Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Nancy Thomson, founder of Thomson Ecology

WHEN Nancy Thomson returned home after sailing around the world for five years, she could not decide what to do. Previously an environmental consultant, she went through six business plans. “I fancied doing something completely different but friends and family told me to go with ecology because I had experience in the sector,” Thomson said. “I’m glad I listened to sensible advice.”

After a year of considering her options, she set up Thomson Ecology in 2004. It helps landowners such as Network Rail, Land Securities and Eon to win planning consent for projects that affect protected species and their natural habitats. The consultancy specialises in securing licences for the removal of wildlife, and the collection of ecological data.

“Ecology is the connection of a species to its habitat, not just botany or zoology,” said Thomson, who is chairwoman and chief executive. “I knew it was a specialism that would grow quickly.”

The business is spread across three regional offices with the headquarters and laboratories in Guildford, Surrey. It posted sales of £4.5m in the year ending October 2013 and expects 10% growth in revenues this year. The sister company Thomson Habitats was set up in 2007 to design and create or restore wildlife habitats. It has turnover of more than £1m.

Thomson also put her name to a consultancy specialising in carbon trading, Thomson Praxis, which she wound down in 2007 to concentrate on the other businesses. “I don’t have a giant ego. I just believe that a name is an asset in a company,” she said.

Thomson Ecology advises on development projects including offshore wind farms, nuclear power plants, railways and roads, schools and housing. It also manages biodiversity programmes for public sector bodies and local government, ensuring a variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms are established in a given area. “We helped the Welsh Assembly to decide whether awarding grants to enhance biodiversity on farms would be a worthwhile investment,” Thomson said.

She heads a team of 120 staff, among them ornithologists, marine biologists, botanists and specialists in bats, badgers, reptiles and amphibians. “We cover all ecosystems, from the bottom of the ocean to the mountain tops.”

Thomson, 62, was born in Glasgow, the eldest of four children. Her father was a mechanical engineer and her mother an art teacher. The family moved to Oxfordshire before settling in Kingston upon Thames, southwest London, where Thomson attended the Tiffin girls’ grammar school. She moved on to North London Polytechnic and graduated in 1975 with a degree in geography. “I was struggling to work out what I could do with my A-levels and fell into geography, which I enjoyed,” said Thomson.

Her first job was as a graduate noise researcher at Cranfield Institute of Technology. “The project was looking at the transmission of road traffic noise and whether it was affected by weather and wind direction.”

As part of the project Thomson set up an environmental consultancy, but within two years the unit was shut down because of funding problems. At a loose end, she set up her first business, Thomson Laboratories, a pollution and hygiene consultancy. “I had one small overdraft and knew nothing about business,” she said.

Thomson took a year out in 1984 to complete an MBA at Cranfield School of Management, “to find out what I should be doing”. She sold Thomson Laboratories in 1992 for £1m and became managing director of MTS Environmental, advising on all areas of environmental science. She then became a director of Otter Ferry Salmon in Argyll, west Scotland.

She quit in 1998 to sail the world with her husband, Mike Rennie. “It was a lifelong ambition,” said Thomson. “We joined a rally to circumnavigate the world in two years and extended to five because we enjoyed it so much.” On their return she cobbled together savings and remortgaged their house to set up Thomson Ecology, which expanded quickly to sales of £600,000 by its third year. “I had a clear strategy from the beginning and have largely stuck to that, which is part of the secret of our success,” she said.

Technology is helping the business to evolve. Today, data recorded by on-site ecologists can be viewed by the client in real time on a web portal. “In the old days people would go out with a clipboard, paper map and some colouring pens to do their surveys,” said Thomson. “It’s phenomenal that an entire team can see the same data on a particular site map wherever they are in the world.”

She is planning to take on more jobs overseas that can be project-managed from Britain. One of the business’s main partners is Cumberland Ecology in Australia. “We can do staff swaps and overnight report reviewing for each other.”

Thomson and her husband, a director of the business, live in Cobham, Surrey. One of her sisters, Marion Thomson, is a botanist and a principal consultant with the company, which is 80%-owned by Thomson. Her advice to entrepreneurs is: “Have a very clear vision of what you are trying to achieve and let that be a light that you keep focused on all the time.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Nancy Thomson of Thomson Ecology

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