Jazz Shaper: Penny Streeter

Posted on 27 May 2022

Penny Streeter OBE is CEO of A24 Group medical staffing, the business she founded in 1996.

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues.   My guest today is Penny Streeter OBE, Founder and CEO of A24 Group, the medical recruitment agency.  Zimbabwe born Penny left school aged 15 without any qualifications and started work in the UK on a Youth Training Scheme, having as she says, “Fallen into the recruitment industry by chance,” Penny was inspired to start her own recruitment company, Elite Personnel, with the support of her mentor, her mother Marian.  But the failure of the business alongside Penny’s divorce left her homeless and penniless and finding refuge in homeless accommodation with her three young children.  After some years working in other people’s recruitment businesses, Penny tried again, funded by evenings moonlighting as a children’s party entertainer, she launched A24, a round the clock nursing staffing agency, in 1996, from the corner of a friend’s car dealership and with help from her mother, the business generated £1 million in sales within one year.  A24 has since grown rapidly, providing more than a 100,000 hours work each work for healthcare professionals in the UK and South Africa.  I’ll be talking to Penny in just a couple of minutes about all of this and, wait for it, about her award-winning wine brand and how, as a keen conservationist, she acquired and restored the 240 acre UK site, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens. 

It’s great to have you here.  I should confess that we are doing this with the wonders of modern technology and science.  You are sitting in South Africa in my virtual Jazz FM studio and I am sitting here in London.  It’s fabulous that we could make this happen.  Thank you.  A remarkable story, Penny, and I often at the beginning of the programme I set out the stall and I say here’s this person and so on and so forth.  It’s not often I have met an OBE who was homeless at one time.  Could you imagine that you would be having these series of conversations about your life at this point, having gone through what you went through?

Penny Streeter OBE

No, at the time, I mean it would have been completely ludicrous to have thought that you know we would be sitting here talking about how well my business has done.  At the time, I was just interested in how I could put food on the table for my kids and what my strategy was going to be to get some money into my household.

Elliot Moss

And at that time, you talk about that and people often talk about Founders who are… who literally are hungry for success, who talk about survival.  When it’s actually real, do you think that is one of the things that marks you out as a very different kind of human that is doing this because the stakes were genuine rather than “Oh wouldn’t it be nice if?” 

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah.  I think it definitely becomes a primal instinct to survive and provide.  At the time, like you said, I had three young children and having had a fantastic childhood myself in Zimbabwe, I just thought oh my goodness, I’ve got these three kids and now, you know, they’re going to have a life of abject poverty and you know I wanted to do everything I could to turn that around.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the first business, the business you set up, which then eventually didn’t work, what was it like dealing with failure in those early years?  How did you cope?

Penny Streeter OBE

Look, I mean, I don’t think failure ever really worried me, I mean I’m very much always have been the sort of kind of person that will pick myself up, dust myself down and go forward.  I’m really, really optimistic so if I did something wrong, it just never, you know, it was water off a duck’s back, I just carried on and did something different. 

Elliot Moss

And did you even think about it as failure or was it more about well, okay that didn’t work, there’ll be another time and I’ll get on with it then?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, no, I mean I didn’t.  I mean the one point when you mentioned my first business, Elite Personnel, when that crashed in the ‘80s, I mean that felt, I don’t think I really felt a failure, I think other people viewed me as a failure and that sort of annoyed me and irritated me a bit but personally, it’s never got me down.

Elliot Moss

Am I right in thinking actually that probably fuelled you a little bit?  You were like, “Excuse me.  I’ll be the judge of whether I’m doing alright or not.”  I mean, is that part of Penny Streeter as well, that little bit of defiance? 

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, definitely.  No such thing as can’t so, you know, definitely can come back on that. 

Elliot Moss

When you founded the business back in 1996, what were your first moves?  What were the things that you think looking back now were the first things that you did which laid down the foundations of a successful business because it was a pretty, it was a pretty brave thing to do then?

Penny Streeter OBE

I think the one thing that stands out is at the time we became a 24/7 business so, it doesn’t sound odd nowadays because we live in a much more 24/7 society but at the time, certainly in the healthcare industry that we provided, although our clients were open 24/7, certainly anyone that supplied them, definitely wasn’t.  So, it seemed to us ludicrous that you… that nobody was sort of matching the hours of the healthcare institutions they were providing and that was the big, real differential that set us apart from the rest of the pack really.

Elliot Moss

Was it an obvious thing for you to do, Penny, at the time or was it just a bit of luck?

Penny Streeter OBE

I think for me it was pretty obvious, you know, because we were having clients ringing in our mobiles asking us for instructions and asking for staff left, right and centre and the natural progression was just to follow the industry and go 24/7.

Elliot Moss

And of course people would now call that in the parlance, Minimum Viable Product, and they would say well I looked at the product market fit and all these other things.  At that point common sense prevailed and that was the idea, that was the insight as it were.  How quickly did you realise that you needed to then resource the business accordingly because once you say that, you’ve then actually got to make the execution work.  How many people did you have to hire up front?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, well with no money, you can’t hire anybody so, guess who became 24/7?  Literally, I would work all day and then answer the phones all night so our clients would ring or nurses would ring and have a chat with me at 2.00 o’clock in the morning and being professional, I would be sitting there chatting away to them and it was only in later years when I told them that actually they’d woken me up in the middle of the night, you know, determined to keep that true grit and sort of make sure that clients knew we were sitting there and felt we were in an office the whole time. 

Elliot Moss

How long did you do that for?  How long were you the through the night person?

Penny Streeter OBE

It blurs a lot into sort of… when you work non-stop and especially when you work 24/7 but certainly, I would say for the first year/eighteen months of the business, it was very much like that, you know, the same when we had to get nurses to hospitals on Christmas Day and so forth, it was us, we were the taxi drivers as well, we were doing everything. 

Elliot Moss

I mean that must have taken a toll, physically.  How did you, I mean you’ve got three kids, you are literally up and down the whole time, I mean it’s like being on, it’s not even shift work, there is no shift, it’s just constant.  How did you manage to kind of hang onto your sanity?  Was it just because you were so driven to make it a success?

Penny Streeter OBE

It was because I was driven.  I mean, like you say, I had three small children, I’d literally say to them, “Be quiet, the phone’s ringing” and they knew, they would go silent and sit there on their toy phones, imitating me.  So, you know, you just get through it. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for more from my guest, Penny Streeter, who, in her own words, is someone who just gets through it.  She’ll be back in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  They can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Martha Averley and Matt Robinson talk about equity, diversity and inclusion with regards to recruitment and how employers can recruit in a fair but diverse way.

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you have got a smart speaker just ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will be greeted with a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today’s eminent guest, Penny Streeter, Founder and CEO of A24 Group, the medical recruitment agency.  She is with me in my virtual Jazz FM studio, now located in Cape Town no less, and that is where Penny is conducting this conversation with me as I sit here in Jazz FM HQ in the middle of central London.  In terms of then the business grows, you hire people, you hopefully get to go to sleep at night without having to be woken up, you don’t have to drive the taxi, there are people that come in – what kind of leader in those early years, was Penny Streeter?  How did she morph from doing everything herself to then delegating?

Penny Streeter OBE

Oh, with a lot of difficulty, I mean, I think that staff who worked with me in the early days and probably still now, will say that I was the most horrific boss because we used to work 12-hour shifts, I had everyone working 8.00 in the morning to 8.00 at night and literally, our phones would be ringing off the hanger and as they’d get up to go home at 8.00 o’clock in the evening, I’d say, “What do you think you’re doing?  Sit down.  You can’t leave me here.”  So, I used to very much, I don’t know, have the expectation that everyone in the business should work as hard as me and I think, you know, as a result a lot of the people that worked with me in the early days went on to run their own businesses really successfully.  They sort of metamorphosed off that so, but yeah, I mean it’s a lot calmer nowadays, we don’t, we don’t carry on like that any longer but…

Elliot Moss

But you want to, I can see. 

Penny Streeter OBE

It was fun times. 

Elliot Moss

I bet it was.  And is this a natural energy that you have or has this been, again was it out of circumstance that this kind of come on, just keep on going, there’s more to do, came from?  What do you think?

Penny Streeter OBE

I think it’s a natural energy that I have.  I think I’m, I am just a hardworking, driven person and I enjoy what I do and if I’m doing something I love then, yeah, there’s no stopping me.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of this growth, as you got more and more people, did this version of Penny Streeter, the you know, the kind of obsessive, ongoing…

Penny Streeter OBE

Slavedriver. 

Elliot Moss

Yeah, slavedriver, I didn’t want to say it, you said it.  The slavedriver.  When did the slavedriver become a more enlightened delegator because obviously the business gets to a certain size, Penny, and that’s just not going to fly, not for you, just because you can’t control everything, you can’t get people to stay seated and carry on working?  Was there a moment when you went, hold on a minute, I need to, things are changing and I do need to reflect on how I am doing this?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, no, I mean that just came naturally into the business because the people that joined me weren’t necessarily greatly experienced with that but they became really good at what they were able to do and people were able to develop and run their own departments and businesses.  I mean a lot of them are still with me now so, you know, that’s testament that it worked and you know, certainly I mean no business can grow without having the delegation of all of those people and good people coming through and you know A24 Group has them in spades.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the new business as it were, the vineyards and things, when did you set up your first one?  When did you buy your first?

Penny Streeter OBE

In 2013.

Elliot Moss

Okay and since then, is there a very different way that you approach management based on the experience of A24 or is it really like Penny Streeter light?  Is it essentially, it’s you really and you pop and you go, no, no, no, keep going, it’s not enough?

Penny Streeter OBE

Look, it’s the same thing because A24 Group is a customer driven business and as soon as I went into hospitality, it’s actually the same, it’s also really, really customer driven and customer focussed so, it wasn’t too different going into the two industries, it’s just that obviously the hospitality one, you know, you have to be a lot more intensive on how you deal with things. 

Elliot Moss

Penny, the level that you have got to in terms of business success and the OBE back in 2006, I think it was, was a fair time ago, at that point there were not many female business models, role models, who were doing as well as you.  That’s changed, it’s changing.  What do you feel about that now?  I mean, are you, do you now look around and go I’ve got more people that are showing the world that this is, there’s absolutely no difference, obviously, there’s absolutely no difference between what a man and a woman can do because if we were having this conversation stupidly 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, there was still, there’s still a narrative where there’s sexism, where there’s you know lack of funding for female entrepreneurs and so on and so forth.  What is your position on that in 2022?

Penny Streeter OBE

Ah look, it’s changed immensely.  Like you say, I mean, back in the day there was only a handful of people and they were the main sort of role models like Anita Roddick and those kind of people but you know literally you could count them on one hand and it really, really has changed.  I mean, I think women have got a lot more confident and are a lot more out there and I mean, you know you just bump into female entrepreneurs running successful businesses all over the place now so, yeah, it’s a very changed world.

Elliot Moss

Tell me about the hospitality business a little bit.  What have you enjoyed, in a different kind of way, because what you, you know selling a hundred thousand hours of staffing is a very specific thing, it’s not outdoors, it doesn’t involve growing grapes, it doesn’t involve the process of creating wine, which people then… you know, it’s a completely different business.  Tell me about the nature of the enjoyment that you’ve had since 2013 and creating these lovely vineyards. 

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, it’s like a whole new world for me because the recruitment industry is cut throat, competitive, we don’t meet and talk to our competitors, you know, we don’t like them at all so, going into the hospitality and particularly the wine industry, is a completely different ball game.  I mean, they are friendly, they talk to each other, they share ideas, all sorts of things so, it’s been actually amazing after years and years and years of being locked away in a tower, I’ve been eventually allowed to get out and now I can swirl a glass and you know taste wines and create something that you can actually see, it’s actually fantastic, I enjoy it.

Elliot Moss

And in terms of actually enjoying the product, I imagine that it is quite lovely sitting there on the grass with the sun on your back and a glass of wine in your hand – I’m actually thinking as I say it now, I really want to be doing that – but is that… do you also settle in and enjoy it as a consumer if you like, as much as an owner?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, absolutely, I mean like a lot of people, I mean I’ve enjoyed a glass of wine but it’s not until you become really involved within the business that you actually understand so much more about it so, yeah, no, I mean there’s nothing better than now understanding the whole process, being a great consumer and understanding the differences between the various climates that we grow our vines in.

Elliot Moss

I recall being, years ago in South Africa and going to Franschhoek and places like that, where the soil had been brought in by the Huguenots, I believe, and there was all these amazing things about which way the vineyard was facing and I was like, I really am a total neanderthal when it comes to wine production.  I’m sure you’re not. 

Penny Streeter OBE

Not anymore. 

Elliot Moss

Not anymore.  Good.  We’ll have our final chat with my guest today, it’s Penny Streeter and we’ve also got an absolute classic from The Isley Brothers.  That’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

Penny Streeter is my iconic Business Shaper today and she’s the Founder of A24 Recruitment but also is the person now behind… how many have you got?  You’ve got three different vineyards at the moment is it or is it…?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah.  We’ve got three.  So we’ve got Benguela Cove, we’ve got Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate in West Sussex and Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens in West Sussex as well. 

Elliot Moss

So they’re in different countries, how do you manage that?

Penny Streeter OBE

Look, I have a great winery team.  Luckily, I am working with the same team that works with me across both the UK and South Africa so our Cellar Master and our viticulturists work across both so we, you know, we have a, we have absolute perfection, I think. 

Elliot Moss

Despite you saying you are a slavedriver, right?  You seem to have a lot of loyalty around you and I know we were kind of half joking.  Do you think it’s because business life can be a little dull and that people are a bit transactional about stuff and that when they meet a Penny Streeter, they are like oh hold on a second, this is different, I mean this person really lives and breathes it and wants to do good and if that’s true, is that when you interview people, are you naturally looking for someone who’s going to flourish in your environment because obviously there are people that may not want to work quite as hard?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, look, I mean I think it’s very noticeable because what we have is very much a flat structure that we operate within the business, very much an open door situation and it’s not for everyone.  In fact a lot of people run screaming away from my business because of that process, they don’t like the unstructured processes that there are and I think people either thrive in it or they fail and it’s as simple as that so, I’m not looking for anyone who’s particularly entrepreneurial but someone who actually enjoys a bit more excitement so, yeah, I think that’s what it is. 

Elliot Moss

Just in terms of the kids, I’m intrigued, all these years later, are they kind of aware of what mum did back in the day?  Have they, I mean do they talk about it with you?

Penny Streeter OBE

Yeah, I mean two of them work with me so, you know, they… the expectation is that I’ve said to them the old adage that you get people who are successful, their children tend to be completely useless so, I’ve told them all of that so now they all work night and day to make sure they prove me wrong so…

Elliot Moss

Oh lord, I bet you’re, I’m sure but if they don’t follow in your footsteps, what do you want from them?  If they’re not, if they’re not quite you and they’re not as entrepreneurial, what is it that you would be happy with in terms of them being your kids?

Penny Streeter OBE

Look, I’m happy with them, as long as they are working, earning a living and happy in what they are doing, you know, I’m happy with that so, they don’t have to be self-employed. 

Elliot Moss

And for you looking forward, you continue to do what you do, are there other, you know, obviously super entrepreneurial, are there are other things that you might move into or is this, are you settled now in terms of what you are doing?

Penny Streeter OBE

Look, at the moment, I mean the businesses that I’ve got, specifically the hospitality businesses, Benguela Cove we’re busy developing a hotel site, Leonardslee we’ve just opened our hotel site there and then we’ve got massive retail facilities that we are also looking to add there so, I’m so far off getting to the end of where I am with those businesses so, you know, at the moment I’m told to drive round with a blindfold and not buy anything else by my family so…

Elliot Moss

I’m sure they’re going to issue you with blindfolds at Christmas every time and go, here Mum, here’s another blindfold, please use it.  It’s been really nice talking to you and enjoy the rest of the day in Cape Town.  I’m not at all jealous, he says, obviously lying.  Penny, thank you, we will be keeping an eye on your future success and looking forward to hearing all about it.

Elliot Moss

My Business Shaper today was Penny Streeter.  She never saw anything she did that didn’t quite work out as failure.  There was no such thing as failure.  The stakes were super high for her as she talked about her past and being homeless and having three young children to feed but that message of just getting on with it was absolutely critical.  And finally, natural energy when you are a founder, it’s really, really useful and for her it’s been super central to her success.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

She has since set up a wine and hospitality group that includes Benguela Cove Lagoon Wine Estate in South Africa, and Mannings Heath Golf & Wine Club and Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens in the UK. At one time living in a homeless refuge with three children, Penny built her award-winning business group from scratch, with no borrowings or outside investors, all the while championing her two major causes of women in business and the protection of the natural environment. Penny was awarded the OBE for ‘Services to Enterprise’ in 2006.  

Highlights

Years ago, it would have been completely ludicrous to have thought that we would be sitting here talking about how well my business has done. 

I don’t think failure ever really worried me, I’m very much the kind of person that will pick myself up, dust myself down and go forward.  

I’m really, really optimistic so if I did something wrong, it was water off a duck’s back. 

Becoming a 24/7 business was the big, real differential that set us apart from the pack. 

A lot of the people that worked with me in the early days went on to run their own businesses successfully. 

I’m just a hardworking, driven person and I enjoy what I do and if I’m doing something I love then, yeah, there’s no stopping me. 

I think women have got a lot more confident and are a lot more out there. 

You bump into female entrepreneurs running successful businesses all over the place now - it’s a very changed world 

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