Lancashire not-for-profit business Chorley School Sport Partnership, which provides PE, sports and health activities in schools, is going from strength to strength with eighteen members of staff and contracts with organisations including Sport England and Youth Sport Trust.

The company’s success is all the more remarkable since its founder and managing director, Gemma Stokes, never intended to go into business.

The trained sports coach had been employed by a school in the area to deliver government-funded PE, school sports, health and cultural activities.

But when that funding stopped, Gemma discovered that she would need to set up her own business to continue her work in schools, which ranges from supporting  competitive school sports to providing healthy eating advice to whole families

Gemma said: “I’m a bit of an accidental business owner. I didn’t set out to start a company and when I did it felt very much out of my comfort zone.

“But, building a life-long love of physical activity and an understanding of the importance of health and wellbeing in children and young people is a passion for me, especially because one in three young people leave primary school overweight.”

Leigh Journal:

Gemma established a Community Interest Company – a social enterprise which benefits the community rather than making a profit  – and began successfully bidding for contracts from local authorities.

“Now, six years later, Gemma has built a team of 18 people who are delivering health and wellbeing activities in 64 Lancashire schools.

Despite the business's success, Gemma felt daunted by the prospect of running a company. She explains: “I like to succeed, and in teaching, coaching and sports development I’m in my element. However, as a new business owner I felt a little like I was winging it and wanted to build my knowledge and confidence, particularly in financial management.

“As the business grew, I realised that the financial systems that worked for a small team with a handful of contracts wouldn’t be suitable for an expanding range of clients and handle eighteen people’s wages.”

Gemma discovered Help to Grow: Management, a national programme launched by the UK Government and delivered by Lancaster University Management School (LUMS). It provides delegates with the management tools to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The 12-week blended programme is aimed at senior leaders of small and medium enterprises and is 90 per cent subsidised by the government.

Gemma says: “Help to Grow was the perfect solution for me in that it gives business leaders an insight into fundamentals of business. There were short, sharp sessions on hot topics like developing a strategy, creating a mission, vision and values, marketing and financial management. It’s almost like a mini MBA that I could manage whilst also running the business. Plus, it was based at Lancaster University, which is well-respected and local to me.”

Leigh Journal:

The power of an objective perspective

As part of the Help to Grow programme, delegates receive ten hours of one-to-one mentoring with an experienced business leader. 

Gemma says:  “I opted for a mentor with knowledge of financial systems. Talking through challenges and potential solutions with an experienced, critical friend has been transformational.  We now have a new finance system which is hugely more efficient than our old spreadsheets and enables the forecasting and financial management that we need as a growing business.

“Similarly there was a really wide range of other business leaders on the programme and it was valuable to get a range of different perspectives on our shared challenges. 

“Overall Help to Grow is one of the best things I’ve done. It’s given me the fundamental knowledge to speak confidently to others in any aspect of business. I might not have intended to start a company, but I now know I have what it takes to succeed.”

Leigh Journal:

Gain the tools to grow your business

The Help to Grow: Management programme is delivered over 12 weeks through a combination of in-person and virtual sessions. The timetable of weekly, part-day seminars is designed for delegates with full-time jobs. 

Places are open to the senior managers of UK-based small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that employ between five and 249 people.

The next cohorts start on 28th March 2023 Fees are part-funded by the UK Government. To find out more about costs, eligibility and to apply, visit Help to Grow | Lancaster University.