Winning Women: An endless Flow of fun ideas

Tara Turkington started her communications company in her home seven years ago. Today, it bills millions every month and this mother of four says she is having the time of her life, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Chickens cluck contentedly as they nestle on hot-pink cushions in the high ceilinged, elegant reception area with its marble tiles, zany chairs and brass chandelier.

The docile, Soweto-raised hens fix beady eyes on the staff who are doubling up as stand-up comedians and readying themselves for a pitch.

This is Flow Communications at its competitive best. It will be a coup if the company lands the account.

“But even if we don’t win, it’s been enormous fun,” says Flow founder Tara Turkington, who mentioned to the staff that they need not feel they had to laugh during the pitch, chickens notwithstanding.

Her approach sums up her attitude to work, to business, and in particular to the 54 staffers who work at Flow.

Turkington founded Flow Communications in 2005. It specialises in content writing and research, graphic design, web development, e-marketing, and media training.

In seven short years, Turkington, along with her business partner and sister, Tiffany Turkington, and Flow’s chairman, Bheki Shongwe, have grown Flow into one of South Africa’s largest communications companies.

Today they have more than 150 clients that include the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, Maropeng, Sasol, Etana Insurance and SA Tourism.

Their international clients are in the UK, the US and Ethiopia. Their Joburg offices are on Oxford Road, Dunkeld, and they have others in Cape Town and Durban.

It’s a terrific success story, and began in one room in Turkington’s Waverley, Joburg, home.

This was shared by her baby, her dogs and her first Flow colleague, Richard Frank, who now heads Flow’s web-development team.

Eventually, as the number of staffers grew, as did her children – she now has four ranging in age between two and 15 – her long-suffering husband, school headmaster Mike Thiel, turfed them out.

The couple bought a bigger house, but Flow outgrew that too, so Turkington bought the house next door, cut a hole in the fence so her kids could wander over to it and went on acquiring staff and clients.

“We had six staff about 18 months after starting the business, but we weren’t making much money, mainly because I’m not good at administration. So I nicked my younger sister, Tiffany, in a weak moment for her.”

Tiffany, a highly respected designer who was running a graphic design and branding company, was heavily pregnant when her sister pounced. She was susceptible to a secure and exciting offer that involved both her management and design skills.

“I knew Tiffany was the type to have her baby on a Friday and be here on the Monday – and this is exactly what happened,” says Turkington.

Last year, Flow outgrew its homely offices and the determined sisters spent months looking for much bigger ones that would retain their “friendly, family-oriented feel”.

This they have achieved in their present premises, built as an office block, but with the ambience of a large home with its sofas, foosball tables and large balcony overlooking a garden where staff have office-provided lunches in the sun.

“Maybe we’ll outgrow these too,” says Turkington, as she leads me though room after room, with shrieking pink walls, staffed with genuinely friendly people.

No wonder they keep busting out of office space, as they are continually establishing other small companies. These include Flow PR, Flow Exhibitions, Collective Cow (an online collective-buying company that offers daily specials) and Flow Group Holdings.

Shongwe, Flow’s chairman, is also chairman of Evraz Highveld Steel and a former MD of Kaizer Chiefs and Metrobus in Joburg.

Turkington says she, Tiffany and Shongwe share the same attitude to their work.

“We have clients we enjoy and staff we regard as the best at what they do. We find excellent people and then source jobs for them. That sometimes means we have people without jobs or, conversely, jobs with no one to do them.”

Flow’s openness about its finances extends to any profits being shared with staff in the form of bonuses, “and this makes people feel vested
in the company”.

Turkington’s energetic and empowering, yet relaxed and friendly, approach is one of the reasons Flow has grown as it has.

A one-time journalist, she also managed heritage sites before she and a colleague wrote all the copy for exhibitions at Maropeng and the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind.

That launched Flow, and when Turkington then asked her colleagues who the coolest client in South Africa is, they responded, “Nelson Mandela, of course.”

Six years on, they are still the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s digital communications company.

Turkington manages her four kids, “with benign neglect and Maria Shabalala”.

Making money is not her primary objective, creating jobs is, “but we need it to pay staff. It’s a necessary evil,” she says.

She loathes banks and threw a tantrum against one that refused to loan bridging finance to Flow. “It suddenly materialised,” she says, chuckling.

Her dream is to continue creating jobs and to develop globally. It’s a goal that those clucking chickens may bring home to roost.

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