sure we will. I think as individuals we want to sell to someone where we could have that next phase in our career.'

If someone does swoop for Four, they would be well advised to move heaven and earth to keep Williams with the brand she has been so instrumental in building.


2001: Founder and chief executive, Four Communications

1998: Chief executive, Charles Barker BSMG UK, and director BSMG Europe

1997: Managing director, Charles Barker

1992: Divisional director, corporate PR, crisis & issues management, Charles Barker

1988: MBA, Cranfield School of Management

1985: Graduate trainee, Charles Barker

1984: Graduated from Christ's College Cambridge; graduate trainee Barclays Bank International


- What was your biggest career break?

Getting the business and financial skills to match my comms skills - an MBA from Cranfield is very hard work but delivers just that.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Angela Heylin for the best agency service skills in the business; Tim Traverse-Healy for his comms intellect and strategy (and not letting you get away with any bullshit); Ron Boschetto - the best and toughest P&L business mentor. All of them are from the great Charles Barker stable.

- What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

Work very, very hard. Care about your clients with all your heart. Be ahead of the game intellectually. Watch those numbers.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

People who want the top job.

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