Karen Emanuel

Posted on 26 September 2020

Karen Emanuel is CEO of Key Production Group, a record, CD, DVD and packaging manufacturer for the music and other industries.

Elliot Moss

Good morning, it’s Jazz Shapers, me, Elliot Moss with you and of course the Shapers of Business who join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. The most important part of the programme.  My guest today is Karen Emanuel I am very pleased to say.  Founder and CEO of Key Production Group, a music manufacturing and creative packaging agency, that’s what it says here anyway so I believe it.  In an overwhelmingly male dominated sector, lifelong music enthusiast Karen climbed the ladder at Rough Trade Distribution from receptionist to production manager by, as she says, “asking the right questions and taking every opportunity to learn the numbers side of the business.”  In 1990 with a £2,000 redundancy pay out, a typewriter and a telephone she launched Key Production named after K.E., KE her initials in a damp, dark back office of Jungle Records.  Her new company specialised and still does, in the production and manufacture of CD’s, DVD’s and vinyl records as well as the beautifully artwork packaging for both music and other industries.  The music sector was rocked in 2007 when music sales shifted from physical units to digital downloads but Karen made tough decisions and diversified and today Key Production Group is made up of six companies, employing 54 people and turns over around £14 million a year.  Hello, twenty five years old, that’s all you were. 

Karen Emanuel

I know, I know, how young.

Elliot Moss

Nice to have you.

Karen Emanuel

Hello, lovely to be here.

Elliot Moss

I mean that’s a very young age.  Did you feel older though at that time in terms of your experience because you had already done a bunch of stuff hadn’t you?  Or was it just ignorance?  Blissful I should say.

Karen Emanuel

I would say probably the latter.  I think at twenty five I had nothing to lose.  I knew that if what I was attempting to do didn’t work then I could go and get another job somewhere.  I didn’t have a house to lose, I didn’t have a car to lose, I had absolutely nothing so it was kind of a no brainer, it was almost like a game, you know, let’s see if I can do this.

Elliot Moss

Not everyone would do that though, I mean at twenty five I didn’t do that so what was it about you that made you feel confident enough to take that brave step, as much as you didn’t have anything to lose as you said, was there something in the family?  Was there kind of people encouraging you going ‘go for it Karen, what’s the difference, why not’?

Karen Emanuel

I think my parents brought me up to be very determined.  I was an only child and they were both very, very shy and I think they wanted me not to be, they wanted me to be everything that they weren’t and so they definitely sort of gave me a push and told me to sort of reach for the stars, always ask questions, don’t worry if you fail and all these kind of like really important things that are really important as I have realised as time has gone on in business and they taught me that from an early age so I think that was kind of instilled in me so I just thought well you know, it doesn’t matter if I fail, I am going to give it a go and yes, certainly they were behind me all the time.  I think they thought that I was a kind of a little crazy and wondered when I was going to get a proper job, which I never did but yeah, definitely down to them.  My dad, I mean he was independent, he owned his own shops but I don’t think he was particularly entrepreneurial or particularly pushed me down that route, it was just the more ‘do it for yourself’ type upbringing that I got.

Elliot Moss

Mmm, but you obviously liked doing stuff and creating stuff, you were entertainment secretary at the same University as me, the University of Leeds which meant Billy Bragg was through the doors, I think New Model Army was through the doors.  Creating an event is a fun thing but it take a hell of a lot of logistics, I mean that’s a big production number isn’t it?

Karen Emanuel

Yeah, I mean I think again, you kind of like look back in your life when you get a bit older and see what influenced you and I know when I was younger I really liked maths, I liked sort of solving problems and I, you know, you get a real sense of satisfaction when you know you are right and you have been able to solve the problem and I think booking bands, doing events was kind of a bit like that as is my job now, is you are looking at a big problem and breaking it all down and then trying to solve it and getting to the end of it and then being successful which makes you feel really good.  You know, I was driven by real passion for music as well and a passion to do well that the events thing that I did at University had never been run by a woman before and no one had ever made money out of it before, for the University.  Now whether that was because people weren’t quite as honest as I was, I don’t know but you know, so again it was a real sense of achievement and I suppose that really sort of stoked something in me.

Elliot Moss

We have been talking about what got you to the point where the twenty five year old said ‘you know what I am just going to go and do it’.  When you’d got over the ‘I’ve just gone and done it’, at what point did you start to feel that you were making a success of it?  Was there a moment?  Or has it always been a ‘by the skin of my teeth’? 

Karen Emanuel

I was going to say about a couple of years ago when I got the NatWest Every Woman Award after twenty nine years in business.  No seriously I think women quite often have imposter syndrome and I think I had that all the time.  Also making it in the music industry, it’s quite a difficult thing and I found I wasn’t asked to do interviews, I wasn’t asked to be on panels, I wasn’t asked to do a lot of things.  It took me years to realise that actually I have to ask to do them to get that recognition and so it took me a long time before I felt comfortable that people were recognising me as the expert that I was, if that makes any sense?

Elliot Moss

It makes perfect sense but of course that’s changed completely now hasn’t it because everyone wants a woman on their panel, you know, diversity but it is on a… on one level it’s, it still can be tokenistic unfortunately but on another level, that must be right and it certainly shifted so the twenty five year old you now, would hopefully find life easier.  It is far more fashionable and I meet lots and have interviewed lots of young women who are entrepreneurs.  It isn’t weird anymore.  Was it a bit weird then do you think?

Karen Emanuel

Oh it was terribly weird then, I mean, one of the offices that I was in was an open plan office and I used to sit quite near the door and people would come in through the door and turn to me and ask me if they could see my boss – yeah I am the boss and yeah, it was terribly sexist then.  I can’t even begin to tell you.  Yes it has changed and it is changing.  It has still not changed far enough and in fact I am getting together with a few women that I know in the music industry that have kind of got through that glass ceiling to try to form a panel of people that can actually go and help influence kids in schools and show them what is possible because there is a lot of drop off of women in the music industry at about 40 odd, so a lot of young women come into it nowadays, there is a lot more diversity at the bottom if you like, but it falls off as you go up.

Elliot Moss

Along the way though, and that’s a brilliant initiative and I am sure it will, it will work.  It’s got to work because this is required at this time, as you said, it is not fast enough this change.  But along the way it sounds to me like your identity as a woman has been important because it is unusual in the record industry and indeed in many industries.  Had you or have you hired women above men or has it not quite panned out like that?  I mean have you actively gone ‘I am going to find great women to work with me’?  She’s laughing.

Karen Emanuel

Yeah it is funny on so many levels.  So when I first started there was my first eight employees were all women and it was a, not a joke in the industry but it was definitely a big statement and it wasn’t for any reason other than women came to me and they were really, really good at the jobs.  Funnily enough the first guy that I employed is still with us and is married to one of the first women that I employed and they have been with me for over twenty five years.  Now, I mean I have conversations about this all the time, about positive discrimination.  As a woman myself I don’t think I would want to be employed to do something if I wasn’t good enough for the job so I tend to employ people that are the best person for the job.  If however I have got two people that are the same, then yes I would positively discriminate and get a woman in over a man.  We tend to have more men going for a lot of jobs and we are actually addressing that within the company at the moment just to see whether the way that we are writing the job specifications or where we are advertising them, you know, we are not getting enough of a diversity across the board so we are actually looking to see what we can do better now.

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for much more from my guest today, that’s from Karen Emanuel and she will be back in a couple of minutes but right now we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions and they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Tom Grogan and Anne Rose talk about the latest trends and developments in the world of blockchain and the key opportunities and threats affecting businesses looking to implement blockchain platforms.

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again with Karen by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent programmes.  Karen is very happy about that.  But back to her, it’s Karen Emanuel, Founder and CEO of Key Production Group, a music manufacturing and creative packaging agency.  So, it has been a journey, you said, I think it was twenty nine years in with the 2018 award which you mentioned, the NatWest Every Woman Entrepreneur Award which is fabulous.  Not a straight line right?

Karen Emanuel

Oh my good God no.

Elliot Moss

No.

Karen Emanuel

No, very curvy, like me.

Elliot Moss

Very curvy.  But how have you adapted and morphed?  How have you dealt with all those bumps in the road and the failures or the more difficult moments because you seem, you are here, you are going, we will talk a little bit about the last few months under this horrendous pandemic and how you have dealt with it, but how have you generally kept your calm and your direction?

Karen Emanuel

I am quite pragmatic and I think I am quite good at crisis management and I plan a lot.  I always say to people sort of when you are becoming an entrepreneur is to know your numbers so I have always known my numbers and known what might happen to them if something terrible happens.  I am not going to say it’s been easy, there was a time with the crash of sort of 2007/2008 I had to make people redundant and because of the way I started the company and I was so young, the people that started with me, we all became really tight and really close friends so when it came to making the hard decision which is the hardest thing I have ever done, I had to make my good friends redundant.  It was horrible.  But you have to learn through it and the outcome of course is that the bigger company was able to survive so more people were able to survive than were made redundant and all those people have gone on to really good things in their life and are still friends, thankfully.  So yeah, I guess it is about looking ahead, about seeing what could happen and being prepared for it.  Obviously through the acquisition, maybe not obviously, I have made quite a lot of acquisitions along the way and the acquisitions that I have made have not been for me to be bigger than anyone else or take over the world, it has actually added things into the company that we didn’t have before to make us better so for example, Think Tank Media works slightly outside the music industry and bespoke packaging so we bought a whole load of knowledge on board about bespoke packaging which just happened to be at the time when the music industry was doing a lot more bespoke packaging and so we were able to become experts quite quickly so we were able to move with what the music industry was doing and at the same time, work in creative packaging outside the music industry because of the panic around ‘oh my God downloading is going to ruin the business’ which of course it didn’t.  So yeah lots of bumps, lumps, changes.

Elliot Moss

And must have been hard being the leader of the business, the owner of the business and being close but also having to make those, those big calls.  What would you describe your leadership style as?  You seem very straight forward to me and you say it as it is?

Karen Emanuel

Yeah, I do and one of our kind of values is integrity in the company.  I try to explain the bigger picture, I haven’t always been good at that but have learnt that that’s a good thing to do.  I try to be very open with the staff, let them know what’s going on.  I try to bring people along with me.  I give a lot of autonomy to people.  It is no good looking over somebody’s shoulder, they are not going to work best like that.  People are very familial, I know it’s quite a cliché but people do think that, the company is really you know, quite tight, there is really good sort of moral, a really good culture there which obviously has been quite difficult to try to keep together over Covid and I think that’s where it sort of helps everyone working really well together and really well as teams is, yeah, autonomy, integrity, family spirit that sort of things.

Elliot Moss

You’ve got lots, you alluded to a few of them, you’ve got lots of different parts to this business, you’ve also got a hotel on an island which you bought apparently my researchers tell me, for the price of a London garage?

Karen Emanuel

Yes that is…

Elliot Moss

Whatever a London garage costs.

Karen Emanuel

…that is correct.

Elliot Moss

How do you keep on top of all the different things or is it pretty straight forward because they are all right in front of you?

Karen Emanuel

Nicaragua is not exactly in front of me.

Elliot Moss

Apart from Nicaragua obviously but with that or Hicoro.

Karen Emanuel

Hicoro.

Elliot Moss

Hicoro yes.

Karen Emanuel

I build very good teams around me, you know, it’s the teams that are really running the businesses.  It is like I am leading them but hey are running them so yeah, it’s not a big secret but sometimes it makes me wonder why people don’t realise that.

Elliot Moss

You mean in terms of actually the way to do it is you get great teams?

Karen Emanuel

Yes.

Elliot Moss

But then you have also, a number of my guests on the programme from Sir Martin Sorrell to Kelly Hoppen have all said ‘anyone that says they are not involved in the minutiae of the numbers and the detail is probably telling you a fib and that is the only way to really know what is going on’ and you have talked about numbers a couple of times.

Karen Emanuel

Yeah the numbers absolutely, the day-to-day detail I really don’t need to know unless there is an issue that can’t be solved by someone in the team which there should be, I mean I have always said that you know, to… if you can’t reap some of the benefits of running a successful business and one of my benefits that I want to reap is travel, and being able to step away and let the team manage it for you then I will say you are doing something a little wrong.  I do know the numbers and I am on top of the numbers because that’s really important because you need to know where to steer the ship if something goes and obviously I am always on the lookout for improving, getting better, putting better systems in and things like that but actual day-to-day I haven’t dealt with, I mean, my staff wouldn’t let me anywhere near doing that, it would be a disaster.

Elliot Moss

And the other thing that intrigued me as I was reading about you is this focus on sustainability.  To me it is second nature, why wouldn’t I care about my environment and I will try and do things personally and then corporately to address that.  Was it the same for you and if so, where did it come from or is it just common sense?

Karen Emanuel

It is the same for me, yes.  It was common sense from when I was actually a student at Leeds and started reading a lot of books becoming very aware of my environment.  I actually went vegetarian back then at nineteen years old.  I am not now but I do eat carefully, sustainably.

Elliot Moss

I won’t out you, it’s okay, it’s okay.

Karen Emanuel

I’ve just outed myself.

Elliot Moss

You did.

Karen Emanuel

But I began to think of things back then and I think back then you were looked at as being a little bit odd, a little bit cookie, a little bit alternative for caring about the environment and going ‘actually we should be looking at solar power, wind power, we should be eating less meat, less intensive farming’ and so yeah right back then I was really aware and so that has just carried through and I know, it seems a bit counter intuitive because we make products that is made out of plastic but you can do that in a sustainable way and the product that we make is not meant to be thrown away, it’s meant to be kept on your shelves and then passed on so you know, and as I say we are putting quite a lot of pressure actually on a lot of the factories to keep improving all their sustainability practices at the moment.

Elliot Moss

And obviously the hotel is sustainable, I know it is closed at the moment which is a shame.  Is that fun?  Because that is very different obviously, it’s a bit off… it’s slightly different from running the music business but have you really enjoyed that in a different way?

Karen Emanuel

Yeah again sort of passionate about music, that’s what sort of keeps me going and keeps me driving forward.  The hotel, passionate about travel, passionate about sustainability.  Yes it’s great.  I think when you are an entrepreneur, when you run businesses there is certain things that are completely transferable to all different sorts of businesses and yeah it’s… it was really interesting to transfer my skills from one thing to another.  It is not to say it has been not been difficult juggling two very different things that are going through different processes.  Nearly lost a huge customer at Key Production when my attention was more focussed on Hicoro but yeah I learnt a lot of valuable lessons through all of that but again I have got a very, very good team and management team at the hotel that look after things and report to me so I know what is happening there at all times.

Elliot Moss

Karen Emanuel is my Business Shaper just for a few minutes more so I had better make good use of them.  You talked about the troubles in 2007 with the industry which sort of materialised but not quite in the way that maybe we all thought they were going to.  We have obviously, we are in the middle of a global pandemic, you’ve had issues along the way.  What would be your advice to a young entrepreneur now who is faced with significant challenges and not of their own making necessarily but kind of more global and nothing is more global or more out of our control than this pandemic, at least in its creation.  What would you say to them? What do they need to do to get through it?

Karen Emanuel

Focus, what I am telling everybody actually is to very much have a routine in your day, exercise, go out and see nature, if you are an entrepreneur forecast, have a look at what your business is going to look at.  A lot of people have been pivoting their businesses and trying to see it a different way that they can use their skill within the business.  With ourselves that wasn’t really an option as we do what we do but as I say, we have been sort of very much about planning and communication.  We’ve just kept up communication between each other all the time, with our clients of course and with our suppliers just to keep things going and what I’ve been saying to my staff which I think is good advice is just to try to be better than we were, and try to come out of this stronger, try to learn from it.  You know, obviously it is hard with everybody working from home but try to make your working from home as comfortable as you can and try to sort of look at it as if you are in the office.  Yeah it is certainly not easy but I think anyone with a driving passion will keep going.  Remember I actually started in a recession and quite often entrepreneurs sort of starting around times of difficulty can do really well.

Elliot Moss

Mmm.  But surely you have had wobbles along the way however strong you are and however many times you’ve kind of seen adversity, I imagine that that’s tough?

Karen Emanuel

It is.  I’ve got good family and friends around me and I think that really helps and I shut off, I mean you never shut off as an entrepreneur but I do, you know, I will try not to answer emails or do any work things after say 6.00 o’clock.  My weekends are my weekends you know, I do try and get away on holiday and again when I am on holiday unless it is really urgent, I am not going to take calls and I am not going to answer emails.  I really try to have kind of thinking time and clear my head time and that really helps with the business.

Elliot Moss

You sound very organised Karen.  You sound like you’ve got it under control.  Whatever, I mean I imagine though if we had this chat in three years times your business will have morphed in some way, subtly and maybe unsubtly in others but you will be here telling me the story?

Karen Emanuel

Very possibly yes.

Elliot Moss

I hope so, it has been lovely chatting to you.  Thank you for your time.  Thank you for doing it in person as well.  This is what I am loving about this moment, we are venturing out and seeing each other which is really good.  Just before I let you go, what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Karen Emanuel

My song choice is Better Think Twice with the vocal of Harry Bentley.

Elliot Moss

And why this one?

Karen Emanuel

I am so glad you asked me that.  My family has got a long history of jazz and Harry Bentley was actually a great uncle of mine, not only was there him but another great uncle on the other side of my family is Al Tabor who is a big band leader and laid claim to having written the Hokey Cokey.

Elliot Moss

The song choice of my Business Shaper today, Karen Emanuel.  Someone who loves solving problems, that’s what she does and has been doing for many, many years.  Someone who said ‘know the numbers, you can’t know your business, you can’t know the trajectory of it unless you know those numbers’ and also someone who has carved out thinking time, critical to her and her mental health and the health of her businesses.  Great stuff.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

Karen started out in the music business in the late 80s, climbing the ladder in an overwhelmingly male-dominated sector by asking the right questions, and taking every opportunity to learn the numbers side of the business.

In 1990, she used £2,000 from a redundancy pay-out to start Key Production in a damp, dark office in North London. Now, Key Production Group comprises six companies employing 54 people at four offices in England, and turns over around £14m a year. Key Production's work can be seen in the full A-to-Z of music artists, from Alt J to The XX. Their new products include the Kylie Minogue compilation, Step Back In Time - available on pastel shaded cassette for a growing army of retro lovers.

Karen is passionate about sustainability and travel, and Key Production have been at the forefront of pushing for improvements in the sustainability of the product they manufacture. Karen also built the eco-hotel Jicaro - the romantic island retreat in Nicaragua, which is one of National Geographic’s Lodges of the World. In 2018, Karen won the highly prestigious NatWest Everywoman Prize.

Highlights

It was almost like a game - let’s see if I can do this.

Reach for the stars, always ask questions, don’t worry if you fail

I thought it doesn’t matter if I fail, I am going to give it a go

Women quite often have imposter syndrome

It took me years to realise that actually I have to ask to get that recognition

When you are becoming an entrepreneur, know your numbers

Being an entrepreneur is about looking ahead, seeing what could happen and being prepared for it.

I give a lot of autonomy to people.  It is no good looking over somebody’s shoulder, they are not going to work best like that.

I build very good teams around me, it’s the teams that are really running the businesses. 

When you are an entrepreneur, when you run businesses there are certain things that are completely transferable

Try to be better than you were and try to come out of this stronger, try to learn from it

I really try to have thinking time and clear my head time, and that really helps with the business.

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