15 year Anniversary Interview with Sue Searle, founder and MD of Acorn Ecology.
Interviewer: Have you always been interested in wildlife?
Sue: Yes as a child growing up in Africa and Devon I was constantly outside catching insects, looking at plants, catching reptiles and fish. In Africa I had various pets I caught in the garden including a tortoise, a chameleon and stick insects! I loved being outdoors and being surrounded by nature.
Interviewer: What did you do before you worked in Ecology?
Sue: When I left school ecology wasn’t a career option – it was several years prior to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981! I actually wanted to go to art college but my parents forbade it, so I went into nursing and midwifery which is what my mother did. I did that for 15 years and it never really felt right. Although I enjoyed it to a certain extent I was not outdoors in the fresh air or being creative – my two loves.
Interviewer: How did you manage to change career and get into Ecology?
Sue: After having my two children I got involved with the Devon Wildlife Trust running events for children on ‘Wild Nights Out’ in the early 1990’s and also I founded the Exeter Wildlife Watch Group which I ran for 10 years. This is where I really started to get back into wildlife. I got involved in the Mammal Group, studied lots of evening class courses at Exeter Uni and also got an admin job at Devon Conservation Forum where I worked for 5 years.
By now I realised that I could make a career of ecology but felt I needed a degree – I had hoped that my evening classes would get me there but it was too slow. I signed up to a degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter in 1998 at the age of 39. I graduated in 2001. I tried to get a job but as I was older it was proving difficult so I went straight into a Masters at the University of Bristol in Ecology, Conservation and Habitat Management which was actually a training to become an ecological consultant. I graduated with a Post Graduate Diploma in 2003. The last assignment was to create a business plan for an imaginary consultancy – that is when Acorn Ecology was born. The plan looked so good that I decided to give it a go!
Interviewer: You were already in your forties when you set up Acorn Ecology, does your age have any influence on your career aspirations?
Sue: No, why hold yourself back for a reason like age? So many people write themselves off due to age. It is more about how you feel about doing something – the passion for it – than anything else. So if you feel passionate about doing something, then do it!
Interviewer: What made you want to set up your own business?
Sue: The combination of doing the business plan on the Bristol Uni course and the fact that being my own boss seemed like such a wonderful option after working for various bosses for 27 years!
Interviewer: Had you ever run a business before?
Sue: No but I had dabbled in trading for example I used to sell arts and crafts and I was briefly an Avon lady!
Interviewer: How did you build up your experience in ecology?
Sue: I was already pretty good at indentifying things so I worked on getting better. Luckily, as I was so involved with so many people in the field of ecology I was able to call in help when I got stuck with ecology work. Gradually I got enough experience to be able to do things myself. Getting licences was the hardest thing but I kept persisting and got there in the end. At first I didn’t know what to charge, how to invoice, how to do marketing or anything!
Interviewer: How long was it before you employed staff?
Sue: I hired my sister to help with admin for a day a week for a while quite early on and took on my first Trainee Ecologist after 4 years – that was Sarah Candlin who is now Principal Ecologist and Branch Manager at Exeter and expecting her first baby! She has been here 11 years.
Interviewer: When did you make the move from operating in your house to offices at Westpoint?
Sue: We got up to 7 staff in the office in the summer of 2010 including a PA for me. Her first job was to find a new office. She came up trumps when she found Westpoint and we moved in 2011.
Interviewer: What was your first big project?
Sue: My very first job was to do some photographic monitoring for Dartmoor National Park – 25 sites across Dartmoor in the summer. For those who know me they would know that this job was like heaven on earth for me! I love photography and Dartmoor and to combine the two and get paid was wonderful! A plus was that I was able to go out with my Dad who was a seasoned Dartmoor walker and we had some great days out!
Interviewer: When and why did you start running ecological courses?
Sue: In 2006 I ran my first course at my home in Exeter – I think it was Phase 1 habitat mapping. The next year we hired the village hall and started running more regular courses. I have always found that I want to share everything that I learn with others, and knowing how hard it is to get the skills and knowledge to get into this field of work I wanted to help as many people as possible. In 2009 we started the Certificate in Ecological Consultancy and to date have trained a large number of people who are now pursuing ecological careers. It is very rewarding. In 2009 I won a National Training Award for my work.
Interviewer: What is the hardest thing about running Acorn Ecology?
Sue: In the early years it was just keeping track of everything but as we implemented systems, with the help of a business coach, and then Sarah came on board, it became more organised. Finding the time to do everything will always be the hardest thing – there is so much I want to do! Luckily I have an amazing team who are gradually taking on tasks for me.
Interviewer: What has been the best bit of running Acorn Ecology?
Sue: Working with my wonderful, friendly and professional team. They make my job easier and it is a joy to go into work and have their support.
Interviewer: Do you have a favourite memory?
Sue: I can’t choose one! There are so many! My favourites are – my first job on Dartmoor, my first summer working in the garden at home instead of travelling to an office, surveying Jasper Conran’s place, surveying Saltram House and Winchester Cathedral, and teaching Beginners’ Botany in beautiful locations in the glorious summer sunshine!
Interviewer: What makes Acorn Ecology different from the rest?
Sue: Every business is unique because it is made up of unique people with unique skills. We have taken the company in several different directions and when we get new team members we are able to explore other avenues. We have a wide range of skilled staff with diverse experience. The training is probably our most notable difference from other consultancies but lots are now doing training too.
Interviewer: If you were stranded on a desert island what 5 things would you want to take?
Sue: Being a very practical, creative and resourceful person I would need to take some basic tools then everything else is possible – a saw, a pair of scissors or knife, some nylon twine, a lighter and a big bottle for water. From that I can feed myself, make a shelter and make things I need or just create things for the joy of it!
Interviewer: What do you see for Acorn Ecology in the future?
Sue: The aim is to continue to grow all branches, especially Bristol and London & South East as they are less geographically constrained than Exeter. I am keen to start Bat Licence Training next year and to continue to provide quality ecological consultancy services and training. I would also like to retire before I reach 65, I have just turned 60.