Inspirational Dad of three Steve Oliver co-founded the globally renowned business musicMagpie in 2007, following the collapse of Music Zone (the business he was Managing Director of at the time). musicMagpie is a leader in the re-commerce of consumer technology (including smartphones, tablets, consoles and wearables), disc media (including CDs, DVDs and games) and books, with sustainability running to the very heart of its operations.
After losing Music Zone, and consequently the value of half their family home, Steve took a huge risk and invested the other half of the family home into starting musicMagpie, a new business venture that he started from his garage in Stockport with his co-founder, Walter Gleeson. Despite the risk and the company’s humble beginnings, musicMagpie had sales of over £145m in 2021 and, in the same year, floated on the London Stock Exchange at a value of £208million.
You don’t have to spend long in Steve’s company to realise that, whilst he is an incredibly successful businessperson, he is first and foremost a family man, and his beloved wife Cath and their three daughters are everything to him. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve to listen to how he managed to build such a lucrative business and become such a well-respected CEO, all whilst being such a devoted husband and father.
“Life runs in parallel and not in series, and it would be so much easier if you could do these things in series. For example, if there was a stage in your life where you could say ‘Right, I’m going to focus on having children now for 10-15 years, and then you could say, ‘right, now I’m going to grow my career for 10 -15 years’ and you could have had that time to only focus on your business, then things would be much easier but it rarely works out like that and you very often end up doing it all at the same time!”
How did having children impact your career and your career choices, and vice versa – how did building a business affect your family life?
“Well, I’ve got three girls, all of whom mean the absolute world to me and, alongside my wife Cath, are by far and away the most precious things to me. I have always tried everything I can to make a better life for us as a family. The desire to provide all my family with long term welfare and security has always been my greatest motivation, but equally I was always determined not to compromise my relationship with any of them in striving to achieve that – it’s been incredibly difficult at times, but I hope they would agree that I have nearly always got it about right!’” He laughs
“The thing is I’m blessed in every way possible with Cath – I knew within two weeks of meeting her that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her and we’re still blissfully happy now! Cath is everything to me, we’re the best of friends and barely ever have a crossed word. We’ve been lucky that one of the many ways it has worked for us as a family is that Cath was always very happy to take the lead with our girls and she therefore adopted the primary caring role, which in turn allowed me – and she completely supported me – to work really hard. Because I was working so hard on building the business, it did mean that I wasn’t at the tea table every night, but I was always there for all the big things, all the parents’ evenings, school plays, sports days, birthdays and assemblies. I was also always at the breakfast table every morning, although that’s because I’ve never been an early riser!” He laughs. “Alongside taking the lead with our girls, Cath had her own teaching career and then she went onto job share and reduced her hours slightly; that worked really well for us as a family unit, but I owe everything to her for allowing me, and supporting me endlessly, to build the business with the musicMagpie team.”
How did you find balancing your priorities as the girls were growing up? As it can be really hard to juggle the demands of building a business and raising a family.
“My life is really simple – firstly family and friends, secondly the business, and then thirdly sports – mainly football, a bit of cricket, a lot of watching Man City, and playing as much sport as I can still. Those three things – always in that order – are my life – I’m a simple soul really! Family and friends have always come first, despite how important the business has been to me, and I think it’s very important that it’s that way around for anyone who is raising a family whilst growing a business. I do think it sad sometimes when I see people get those two things blurred and the family side of things does inevitably suffer.”
Have you always been able to maintain those priorities? Is that something that you did quite naturally or was it something that you had to work on to achieve the right balance?
“I have always found it came quite naturally to me; I have always known where the line is. Of course, I had the sacrifices of not being at the tea table every evening, but both Cath and I could reconcile that, because if they ever needed me, I would literally drop everything for them. If there was something the girls wanted me to attend, I would be there. I may have been the parent always flying into the school foyer with 30 seconds to go – I was actually infamous for it – but no matter what I would be there one way or the other! I think another thing was that, if Cathy rang me, regardless of where I was or who I was with, I would answer it, and if she or the girls needed me – bang I would be there”
What have been some of the toughest times that you have endured in business and how did that affect your family life?
“When I came out of Music Zone I had essentially lost half the house financially and was both professionally and personally heartbroken at the pain. I couldn’t have got through that and gone onto do what I have done in business without Cath; she has been my practical support and crutch, and my emotional support and crutch. As I joke with her it’s a bit like my forty-odd years of watching City – they came good eventually – just like I did!” We all laugh. “Despite what we had lost, she backed me and supported me into using the money from the other half of our house to put into the start of musicMagpie and start again. That kind of support is invaluable in every way! In fact, my father-in-law was 80 last month, and I don’t know about you, but I hardly ever handwrite to anyone anymore, but I wrote him a card with quite a lengthy message in. Cath gets all her caring and supportive qualities from both her mum and dad; and second to my dad, he’s the person I would always turn to in life to because he’s so wise and kind, and he didn’t ever judge me throughout the ups and downs of my career. He always backed me, and he always believed in me too. It would have been very easy for him as the father of his little girl to say, ‘Steve, go and get a job and show some responsibility.’ He’d have been perfectly entitled to, but not once did he ever do that and so, I wanted to write this note to him to say thank you. In the same way that I’m so grateful to Cath for supporting me, both he and my mother-in-law, like my own parents, were incredibly supportive of me as well. And they all did help us financially at times, but more importantly than that they supported us emotionally with their unconditional love.”
You can tell how strong your family values are, not just with yourself, but it seems to run through your whole family, you’ve mentioned how invaluable that support is, do you think that has played an integral role to your success?
“Yes, without a doubt! Cath and I actually celebrated our silver wedding anniversary during the pandemic – when you could only get together outside – and I’ve got a lovely picture where Cath and I are sitting in the garden, where we had both of our parents on either side of us and my dear sister and brother-in-law were there too. We’re all extremely close and my sister’s kids are like our fourth and fifth children. And when Cath and I looked at the picture, we realised that both our parents had each been married for over 55 years, my sister and her husband had been married for 30 years, and we were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. So yes, I think for us and our children, we’ve been very lucky to grow up in that environment and it has provided a great deal of emotional security. That is no disrespect to anyone else at all because obviously there are so many single parents out there doing a brilliant job. My brother-in-law, who is like a brother to me, grew up with a single parent and he was brought up with a lot of emotional security because his mother did the job of both parents wonderfully and she was an amazing lady. I guess my point is that for me there is a definite correlation between the emotional security from family support and success in business. I remember saying in my wedding speech to our parents, ‘All we can promise is to raise our children with the same love, support, respect, and security that you have given to us.’ It all sounds a bit cheesy and sentimental but it’s true, and we’ve certainly tried to pass that on to them, and hopefully we have. I think it’s particularly hard for children more so than ever with all the pressures on them these days, so you just hope to give them a stable base to grow and flourish from.”
One of your daughters works for you at musicMagpie, doesn’t she?
“Yes, she does and what I really admire about Ems (Emily) working here is that she has done it despite me being CEO. She’s had to work even harder to establish herself and her own relationships and professional respect from her colleagues. Everybody knows she is the ‘boss’s daughter’ – but nobody cares because she’s never used it, and we’ve never used it to her advantage or anything like that. I always say to my peers on the Board that I want her to be ‘Emily Smith’ to everyone in the business, so she neither gets any over treatment nor under treatment that she would do otherwise. The single biggest thing that I admire in her is the emotional intelligence that she has shown to make that work, because that’s really difficult for a 21-year-old (which is how old she was when she joined). She came out of university with a first in biomedical science, but to have the emotional intelligence to form her own trust and respect with all her peers, and my colleagues on the Board, took a lot of maturity and strength. She’s been promoted three times now by her various line managers, and in a completely unbiased way she’s thoroughly deserved it each time! She won an award recently, and obviously I was really proud of her as both her father and her CEO, but equally I was conscious not to over play how proud I was, as I don’t want it to come across as disrespectful to other employees or to Ems. But it’s really, really nice to have her in the business as it’s given us an even tighter bond.”
Did you ever have, or still have, a particular staple that you will use to help you maintain that work life balance and ensure that at certain times it’s just family time and work is off limits?
“Well, I always believed in working really hard in the week, even in the evenings, but my weekends are sacred. That goes for now and when I was at the peak of building the business and working really hard, sometimes it may just have been the Saturday that I was able to take off at that time, but I have always tried to protect that quality family time at the weekend. And something else that I do, which I learnt from my mum and dad, is that however hard you work, holidays are the most precious times together. I am guilty of never really switching off from my phone with emails and so on, but I will always make sure that I do that as much as possible whilst I’m on holiday to make sure that I give those chunks of time, to make sure I’m present, and that we’re able to create great family memories together as I did growing up.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s easier said than done and you can never completely switch off when you run a business. I spent the majority of the girls’ childhood building a business, and if something is wrong in that business, then you have the ultimate responsibility and sometimes you can’t leave things. When you have 1,000 people on your payroll and things aren’t going so well, you feel a deep sense of responsibility, so even when you’re with your family and you want to just be with them, you can’t switch off 100% because you need to stay in touch with what’s going on. But I’ve always tried to make it a conscious effort at weekends and on holiday to be as switched off from work as possible. I’m getting better at it, even in the last year I’ve realised that I am getting older, I am getting more tired, and I know that I must have some more down time going forward. I’m definitely not 35 anymore!”
How easy do you think you will find having more downtime when you have work at such an intense pace for so many years?
“I was having a really interesting lunch with a longer standing public CEO about this recently, and it was a real eye-opener and a real epiphany moment for me because what they said is as you get older you can’t continue working at 110%, working 12-13 hours a day. It’s not just the quantity of that work that’s so exhausting but the intensity of the constant stress of it. You can’t continue working at that same intense level forever. But it felt until recently that it was either A – you work full 110% pelt or B – you stop; and to stop just feels a bit scary, because your business does become a bit like your fourth child, and I’m not ready to let it go and just stop working yet as I am incredibly excited about musicMagpie’s future. So, this person was telling me that there is an option C – do it but do it more on your terms. I’ve got great people around me in the business, and Gemma Boyle coming in as my EA (Executive Assistant) recently has changed my life as she’s not just one step behind me organising practicalities, she’s one step ahead of me and organising my meetings, chasing actions, and creating structure in my life. Even reading my emails to say right you need to do this, thinking ahead as to whether something needs booking – it’s all those little things that mentally pile up in your brain and I used to end up doing them in bed at twenty to one the morning on my phone. So, thanks to Gemma and all the other amazing people that I’m so blessed to have around me, both professionally and personally, I am already shifting more into option C and can look forward to the next stage of the musicMagpie journey.
My core belief in working with people and building a business is that to make a success of it you have to trust them, you have to value them, and you have to respect them. And even though I like to be involved in the details, especially the numbers side of things, I do take a step back and think to myself they are in a senior role for a reason, they are excellent at what they do, it’s what they get paid to do, and actually they will get fulfilment and feel good about what they’re doing if I allow them to do their job. So, it’s about adjusting your mindset and actually letting go a little.”
Seen as you’re such a family man yourself is that something that you have instilled within how you operate musicMagpie, and how you can implement things to support your team so that they can fit their roles within their family life too?
“Yes, 100%! And I’m not just saying this, this is my other family, the musicMagpie family! It’s lovely actually, I was moving some stuff around my office the other day and I found a card that someone who is a fairly new addition to the musicMagpie family had sent to me and Gemma after our colleague conference last month and it said ‘I’ve never come across anything quite like the musicMagpie family and the way you look after people so well.’ And that’s a lovely thing for someone who’s only come into the business fairly recently to observe and believe. While I do think that it’s entirely possible that the business will have a technically better CEO in the future, somebody who’s more experienced at public life and might sometimes make better decisions than me, the business will never have another CEO that cares for the people as much as I do and tries to keep the family feel and dynamic instilled at the very heart of it.
The most recent person that’s joined the business in the senior leadership team said to me just last week that it’s the thing that struck them more than anything else since joining us, that we’re only 15 years old as a business and just looking out from my office there is at least six people that have been here for 14 years. I think it’s because I recognise the talent, the care and the passion that so many of our Magpies have and so enjoy working with people who have those qualities.”
What do you think you have implemented into the running of musicMagpie that makes it such a special place to work?
“Two of our core values are ’Care’ and ‘Make a difference.’ It’s what I strongly believe in personally, it’s what everyone else at a senior level believes in and it’s, hopefully, what is instilled throughout the company. We’re not just here to make a successful business and make money, we want to make a difference to our customers, our colleagues, our community and to our planet. They are my core values and if I take that back to my own girls, they are qualities that I have tried to instil in them too. Two of my best friends in the world – one’s a hospital consultant and one’s always worked with less privileged people in mainly the charity sector – both make a difference in life, and we’ve got so much respect for each other as pals because of that, and that’s what I want to instil into both of my families. The world is a fairly horrible places at times, especially at the moment it feels, and it is up to all of us to show social obligation and step up to the plate to look after those less fortunate than ourselves. However big we get I never want us to lose that core ethos of caring.”
What’s your message to a budding entrepreneur?
“It’s really simple, do not underestimate how much hard work it is! It seems like such an obvious statement, but I think too many people don’t realise just how true a statement it is. When I co-founded musicMagpie, I was still doing a full-time job as an MD of a retail business as I had to put salary on the table for the family, because musicMagpie couldn’t pay me a salary. At this point I was doing pretty much every role in musicMagpie too – customer service, writing to Royal Mail in the middle of the night, and so on. Emily was only little at the time, and she would leave notes on my desk saying don’t work too hard daddy because you are looking tired. But being entrepreneurial and setting up a business is tiring, and it is hard work and I’m afraid too many people underestimate that when setting off. But you also have to work smart, and be passionate about what you do, and ALWAYS try and get your work life balance right while being aware that there are times where you will just have to grind it out to get to where you want to be – it is never a straight line or an easy path to the top!”