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“My business couldn’t have existed ten years ago”

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“It was over a decade ago that I left London for my new life in the country. My husband and I had decided that the City was not an ideal environment to bring our children up. Like many 30-somethings, we were looking for a better quality of life. I had been a PA in London to many high-profile individuals and company chairmen and, for some extraordinary reason, they still wanted to use my services, even though I now lived 90 miles away.

“And so I set up my first business venture, a small company with one employee – me! The name I chose was Outsourced Secretarial Services, a very grand name for what was a very small business. Over the years, we decided that it was too long a name and hence we abbreviated it to OutSec, which we felt had a bit more of an “internet ring” to it.

“When I first set up the company, it still operated on very conventional lines. Clients would dictate into a recorder, create a tape and then physically send the tape to my home in Norfolk by post or by motorbike courier. I shudder to think now what global footprint this must have entailed. It was also an extremely unreliable service, dependent on an erratic postal service and the ability of motor bike couriers to actually find our very remote farmhouse.

“However, the business grew and, at the end of my first year, I had recruited two local ladies in the village to assist me. This involved me physically taking the tapes to them as well! It was clumsy and it was slow – but it was fun. It was still a very much a small-scale venture but it did enable me to have a degree of financial independence and I could see that there was clearly going to be, at some stage in the future, a lot of demand for our services. The problem was how we were actually going to be able to deliver it in an efficient manner.

“The big breakthrough for OutSec was around 2002 when broadband, thanks to BT, began to be rolled out extensively throughout the country. More and more clients began to buy digital recorders and were able to send and receive work electronically. The physical barriers of an office, the walls themselves, were slowly dissolving as we entered a new business environment. It was clear to me that OutSec had gained green credentials almost by default. Let me explain that. If you employ a secretary in your office he or she has to get to your office by train, by car, rarely by foot. Once in the office, they sit at their desks using their computers until they have to go home again and repeat that dull tedious commute. A 20-mile round trip commute to work in a car can use anything between two and six tonnes of C02 emissions per year, depending on the type of car. By using OutSec, all of that energy wasted in travel could be eliminated instantly.

“With the OutSec model, a client, for example a chartered surveyor, can dictate a survey on his mobile phone direct from the property he is in. He doesn’t not need to return to his office to send the dictated file, as he can upload directly to our server where it will then be routed to his own personal secretary who is located in the comfort of their own home. All of the infrastructure required, such as templates, transcription equipment etc, is housed on a local basis. By having our secretaries – and we now have over 300 of them – all working from home rather than having to commute on a daily basis, OutSec secretaries have already reduced the carbon footprint of the UK by three million miles in a year, which equates to more than 1,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

“Once I had realised the implications of this, I then began to apply the green principle to other areas of the business. In our entire office, we have just one printer and we use two cartridges a year. Everything that we generate is electronic, all our invoices go electronically, all sales materials, newsletters and communication is by email or VOIP. Business meetings are conducted in a teleconference format and we find SKYPE to be a marvellous tool for video conferencing as well. Despite the fact that we have a large number of European clients now, we have no need to fly anywhere.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the ability for us to promote our company as green has not only tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment but it will continue to have long-term benefits both in a business, commercial and a very personal way.”

Vanessa Phillips was a key speaker at The Prince’s May Day Network on climate change.

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Brian Burnie gives fortune to charity
Tuesday, 19 May 2009
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