Personal assistants are required to have more skills than ever in today’s busy office environment. So what happens when a PA branches out on her own and starts a new business? She uses everything she’s learned to be successful, according to Melanie Kaye. One of several executive-level positions Melanie held in her 20 years as a PA was assistant to Oleg Deripaska, co-owner of Russian Aluminium. “I realised that [as a PA] I had to be organised and I was really good at it,” she says of her early days. “But I was still learning and growing my skills base.”
Over the next two decades, Melanie continued to develop her expertise, taking on assistant positions at a variety of companies, including a PR and marketing firm, an architect’s office and an audio-visual business. She signed up for bookkeeping courses in the evening, always striving to learn more skills and embrace more responsibilities.
In another role, she was initially hired to run an interior designer’s shop and office, managing stock and helping with financial records. Before long, Melanie was actually acting more as the personal assistant to owner Louise Bradley, handling client relations and contract negotiations and travelling to Europe to buy antiques.
Melanie admits she has had her share of ups and downs throughout her career but thinks every experience is one that can teach a lesson. “I learned how to set boundaries as a PA,” she explains. “When you’re young, you always say yes and bosses sometimes don’t know how much hard work it takes to make things happen.”
One of the most difficult requests she had to deal with happened on Christmas Eve while she was on holiday in Italy with her family. Her boss had just had a private jet built, but a clerical error meant the money needed for fuel to fly the plane to Europe hadn’t been paid. After countless phone calls, Melanie and another employee ended up spending thousands of pounds on their personal credit cards in order to get the plane home.
“I never got a thank you for that,” she recalls. “As you get older and gain more experience, you stop needing please and thank you as much, but you should never let that stop you being polite to other people. Oleg always walked in front of me and never sat next to me on the plane, but I never let it get to me.”
Despite that, Melanie believes she thrived as an assistant in small, family-run businesses. “You always know exactly what’s going on in the company,” she adds. “It’s a very authoritative position to be in.” However, she warns there is a downside to being given so much clout. “There was a time when I thought I was very powerful, but I came back to earth and continued growing personally and professionally,” she admits.
In 2012, after travelling to Italy every Christmas and seeing the quality of luxury goods produced there, she decided to start Lemiena Italia Colezzione, her own brand of cashmere and leather goods. Melanie has taken all the skills she learned as a PA to turn Lemiena into a successful business. “The key to being a good assistant is communication. I respect everybody and if people see that they’re more likely to work harder,” she remarks. “Watching people at board meetings has also taught me how to read situations. Your skills are transferable to a lot of other career options.”
Lemiena’s products are inspired by the scarves and handbags Melanie used to bring back from Italy. Her friends and colleagues would always comment on how beautiful the items were, so she decided to invest some money in a cost-effective manufacturing technique (Melanie wears one of her cashminas and carries a handbag on the front cover). Her range includes both high-end and affordable items and PAs can earn points to get themselves a treat for every corporate gift they buy. Perhaps other assistants can learn from this notable success story.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
7am When I was a PA, I always started my day by swimming or jogging as it helped to energise me, especially when I was travelling. Then I would check my briefcase; I always packed a spare charged mobile, credit cards, currency, make-up, oat bar and gum.
8.30am My working day typically began. My Blackberry was always on and I checked emails as and when they arrived. First I viewed my director’s emails and forwarded important issues to my inbox to action. Next, I looked at my diary and entered new meetings and reminders. I checked my emails for urgent related topics and colour co-ordinated them to current projects.
10am I attended meetings, taking notes and emailing the most important issues for my director to act upon.
1pm Lunchtime usually involved a meeting or entertaining clients. I made a point to leave the table a little early to allow myself 10 minutes to freshen up and pay the bill, if necessary.
3pm I had more meetings to attend or correspondence to catch up on and I’d update my contacts list with any new business cards I received.
6pm If time allowed, I’d go for a swim to invigorate me before the evening ahead.
7.30pm I attended dinner meetings, which could be with clients or the rest of the team. As a rule, I limited myself to one glass of wine and I didn’t go out with colleagues afterwards.
Before going to sleep at night, I updated my daily progress report, emailed it to the relevant team and printed important documents which needed to be signed by the director the next morning. My Blackberry was always on vibrate in case of any urgent calls.