As part of our Women who Influence series, we speak with Doctor Lesley Phillips about juggling family and career and running her successful craft company THE SOAP KITCHEN.

Lesley casts her mind back to those early days, when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, how she urged her to continue with her medical studies, and her brave life choices along the way.

To be honest and to dig deep there is one huge part of my life’s journey that has affected me. I was unfortunate to lose my mother when I was 21. This was very hard at a time in my life when I was at medical school in the midst of my fourth year. 

She wouldn’t let me take time off my studies during her terminal illness as she wanted me to succeed, it was difficult but the right decision and I respected it. Obviously I would go home when I could and regularly spent time with her before her death. I know she was proud but worried about me being a doctor and the sacrifices I would have to make. She thought that this sacrifice would be a family life. Herself and my grandmother hadn’t been able to pursue a career like many of both their generations because of family commitments which was more of a barrier then. I think I have moved that forward like a lot of women of my generation and you can do both if that is what works for you. 

My daughters are her only grandchildren and I do know I would give anything for her to have known them. People of my age who still have their mothers are finding they are getting elderly now and that does bring problems. I consider them lucky to have had that time and that relationship over many years which is priceless. I know there is pressure on women to keep youthful but having the privilege to remain healthy and be able to age gracefully should never be taken for granted

If you cast your mind back to when you first heard of the concept of your new creative hobby/business, which is now THE SOAP KITCHEN, what aspect of it attracted you the most? 

I was attracted by the fact that this was a craft based business. I have always loved making things and started sewing when I was around 5 years old. My parents used to smoke before the dangers were fully known and gave me a catalogue to choose anything I liked from the vouchers out of the cigarette packets. I chose my first sewing machine. I learnt to knit at a young age too. Everyone in my immediate family got handmade gifts for Christmas, whether they liked it or not! I used to love going to the annual flower festivals and fetes in the village and buying handmade items out of my pocket money. I remember also helping at a local event in the village when I was about 15. I had made some things to sell. I was on a stall next to a local artist. He was so impressed that he gave me three of his original illustrations as a reward for my efforts. I went on to organise my own craft sale outside our house to raise money for charity. 

So I suppose the concept in the infancy of the business reconnected me with a passion for craft. I hadn’t had time for being creative over the previous years due to being at medical school and then the long hours working as a qualified doctor. We spent time researching what was available for soap making by visiting large hobby and craft exhibitions which rekindled my interest in creativity. 

Were you at a stage when you were looking to change some aspect of your life, or did it take you by surprise? 

At this point I had just had my second child and me and my husband felt that we wanted more freedom to be ourselves with more flexibility in our lives. I was working as a full time GP by then, leaving home before my daughter was awake and getting home when she was in bed. I started to question who I was doing this for ? I didn’t want to miss out on her childhood. I had a lot of responsibility for a large number of patients in my NHS practice. After a 15 year full time career in the NHS we make a difficult decision and decided to relocate to North Devon where we had bought and renovated two cottages ( another story in that we also ran a property development company at that time). We loved going there and each time coming back home felt such a wrench. The eldest daughter was due to go to secondary school so we had a window of opportunity for her to start in a North Devon school at the right time. 

I had also had an unusual encounter with one of my patients sometime before this. During one of my consultations with her, she suddenly took my hands and held them tight. She looked me straight in the eye and said to me, you will leave this practice and this place. She told me she was clairvoyant, she said don’t worry about it, it will be for a good reason and it will be the right decision. I was quite taken aback as my plans at that time were for a long commitment to the practice and I had a large mortgage to pay. I have to say being very practical I wouldn’t have been that open minded about her claims. I didn’t say much and just finished the consultation as I would have done normally. Maybe in some way she gave me permission to let go and put myself and my family first when I needed to. I do sometimes wonder how she is. She did say good bye at our last meeting before I left with an ‘I told you so’ look that said it all, it was quite special. 

Why did you call it the Soap Kitchen? Such an innovative name. 

We were playing with words one evening and as there was no other such business in the UK at the time had a pretty much free reign with choosing the name. We thought The Soap Kitchen portrayed the message that making soap was something that could be easily done in the kitchen using basic utensils. My husband designed the logo with a ladle to reinforce the brand and the message. It isn’t a difficult craft and in a way is akin to baking, it is crucial to have the right ingredients weighed and measured and follow a recipe. Natural soap making is our core product but we now supply ingredients to make all sorts of toiletries and beauty products. Bath bombs are particularly popular and easy to make but we have also expanded to provide candle making supplies as our fragrances and essential oils are suitable for both. 

Was it tough for you in the beginning, juggling family with a new business and a high powered career.

It was really tough at the beginning when we first moved. To start with foot and mouth hit the area soon after we moved to North Devon which had a devastating effect on the local community. We had decided that we weren’t going to use a childminder as we had in the south east so we juggled childcare as well as work. I ended up working more weekends than ever before doing markets and craft stalls which was enjoyable but not that profitable. I also had to establish myself as a locum GP in surgeries that didn’t know me. I was finding that local GP surgeries demanded me being on call which was something I had hoped I had left behind, the most stressful part of the job. Locum work was not as well paid as it had been in the south east so I helped set up a locum group to address this issue. I met some lovely locum GP colleagues who were very supportive. I was offered two part time GP jobs but it meant a commitment to a partnership again so I declined however tempting the income was. 

I decided to get myself trained to do occupational health assessments so that I could have more flexibility in my medical work. We were lucky in that my parents in law live in the area too and enjoyed having my youngest daughter who was still pre-school to help out. She had a lovely time, going to the beach most weeks with them and exploring the area. 

Did you have a vision for the business, and did you ever imagine it would grow into such a successful business. 

There was never a long term plan for the business and I think if someone told us then how much we would grow I would have thought they were joking. I would have fallen off my chair I think. I had some experience of running a business as GP partnerships are self- employed businesses and employ their own ancillary staff with the responsibility that entails. These skills have been very helpful as we have taken on more and more employees over the years as we have grown. 

In more recent years with the support of our staff we have been able to go to international trade events for the cosmetic industry and have been overwhelmed by the reception we have received as we are now well established and a known brand. 

Do you think it is you and your husband’s passion for the Soap Kitchen that has driven it, and do you need that commitment for a creative industry to thrive. 

We both have continued passion for the business and continually embrace change and move forward, there is no room for complacency in business. As well as passion in the early stages there were hours of unpaid work and meticulous attention to detail. Being honest to the core beliefs and being prepared to say no as necessary when ideas are not compatible. You can’t be half hearted and the way you present a creative business needs have an identity and originality. It’s own story needs to be told and it needs to be honest. We have always listened to customers and over the years have built up a huge network of suppliers to meet their needs. We make sure that we can deliver all the latest beauty trends and quality ingredients in quantities and prices that suit our customer base. We have also made sure we are always ahead of the game as regards to ecommerce. Looking forward, being mindful of SEO and ever changing demand of the internet. We manage the website in house and upload all the products and keep the website fresh. We provide excellent customer service and our staff are proud to have a Feefo 5 star gold award. We have had this two years running since we started using the service to get validated customer reviews. 

Were there times when you had to really struggle. 

There were many times when I struggled through this journey. Giving up the security of a GP partnership and relocating your family to different schools is a leap into the unknown. Basically we reinvented ourselves and took charge of our lives and future. We always had my career to fall back on and when times were tough I had to go out and get any extra money we needed. That was very hard and stressful but I have managed to juggle my career. I am still a practising doctor with GMC revalidation and maintain my CPD ( Continued Professional Development). My career now spans 32 years and apart from a few months maternity leave with my two daughters I have never had a career break. 

Do you still love the business and would you have made other choices if you had the opportunity again?

I still love the business and am proud of what we have achieved. We are spreading the passion to our employees and try to choose staff that can identify with our core values. We still steer the business but respect the input of our team as they do the day to day running of the business. Given the same opportunity I would make the same choices. The question I often ask myself is whether I would have chosen medicine as a career. It is such hard work and dampened the creativity I had from an early age. I still have a passion for textiles and in another life I would pursue a career involving creativity from the outset. My sewing teacher told my parents that I was very talented at a parents evening but in those days if you were scientifically minded probably like now that would be seen as the sensible option so I dropped the subject at school. It never occurred to me that I could make a living out of something I loved to do as a hobby. This is now given out readily as sound career advice, choose something you are passionate about as you are more likely to succeed. 

Medicine however has given me the power to change my life and the skills and professionalism to succeed in business. It has also been humbling to have the opportunity to help people in times of need and make a difference to their lives. 

Who do you feel are your core customers and why? 

Our core customers are women aged 30 to 50 years. We don’t however stereotype as it is great to have customers of all ages and there are now an increasing amount of men getting on board with natural beauty and male grooming. A lot of our customers seek us out as they are fed up with large corporations marketing products that contain unnecessary chemicals that are not skin friendly. It is akin to concerns about the food we eat. Customers demand to know what they are using and want to do the best for their skin. As well as hobbyists we also supply businesses. We have been there and done it ourselves so understand the challenges and the regulations. We have a tiered price system that includes discounts for larger quantities to cater for this customer base. Also now 30% of our business is to Europe and the wider world. We have a lot of customers in Scandinavia which is interesting, there is a large home crafting culture in these countries like the UK. 

Like other businesses we are concerned about the effects of Brexit and do not want to see any barriers to trade. 

Do you now have the lifestyle you have dreamed about? 

I would say I do and I am very lucky. We have a lovely house in a beautiful location. We own our own warehouse and have a thriving niche ecommerce business. We have a 5 minute commute to work and can see the sea and countryside en-route. 

Our daughters are grown up and both live in Bristol and consider Devon their home rather than Kent where they were born. We often see them and it is lovely when we do. I think the only thing that is different than the dream is the amount of work we still do. You can’t take your finger off the pulse in business. I am still committed to my medical career and dedicate at least one day a week to this. 

We are just busy people and remain focused on our vision and it is hard to let go and maybe it is not quite the time to do so. 

We are starting to have more breaks and doing a more travelling so that we see a bit more of the world. Part of the dream was spending time enjoying the area and I would like to visit more local places and explore Dartmoor and Exmoor properly. Perhaps we need to give ourselves permission to have time for this on a regular basis and not feel guilty for it. 

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