GROWING A BRAND AND A BABY | WITH MASTER DISTILLER AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE SPIRIT OF MANCHESTER, SEB HEELEY

GROWING A BRAND AND A BABY | WITH MASTER DISTILLER AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE SPIRIT OF MANCHESTER, SEB HEELEY

SEB HEELEY, SPIRIT OF MANCHESTER & ADRIAN ADAIR FOR MORSON. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE

In this feature, I catch up with master distiller and co-founder of The Spirit of Manchester, Seb Heeley.

Jen Wiggins and Seb Heeley started distilling gin in the dining room of their Chorlton home, with an initial run of just 100 bottles. The Christmas of 2016 the couple “distilled for 24 hours straight for 11 days to keep up with demand. We slept in two-hour stints at a time.” Fast forward 6 years and Seb and Jen have opened a Manchester city centre cocktail bar and distillery to keep up with huge demand. Their internationally recognised hero product, Manchester Gin, is one of the most awarded gins in the UK, selling over 100,000 bottles per year in the UK alone.

Just like its gin, the brand’s founder Seb is gimmick-free, authentic and future-facing. In the stunning surroundings of their Manchester cocktail bar, Three Little Words, we chat about finding love and a business over a G&T and the challenges of simultaneously nurturing a young business and a young son.

We last met earlier in the year in less relaxed surroundings – on the panel of a North West Insider Business event. You spoke so passionately about your business and I enjoyed hearing about how you and your wife founded Manchester Gin. So let’s start there…

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SEB HEELEY, SPIRIT OF MANCHESTER & ADRIAN ADAIR FOR MORSON. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE
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Manchester Gin

I started the business in 2016 with (my now) wife. But the idea starts way earlier. In February 2013 I was out with two of my friends… it was about half one on a Wednesday morning (yes, a school night!) and my two friends were chatting up two women. Feeling left out, I said I was going to speak to the nearest unattended woman! And there was Jen, sitting 10 feet away from me. I walked up and the first words I ever said to her were “What are you drinking?”, and the first words that she ever said to me were “Gin and tonic.”

Some classic foreshadowing there… it was meant to be!

The conversation turned into a very pretentious chat over who knew the most about gin … “this botanical doesn’t go with that one etc.” … and that started our whole love affair. Fast forward a couple of years to 2015 and we’d decided to open a bar together.

I used to work for a property developer, so the idea was that he’d buy the site (he didn’t know this), redevelop it all, and then I was going to quit and open the bar. In researching the bar, we came across what I would call ‘true small batch gin distillation’ which are tiny stills of around 30 litres. It was the first time I’d ever seen gin being made in a little back room (probably 2m x 2m). And that was our proverbial light bulb moment… we said “We’ve got a free summer, we can give this a go.” It took us 12 months to get all the licenses. When we managed to launch our first gin in 2016 our distillery was actually in our dining room, because we didn’t have a great deal of start-up capital. Our first still, which we call Wendy (who we still use to this day) was installed there, she’s a little 60 litre still which would make 100 bottles of gin.

It’s the perfect origin story – your love of gin meets the love of your life. So what’s it like being a husband and wife team, do you have dedicated roles and responsibilities?

Yeah. I try to do as little as possible!

My wife would say the same and we don’t even work together!

We always say we’re that irritating couple that actually gets on. Working side by side is never a problem and we’ve worked closely for the last seven years, every single day going home, waking up, going to sleep, always together.

As to roles, I try to do one thing once badly and then I don’t get asked again! So accounts I can’t do or anything that involves being precise and accurate, that’s Jen’s skill set. Generally, I’ll do everything that’s outward facing such as distillation, new product development, and running the distillery team.

It’s good to have complementary skill sets, makes for a great team.

Well, we always say that we complement each other. Jen will focus on the minutiae (we always say that she’s the worrier) whereas I’m just left in my little dreamland coming up with various things. And it works really well.

We talk to other people that start businesses and I think unless there are at least two of you in the business, I think it’s incredibly hard to make a real decision. If there are two of you and you make decisions together, learn together and fail together, that’s how you find success.

And of course, you have added pressure of being partners in business and life, plus you have a little boy! So, I’m curious, as business owners and parents, how do you manage a work-life balance?

I don’t think there is one in all honesty. When I was in transition from leaving a job I’d been in for nine/ten years to running my own business I remember going on a 2 week holiday and my old boss said ‘Have a great break.’ I remember saying ‘I’ve got to take the laptop to design Christmas sets’ and he said, ‘Welcome to the business owners club.’ When you start your own business there’s no work-life balance because it is your life, it’s all on you. If the work doesn’t get done, you don’t make any money and you can’t provide for yourself and your family.

Work-life balance is a funny thing – particularly for business owners. It’s quite a polarised term, suggesting that you’re not living when you’re working but if you’re passionate about what you do, you’re engaged in what you do, whether you’re an employee or an owner, you find balance. It’s often about what you feel is acceptable.

I agree, this business is our baby, and we love it. I remember a time a few years ago, I think it was my birthday and we said, listen, we’re going to have a nice lunch and we’re not going to talk about work. We sat at a bar not dissimilar from this one and we were chatting away with the barman and ordering cocktails. That lasted about 4 minutes before we were looking behind the bar saying “I quite like that spirit bottle because of the shape” then an hour passed and all we’d done was talk about work – we’d failed!

But like you say if you are passionate about what you do then there is no work-life because it’s just life and this has been our life for the last seven years now. So, you know, we’re always talking about work, talking about ways of making it better, we don’t stop. On the flip side, because we’re business owners we can take Fridays off, we can spend quality time with our son when he needs it, and we can do the school run – we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Any advice for a couple exploring whether to go into business together or not?

Make sure you love each other if you really get on each other’s t*ts, don’t ever do business together. It will test your relationship and you have to fully commit to it. But if you do love each other and you want to spend time together and spend every day talking about it, then go for it. I mean, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. But it’s like having a child, if you’re not completely in love don’t have a child, because that will break your spirit instantly.

Nigel Eastham & Adrian Adiar
SEB HEELEY, CO-FOUNDER AT THE SPIRIT OF MANCHESTER SHOWING ADRIAN ADAIR THEIR DISTILLERY FACTORY. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE

And what do you think is the one key ingredient to a successful family business other than love and passion?

Well, our business motto is ‘f*** it’. And as far as we’re concerned, that’s what we live and die by. When Jen first quit her job, it was ‘f*** it’, let’s do it.

What I mean by ‘f*** it’ is, just be bold in what you do. If you really think it’s worthwhile doing it, then do it. But ultimately, if it was easy everyone would do it. When I first started working on the business my friends would say ‘Why would you bother to do this?’ My old boss was the same, when I got my first still got delivered to my office he told me I was an idiot… he took that back 4 months later!

I think this ‘being bold’ rhetoric just says everything about you. When we were on the panel together at that Northwest Insider event your desire to succeed came across so strongly. Do you mind me asking, where does that come from?

Honestly, it’s a desire not to fail. I always wanted to start my own business growing up, conversely, Jen wasn’t that massively enthused about it and it wasn’t a big driver of hers.

I think it just comes from always wanting to do something new. If you discover something you love, why wouldn’t you put your all into it? Why wouldn’t I want to make a whisky next, why wouldn’t I want to build a new distillery? Once you’ve done one thing, it needs to roll onto the next. For us, the development of our brand isn’t a game plan, it’s a natural progression.

That’s so interesting to hear you say that. At Morson, one of our core values is curiosity. We want our people to know that by being curious, and inquisitive you’re making yourself and your business better, and more successful.

Yeah, exactly. You must always be on the lookout for what’s new, and what’s coming. Two years ago, we didn’t have the ambition to go into whisky but in the next six/seven years it’ll probably become the focus of the whole business. So, you’ve just got to roll with what’s moving, what’s changing, and how your passions change and evolve.

So, whisky is firmly in the pipeline?

Well, I always say, and I stand fast in this, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. And I don’t think I’ll ever know. But I love this business, I love making alcohol – the next ten years will revolve around whisky. We call it a super distillery. It’ll be capable of producing half a million bottles of whisky a year. Compared to Scotland, that’s considered very small. So we would be a cottage industry business to Scotch Whisky and but we’ll be in the top three or four producers of English Whisky. So our ten-year goal is to produce one of the world’s best whiskys and grow internationally with that brand.

The still behind us is a thousand-litre still that can make a million bottles of gin. Our 750-litre whisky still can only make 40,000 bottles. So we need a 15,000 square foot space to make the equivalent amount of whisky to gin. So the focus for the next two to three years is to get a new distillery up and running and fire into production because you’ve got to wait at least three years for it to mature into whisky.

Will it be Manchester’s first whisky?

I mean Macclesfield have a whisky and the guys at Forest Gin, but that’s Cheshire, so yeah, Manchester’s first. But also the best, I want to produce the world’s best whisky, you know, just a small feat…

You’ve got guts and ambition. It’s great. Whilst we’re talking about the future, what would you like your son to follow in your footsteps?

You know what, I just want him to do what makes him happy. Jen and I always talk about how amazing it is to see his personality developing and coming through. He’s four now and in reality, the job he’s most likely to do doesn’t even exist right now. When I think when I was a child, social media didn’t exist now I employ three people in our social media team – a job that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

I’d like him to be in control of his own life, which for me meant running my own business when however hard you work is usually a direct correlation to how much you earn. But money is not the be-all and end-all. Genuinely, I would say, as long as he’s happy, that’s the most important thing.

When we were on the panel, you spoke about legacy. The fact that you wanted to create a business that is still going and growing when your son is older. Is that a driving factor?

Yeah, the way we’ve built our brands is for longevity. It comes back to my old days in property. The reason I went into property was to build a building that outlived me. I wanted my children, and my grandchildren to go and see that building, and say “Granddad built it” and it’s the same thing with our brand. I have no interest in him running this business, he has to go and live his own life, as I did. We’ll always have our family name on the back of every bottle we produce and it’ll be something that he (hopefully) is very proud of. But he doesn’t need to run this business if he doesn’t want to.

So as we’re in the festive season, what does Christmas look like in the Heeley-Wiggins household?

Food, food, and more food. I’ve already written the menu. I wrote it probably six weeks ago. I’m obsessed with food. So is my little boy and there’s not much he doesn’t eat. We tried him a couple of years ago with caviar and he enjoyed it but we can’t afford to keep him eating like that!

We usually have six or seven courses from nine to nine, so it’s a 12-hour eating and drinking fest.

And matching cocktails?

Yes, everything is paired with a cocktail. So we’ve got breakfast paired with a breakfast martini. Then prawns in a cream sauce with a French 75 (a cocktail made of gin, champagne, lemon juice, and sugar), followed by a tomahawk steak and a lovely bottle of wine from where we had our honeymoon in Bordeaux and then cheesecakes, cheeses and hams. Then it’s total regret at about 9:15 pm when you can’t move on the sofa!

It’s really special to see a local couple build something so successful, through pure hard work, dedication and above all love.

Seb and Jen’s passion for their business and brand made me think about a term which describes the polar opposite, one that has made its way into the mainstream this year. First touted on TikTok, back in March, the term ‘Quit Quitting’ has done the rounds with the recruiter and business media, generating plentiful commentary and analysis. Viral videos describe quiet quitting as delivering just what your job description demands and no more. You’re ‘quitting’ the idea of going above and beyond by doing the ‘bare minimum’ – that’s it. Individuals feel disengaged from their roles or they lack the same energy or passion they once had.

Regardless of your employment status – entrepreneur, perm, contract or otherwise – it’s natural to strive for a sense of purpose. People want to understand their role, have a clear career pathway for growth and can see how their skills align with the outcomes that they – and the business they work for – are trying to achieve.

If you’re an employer, we must embrace differences, build digital literacy, re-skill talent, create a culture of ‘we’ not ‘me’ and much more. Together, these solid principles will help to tackle quiet quitting, quiet hiring, great resignation and whatever phrase hits the headlines next. After all, a survey by LinkedIn said that companies with a purposeful mission reap 49% lower attrition rates. And those numbers simply can’t be ignored.

Jen and Seb provide the antidote to quiet quitting, “If you discover something you love, why wouldn’t you put your all into it?” and since 2016 have gone above and beyond to build their business. Their success is a testament to the power of finding purpose.

If you are seeking a new purposeful opportunity or are looking for ways to keep your workforce engaged or attract and retain diverse, multi-generation talent drop me a message at adrain.adair@morson.com

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‘SELL IT DON’T SKIP IT’ ECO-TECHPRENEUR AND DAD ON SITE WITH FOUNDER OF THE SUSTAINABILITY YARD APP NIGEL EASTHAM.

‘SELL IT DON’T SKIP IT’ ECO-TECHPRENEUR AND DAD ON SITE WITH FOUNDER OF THE SUSTAINABILITY YARD APP NIGEL EASTHAM.

NIGEL EASTHAM OF SUSTAINABILITYYARD & ADRIAN ADAIR FOR MORSON. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE

In this feature for BROOD, I chat with Nigel Eastham, founder of SustainabilityYard, the app that is tackling construction waste head-on. The free, self-service app enables users to buy, sell or give away excess materials from every level of the construction industry, from DIY lovers to tradesmen, to large developers.

Three years ago, sustainability was placed firmly at the top of Nigel’s agenda when the realities of dealing with building waste generated by his property development company collided with concern about the future environment of his children.

At a time when eco-consciousness is at the forefront for individuals and industry, it was a great opportunity to explore how Nigel is harnessing tech to enable positive, sustainable change in construction and the realities of being a tech-preneur juggling life.

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NIGEL EASTHAM OF SUSTAINABILITYYARD & ADRIAN ADAIR FOR MORSON. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE
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Let’s start with the app. So, tell me about SustainabilityYard…

Nigel: SustainabilityYard is a platform where users of any level within the construction industry can buy, sell or give away their excess building materials. We intend to promote and enable the circular economy of those building materials, finding them a new home rather than sending them to landfill, which unfortunately is what happens a lot of the time.

It’s such a good idea. We’ve all, quite rightly, become more eco-conscious over the past few years but you’ve taken it to that next level – you’ve created a solution which will have a real impact now, and for the next generation.

Nigel: You know, we’re not reinventing the wheel it’s very much a classified ads platform, similar to Facebook Marketplace and eBay. But the difference is, is that SustainabilityYard is built on a peer-to-peer led community. Everybody that’s on the platform is part of the construction community – that can be housing associations who are building 30, 40, 50 unit estates, national house builders and main contractors right down to local tradesmen and DIY lovers.

The businesses that are building big units have tons of, often useable, material that unfortunately goes to landfill. That’s the reality. We want these companies to flood the app with those usable materials so that local tradesmen and DIY enthusiasts can get their hands on decent material either for free or at discount prices.

Users can set up a profile and advertise what they are selling. Once someone is interested in the materials they can open up a direct live chat with the seller to discuss the price and how to obtain the materials.

It lends itself to both sides and all scales. How has it been received in the industry so far?

Nigel: Really, really well. We’ve had some great traction from all the demographics I’ve just mentioned. There’s no reason for people to say no to using the app; businesses can get rid of their unused materials for free and hit their sustainability targets, which they’re heavily focused on nowadays.

For large construction companies there’s no reason not to use it. Depending on what their business model is, at the end of a job, if they have a surplus or damaged material, they either save money on waste disposal or storage units. So it’s a win-win.

We know it’s working because we’re growing fast. We are at over six and a half thousand users now. We think we can hit 10,000 by the end of the year, and if we do that then I think we’ll reach 50,000 by Easter 2023.

Adrian: I hear you used to be a recruiter! Tell me about the journey from an office job to construction to tech-preneur. What inspired you to develop SustainabilityYard?

Nigel: I didn’t become disillusioned with my office job, but I always had an eye on the property market and an opportunity came up. My parents were horrified when I said I was leaving my job to start a construction company!

I initially operated a small business that bought and flipped houses. As time went by and our projects got bigger I found I was chucking away a huge amount of material. I thought, there must be a better way, it’s all perfectly reusable material, if not for me, for somebody else. And if I’m having these problems on a very, very small scale level, the bigger businesses must be having a similar issue.

The thought of hundreds of thousands of tons of materials being thrown into landfill didn’t sit right with me, particularly as I have a young family – I’m concerned about their future and the state of the planet we’ll be leaving them.

Adrian: So not being from a tech background was it difficult to add that tech element to your skillset and construction experience?

Nigel: Construction is my love, I’m always excited by a challenge and I like new things, but I’ll be honest, getting to grips with technology and building a platform was quite a daunting prospect.

We’ve got a small team here, with just two from the construction industry who still run big construction firms. My other partner builds SAAS businesses, so I had his insight but, you know, it was still difficult. I found working with developers quite hard, mainly because I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to articulate how that would be transferred into a product. That’s been the biggest challenge…working with developers who are exceptional at the job but not used to working with somebody like me who doesn’t really know what to ask for.

And look, we’ve still not got the perfect platform. The app is still in the beta phase, I suppose you might say, but it always will be because we’re always wanting to improve and build new things. The outlook is ever-evolving at the moment.

Adrian: Let’s dive into the more personal side of your life. What’s the reality like of being an entrepreneur and business owner, do you manage to switch off?

Nigel: Not really, but for me, it’s manageable because I love what I do. You know, that’s the saving grace.

It never stops. I’m working seven days and trying to squeeze in family time as well. I’m working on properties, on the Sustainability Yard app, I’m speaking to people constantly, and sending emails Saturday, and Sunday at 10:00 pm. Because it’s your own business, you have to do it and you have to make it right. Nobody is cracking the whip and giving you deadlines asking for KPIs, you’re solely accountable for what you’re doing. It was a culture change to start with, but I’ve got to grips with it now.

Yes, it’s a job because you’ve got to make it work to make money for your family, but the reality is, I love it and I’ve got such interest and such passion that it’s no real hardship.

Adrian: I always say that to people, I loved placing people in jobs, I still get a massive buzz from hearing about our recruiters doing it. If you don’t get that buzz, go and find something where you do. I think what’s interesting is there’s lots of chat about work/life balance these days and I know as a parent, it’s not the easiest thing to achieve particularly if you’re an entrepreneur. I listened to one of the podcasts that had Jay Shetty on, who’s set up an app interestingly and he was saying at the start, he was working 16-17/18 hour days. There’s no simple answer but if you love something it makes it easier.

Nigel: As long as you’re loving it, you’ll put the extra hard yards in.

Nigel Eastham & Adrian Adiar
NIGEL EASTHAM OF SUSTAINABILITYYARD & ADRIAN ADAIR FOR MORSON. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE

Adrian: We’ve just spoken about work/life balance and I know you’ve got a young family. How have you seen your new business impact you and your family?

Nigel: You know, bar the long hours and being ‘always on’, the entrepreneurial lifestyle does have its benefits and that’s predominantly down to flexibility. My wife works in Manchester and so I get to do the school runs which I love. I get these bonus moments of quality time with my kids, whether it’s just in the car, having a laugh going home or making tea, I have the freedom to flex my time to prioritise family. I get to see how they develop outside of the set parameters of a typical working day. My wife is disappointed that she misses out on it at times, but we both feel that way and it’s just a case of balancing it between us.

Adrian: You’re a tag team of firefighters

Nigel: Yeah, a tag team of firefighters like in the WWE Royal Rumble!

Adrian: As your venture is all about sustainability, I’m wondering if you get your kids involved in the environmental conversation?

Nigel: You know, my kids were one of the driving factors behind Sustainability Yard. Three years ago, if you’d asked me ‘do you love sustainability?’ I’d have said no. It’s there, I know about it, but I wasn’t desperately bothered about it.

But you add children into the mix and you start to think about the future, their futures and how we’re impacting the planet that we’ll be leaving for them. And to be honest that scared me. My construction business highlighted glaringly how much waste was generated by construction and how my practices were impacting negatively on the environment – and I knew, if I was experiencing this as a small business, the issue was much, much wider.

Because of my work obviously, I’m keen to get them involved in living sustainably and we try and make this as engaging as possible. We do things like composting and recycling as a family – I want them to grow up with good environmental principles engrained.

Adrian: It’s good getting them involved and excited. Do you think there should be more done in schools in terms of bringing sustainable learning into the curriculum?

Nigel: That’s a great question. My daughter just started school actually, and funnily enough, they have started chatting about it. The conversation has come up in the classroom about how to make the earth ‘last longer’ (in her words!). It’s on the school’s radar, but of course, more can be done. It’s just a case of raising awareness at that age and that’s invaluable because they’re the ones that are going to ultimately have to carry on the changes that we’re making. Somebody said to me that ‘climate change is the next space race’ and that resonated with me. It’s on everybody’s lips and rightly so because if we don’t act we’re not going to have the same world in a few years. There has to be an awareness of it and we have to each do something, big or small.

Adrian: I couldn’t agree more! And with your app, you’ve created a platform which facilitates positive action and will have a real impact. I’ve renovated a few houses over the years (my wife will say that she did all the work and I used to turn up at some stage!)… but it would have been great to have known about the app back then. Some of the stuff that you throw in a skip is frightening.

Nigel: Oh absolutely! On the flip side, if you don’t skip it, you can put it in a storage unit and that’s costing you £500-£600 a month. So, wherever you look, there’s a cost and it’s also a cost from a sustainability perspective, whether you store it and it never sees the light of day again. I used to have three lock-ups. I was paying a fortune for them. Every time a new job came along, I wouldn’t even know what was in there, so I’d just buy more and it’s just a vicious circle.

Adrian: So, for people who are interested in using SustainabilityYard, where can people download the app? How can they get in touch with you?

So simply, search for SustainabilityYard on the App Store or Google Play, download it and start using it. You can check us out on our website https://sustainabilityyard.com/ or find us on Instagram @Sustainability_Yard.

I’m constantly inspired by people who are driven to solve. The way Nigel has identified a problem and harnessed skills outside of his comfort zone to make his solution a reality is truly impressive. I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of the challenges of juggling work and life, particularly those nurturing a new business and new family. But I truly believe that anything is possible if you’ve got passion, and Nigel’s story is a testament to that.

At Morson, we work with numerous organisations in the construction sector and every one of our clients is laser-focused on sustainability and taking action to make real-world change. Through SustainabilityYard, Nigel is going a step further, using tech to place responsibility in the hands of the individual and facilitate people to take action at every level. To influence real change and make the planet a safe, habitable place for our children and their children, we must work collectively – everyone from your big corporations to individual contractors needs to be willing and able to think sustainability first and change behaviours.

As a recruitment business that influences companies and people, Morson has an opportunity and a responsibility to drive positive change across commercial sectors on both a corporate and an individual level. Our EV company car fleet, Net Zero ambitions and ‘Plant a Tree for Every Placement’ campaign go some way to offsetting the carbon we generate as an organisation. However, I believe it’s our ambition to create a culture of environmental awareness with eco champions to inspire the team to reduce emissions and prevent waste where we’ll see real change.

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Morson Group
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I never expected to be a dad: The path to adoption with Adrian Adair

I never expected to be a dad: The path to adoption with Adrian Adair

“…Honestly, I never thought I’d be a dad”

For many, the path to parenthood is not made from perfectly shaped, life stepping stones. Keen to explore the diverse routes to, and experiences of, becoming a parent I reached out to one of our Morson executive managers who has recently navigated the adoption process to become a father with his partner.

For safeguarding purposes, we have kept the identity of the family anonymous, so there’s no BROOD photography provided by the talented Tom Pitfield, but I’m confident you’ll be as moved by this honest, inspiring and, at times, emotional story as I was.

During our conversation, we explore the challenges of raising a child with a traumatic past, the complications of using traditional parenting techniques with an adoptive child and why adoption should be considered more widely as a path to parenthood.

Morson Group
Adoption Process
Morson Group - Find your next job

Let’s start with your new reality, parenthood. How long have you been a dad?

We have had our boy for just under a year now, he moved in with us in November of last year. Honestly, I never thought I’d be a dad, but my partner and I have been together for 17 years and we felt it was time to start a family, so we decided to explore adoption.

We’ve had many a conversation over the past 9 months about how your little boy has changed your life and I’m interested to understand more about your experience of adopting and the adoption process itself…

It’s been an interesting time, not least because of the personal circumstances and realities you become aware of. All children who are in the adoption process will have experienced trauma in one way or another. The very reason they’re in the care system is because they have encountered some kind of harm and that could be anything from physical, sexual or emotional abuse and severe neglect. So, a big part of the process is having to prepare yourself to cope with, understand and manage that child’s experiences and life story.

Because we’ve adopted a slightly older child, who wasn’t put into the system until they were five and a half, he’s had years of not having his needs met. As you can imagine, caring for a child who has gone for five and a half years experiencing that when you cry, no one’s cuddled you, or when you’ve been hungry, no one’s fed you, their parent has gone out and left you alone at home on your own… there’s a lot of things to unpick. Often adopting an older child can come with more challenges than if you adopt a newborn baby. For example, in adoption, you can do something called early permanence. In early permanence, the birth mum is still in pregnancy and social services are aware that it’s a challenging environment with the birth family, so as soon as that child is born the baby is taken into care. These babies are safeguarded and cared for by the system from birth.

However, whatever the path to adoption, one thing you can rely on is that each child who enters care has experienced some type of trauma whether that’s in the womb or in the outside world. So you just need to prepare yourself for this.

So, as a couple, how do you prepare yourself for this reality and becoming adoptive parents to a child with a traumatic past, did you take any leave from work?

We did loads of research, training and workshops so we were fully aware of the challenges and prioritised creating an environment where our child would feel safe and supported. To help with this I took three months of adoption leave. The adoption policy for Morson would have allowed me to take 12 months or more if I wanted to, but I was conscious we needed to introduce work/life balance into our environment as part of the process – because that’s the reality of our lives. Three months full pay was amazing because when you bring your child home, that period of attachment with your child is massively important. Being able to take three months off and not having to worry about my salary was huge for me. My partner took off six months and he could have extended it to 12 months as well. That period where we both stayed at home together to nurture, understand and get to know our child and adapt to our new lives was essential.

Of course, the beauty of having a slightly older child is they do go to school which gave us some downtime, so that’s an advantage! Self-care and a strong support network is of paramount importance when you adopt a child, so allowing yourself time to have a relaxing bath, read a magazine or go for a coffee with a friend is a must.

As the parent of a toddler, I’m looking forward to school! Also, please give me hope, do they sleep when they’re older, please tell me they do?!

Do you know what? It’s funny because when he first came to us he would go to bed, then he would get up a short time later and become dysregulated. During this time he’d be throwing cushions and screaming at us, and it would take him probably an hour to settle.

And now?

You can put him to bed at 7:30 pm, say ‘Goodnight, I love you’ and he’ll not get out of bed until the morning (which happened to be 5:55 am today). We spoke to an educational psychologist who explained to us that if you do not feel safe the primary thing that is affected is your sleep. So, the fact that he sleeps through the night is speaking volumes about how he feels at home with us, so that’s a huge win.

That’s amazing and so positive to hear.

When you first came back to work I remember us chatting and you had loads of interesting tips like this for adopters and anyone caring for a child. Would you mind sharing some more?

Do you know what, a lot of the training when you go through the adoption process doesn’t just deal with children who’ve experienced trauma. Much of it can cover how to handle any child who is demonstrating challenging behaviours.

For me, the one key takeaway here was the power of playfulness. No matter how agitated they are, playfulness will nearly always get a child out of the mindset of being angry or upset. If you can get a child to smile or laugh, they cannot feel anger or upset at the same time. So one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that being playful and silly will help your child to become regulated again. Because of this, we find ourselves doing the most ridiculous things! If he suddenly becomes distracted, frustrated or unsettled we’ll do a stupid voice or a silly dance, or we’ll put on a silly song. As soon as he starts laughing you know he’s coming around, so playfulness is massive.

One of the other tips is distraction techniques. If you can distract your child it can help to diffuse potentially challenging behaviours. Tactics like making anonymous phone calls, for example, picking up the phone and making out that you’re speaking to someone immediately gets him to ask questions like, ‘Who’s that on the phone dad’… his curiosity takes over his agitation.

So, yes, playfulness and distraction are the two big things we’ve learned. My partner and I certainly have a playful nature, so I won’t lie, we actually really enjoy it.

Natasha Jonas Training
ADRIAN ADAIR FOR MORSON. IMAGES © BROOD MAGAZINE

So you say those tips are universal but do you think there are differences in parenting an adoptive child vs. a child who has had a more traditional upbringing?

I would say yes. You cannot parent a child who’s experienced trauma the same way you would a child who has not had a traumatic start to life.

Discipline is one key difference. If you’ve got a baby or child who cries a lot, traditional parenting methods may suggest leaving them to self-soothe or tactics such as sending them to their room to calm down. You can’t do that with a child who has experienced trauma because if your child used to cry, and no one ever came, their behaviour regresses. So you have to go and comfort them. Because of their experiences, many of these children have not met their developmental milestones because they haven’t had their needs met. Therefore their chronological age is different to their emotional age. For example, you may have a child who is eight, but emotionally still could be only 18 months old because they never had their emotional needs met.

It’s little things like when they get out of the bath, wrapping them in a towel and rocking them, which they didn’t experience as a baby. Another thing is around meal times, for example, my boy will occasionally ask for help eating because he didn’t have that support in his earlier years so is looking for that need to be met now. As an adoptive parent, you’ve got to consider their emotional age, not their chronological age. Remembering this is key.

I’ll be honest, I’ve found this part really difficult. I’m fighting 38 years of being parented and in a particular way. The fuses in my childhood home were very short and you cannot behave that way with an adoptive child, you must have patience. So it’s been a real eye-opener for me on how to try and control my initial reactions, be more tolerant and think about things more carefully.

So is it fair to say that the adoption experience has taught you a lot about yourself? Has becoming a parent changed you in any way?

Yes, I would say this experience has definitely taught me more about myself. I’ve always been quite an empathetic person and this has helped me transition into the adoptive parent role. This whole process has highlighted how important empathy and understanding people’s situations are. I think I’ve always been that way, to be honest, but even more so now.

Although I was only saying at work yesterday it’s funny how I have so much patience and tolerance with my team, yet you flip it onto parenthood and my tolerances and patience get a bit shorter. But I think this is because, when you become a parent your child becomes the most important thing in your life. Things that I would get upset and frustrated about beforehand in work, I’m just like, it’s not that important anymore. I don’t sweat the small stuff because my child and his well-being are my priority.

I agree. I think patience is the key word. People say to me all the time that I’ve calmed down since I’ve become a dad. I think when you’re at home, in a social environment or the workplace being more patient with people whether that’s colleagues, children, family or friends ensures you get the best out of those around you.

Speaking of friends, when we used to meet up we’d talk about which restaurant we’d been to or what holiday we’d just booked. Now it’s all mealtime strategies, sleep cycles and ‘guess what food has been smeared on my clothes this morning?’ Is it fair to say life has changed?

Yeah! Now it’s all about soft play and where the best children’s theme parks are. Holidays are not the same. Now you book a hotel based on the kids club reviews and availability of free slushies.

It’s not a holiday anymore. It’s a trip!

Yeah, it’s very, very different, but different in a good way.

I never expected to be a dad. Ever. Because I thought parenthood would be something that I would never do, you don’t work towards it. I think in heterosexual couples (or certainly it used to be) you would get together, get married and have a baby; you’d have these relationship milestones set out. But often in a gay relationship, couples get together, get a house and live the rest of your life frivolously. But as soon as my partner and I started the process we knew we were meant to be dads and I would never change it.

I always said when I first met Leanne that I’m not getting married again, I don’t want children and I don’t like pets…

And look at you now.

Yep, 15 years on, we’re married, we’ve got a dog and Alana proceeded pretty swiftly afterwards. You make a good point though. Society used to force everyone into these ‘norms’ but nowadays people are ripping up the rule book. I think we were probably the last generation who felt that pressure.

Though I couldn’t see my life any other way now. To see the world through a child’s eyes is probably the best thing I’ve ever experienced because they just love everything, don’t they? The first time they step on sand or go on a plane, it’s all new and exciting…

Oh absolutely! The number of times we’ve sat there and our little boy has just looked up and gone ‘This is the best day ever!‘.

It’s particularly powerful for him because he was taken into care at five and went through several different foster placements, so he’s never been able to feel safe, settled or have things of his own. He’s never been spoiled, and now he’s having all these experiences, he’s like WOW! Though we’ve had to reign it in a little bit!

What’s it like seeing the difference in him and knowing you’re giving him the best life experiences possible? Are you an adoption advocate?

A massive yes on both parts. I think more people need to see adoption as an option. People don’t look at or talk about fostering and adoption enough. I mean, consider the positive impact you can have; not only are you bringing joy to your life, but you’re also giving a child who would not have the best life a chance to have an amazing life. So people should think more about it because they’re crying out for adopters.

Look, it’s challenging, I won’t sugar coat that, in some early conversations with you I probably burst into tears a couple of times, but the rewards on both sides are huge.

That’s such a powerful message and you’ve completely opened my eyes, like many others I’m guilty of being relatively naive to the adoption conversation. Do you have any tips for people that are thinking about going on that journey?

I think my one tip would be that you cannot be overprepared. Read the books. Do as much training as you possibly can, because there is nothing that can prepare you for some of the challenges that are involved, but it is very, very, very rewarding. Some training courses we went on and some of the stories we heard were so sad and unbelievable so yeah, just be prepared. That’s the most important thing.

We’ve worked together now for 11(!) years and it’s been lovely to see you go on this journey, I know I’ve never seen you happier. You’ve got such a nurturing personality, and a brilliant relationship with your partner, I know you’re creating a great home for your boy.

Yeah, times have certainly changed since we were dancing on tables doing Karaoke and singing Barbie Girl! But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Through my relationship with this particular colleague and others, I’ve seen first-hand how adoption has enriched the lives of both adults and children. For me, it’s so important that organisations support and enable people to explore all routes to parenthood, and as business leaders, we must help to facilitate and champion this.

At Morson, our adoption policy has been crafted to ensure that adoptive parents are supported equally to those on traditional maternity or paternity leave. Primary parents receive the same entitlement as those on maternity and secondary parents mirror paternity policy. But, it’s not just adoption, we’re looking at various family structures to ensure our colleagues are supported by policies which are fair, inclusive, and reflective of their personal circumstances. For example, we’re currently working directly with one of our colleagues who is going through IVF to help write and shape our IVF policy to ensure it offers the right level of support.

As a business with a large, global reach we’re passionate about influencing positive change across our network based on learned experience. As such our HR teams are working with a number of clients to help them craft inclusive policies for their current and future workforce, through our HR Outsourcing service.

If you are a business wishing to explore how best to champion inclusion and support your employees or an individual looking for an opportunity in an organisation that cares for the personal and professional you, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me directly adrian.adair@morson.com

Morson Group - Find your next job
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Interviewed by
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