In conversation with Sharon Smith

by | Oct 8, 2020

This month, Ruby chats with Sharon Smith, the CEO of the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce. Sharon heads up the 8th largest Chamber in the UK, having joined as Director of Finance and Corporate Services in 2007, which supports over 4000 businesses a year across the two counties.

The award-winning Chamber has achieved a fantastic representation of gender equality on their Board, Area Council, within their senior team and within the company. The team firmly believe the diversity of skills that this brings to their organisation maximises high performance in their teams and, in turn, provides better solutions for their Members and customers.

Ruby talks with Sharon about supporting busy businesses, doing a Master’s degree at the age of 40 and being an inspiration:

My alarm goes off…

I like to get up and start the day quite early. I definitely like to beat the traffic in the morning and enjoy get into work first thing to catch up on jobs and tasks before a typically busy day. Of course this was pre-Covid-19. For now we are safely working at home in the main as many professional sector business, but we are looking to return to the office slowly but safely.

How did you start doing what you’re doing?

After 7 years working for a manufacturing company in Herefordshire, and the birth of my first daughter, I returned to work in a new role at Business Link. I can’t quite believe this was 27 years ago, and I have worked in business support services for all this time, at both Business Link and for the last decade at the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce.

I’ve lived and worked in Herefordshire and Worcestershire throughout my whole lifetime and whilst this might not sound exciting to those who have worked all over the world, I have been really happy to stay local and look back over my time within these wonderful counties – both personally and professionally. That said, I do like to experience travelling the world and seeing new, exciting and different places on holidays.

My typical day…

I’m not sure I have a typical day anymore. As a previous Finance Director, my day, week and year was very structured, with set deadlines and consistency within my work.

I’ve now been the CEO of Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce for 3 years, and I don’t think I have any standard days! This was a challenging shift for me to start with, certainly a new way to work, but I think I adapted quickly and now really enjoy the variety. I can usually be found meeting existing or new clients, attending events, working back at the office with the team or on new developments/services and sometimes meeting other Chamber CEOs either in the West Midlands or Nationally. Again things have changed recently, with all our events and training programmes now online. We have learnt some great lessons from this, in particular being able to reach more of our members in an efficient way, particularly those in remote locations. However, I’m still looking forward to meeting up more socially, as I know many of you are too.

I’m responsible for…

I am responsible for managing Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce. This includes participating in the board that set the strategic direction and then day to day working with the team and Members to achieve the business ambition. The Chamber is a not-for-profit business and our vision is to ‘build sustainable economic growth in Herefordshire and Worcestershire’. I absolutely love being part of a business and a community whose single goal is to grow and improve the local economy that I have lived and worked in all my life.

What worries you?

Like many people, public health and the economy are my biggest concerns at the moment. These can seem like conflicting priorities sometimes, but I think the important main message for us all is to return to work and increase consumer confidence, whilst maintaining safety for all. The businesses that I speak to on a daily basis are shining examples of this. Many of them, and their staff have faced some really tough challenges over the last 6 months, but they have responded and reacted to change in positive and agile ways, showing resilience and true leadership and community spirit.

What are your notable highlights to date?

My proudest career moments to date are seeing the Chamber go from strength to strength. In 2013 we were named Chamber of the Year, in 2017 we were a finalist in the world Chambers competition for our part in the Worcestershire Works Well project and just this year in 2020, we were listed in the Top 20, of the Sunday Times Top 10 Best Not For Profit Companies to work for.

I’m really proud to accept these awards as external recognition for both our members and our staff who make this local Chamber what it is. Without every single one of them and what they each put back into the community we wouldn’t be where we are today – so thank you all!

One of my personal career highlights actually only happened recently. I gave a presentation to a group of Herefordshire Apprentices and one of them noted afterwards, that despite him already doing very well in his apprenticeship, I had inspired him to go on to do even more – to progress through his company and set his goals even higher. If I can inspire just one, or many, young people to believe in themselves and achieve all they can achieve, it makes me happy.

What’s the key to your success?

The key to my success has probably been drive, determination, lots of hard work and integrity. I believe that treating people as you wish to be treated goes a long way in the world and I draw strength from my values and ethics.

A game changer for me was also doing my Masters degree at the age of 40! As a mature student it took me 4 years of evening and weekend study, but achieving that goal was a personal highlight and something that has grown my abilities at work, by bringing together a host of experience with an appreciation of research and theories.

Who or what has been your biggest influence?

During my career, my biggest influences have been my previous managers. I feel lucky to have met, been managed and coached by some extremely clever and charismatic people, who I have learnt so much from along the way. Right back to my first job at 17, these people have always supported me, trained me, given me space and empowered me to grow and learn; enabling me to be the best person I can be. I don’t honestly think I’ve had a ‘bad boss’ and I think this has helped shape and develop my career.

What’s on your to do list?

On my work to do list is to continue supporting businesses through the challenges that the next 12 months will bring. Businesses have now endured years of unprecedented uncertainty including Brexit, numerous political changes and now a global pandemic. The impact of this on the economy has obviously been huge and as a Chamber we still have so much to offer helping businesses navigate the short and long term economic landscape.  My role is to work with the active business community in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, facilitating networks, connections and best practice sharing whilst collecting business intelligence to use both locally and nationally to shape future business support.

My personal to do list was largely about travel, but that’s been put on hold this year! Since visiting Australia in 2017, I have grown a passion for visiting different countries and seeing parts of the world that I never thought I would see. These have included New York, the Dominican Republic, Italy and Cape Verde, but on the bucket list would still be the Maldives and Canada in particular. Maybe one day…

Biggest bugbear?

My biggest bugbear is noisy eating! I know this is my issue, as loud chomping and crunching is absolutely necessary with certain types of foods, but it’s not for me – I have been known to leave the room!

What you wanted to be when you grow up?

Somewhat predictably I always wanted to work in a bank – so spending the majority of my career in business finance wasn’t far off in the end! Although a Cadburys Chocolate taster always had its appeal, and still would!

Where can you mostly be found after work?

After work I love to go walking with my husband and any of our four girls that are up for joining us. On average we try to go 3-4 times a week, sometimes more in the summer and will walk about 3-5 miles. I really find this helpful to unwind after work and enjoy the exercise whilst still being able to catch up with the family on their days. During lockdown and these socially distanced times my after work activities haven’t really changed. Although I am pleased to report Ive been known to step up a gear and make my walk a run sometimes – progress!

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

Principles can be costly and time consuming, sometimes you have to let it go and move on..

Your party piece?

I’m not sure I have one! But before Covid I enjoyed a pub crawl from The Monument to high town in Hereford, dressed as Bat Girl…. (photos will not be shared!)

What’s next? How do people find out about you?

What’s next is continue to help support business, building back to previous levels and ultimately business growth. Spending more time with my family and friends and continuing my happy journey. To find out more about the Chamber, go to:

As seen online and in print in the latest edition of County Lifestyle and Leisure Magazine and showcased online at the Herefordshire & Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce.

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