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Business spotlight: Karen Sharpe, Suffolk Agricultural Association

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 23 Jul 2020

Former PwC director Karen Sharpe tells ICAEW Insights about her work with the Suffolk Agricultural Association and the effect lockdown has had on the organisation’s activities.

When Karen Sharpe isn’t juggling a demanding non-executive role and a board position with a local charity, she’s more than likely to be found somewhere on her smallholding in Suffolk tending her small flock of sheep, checking on the pigs, turkeys and horses or weeding her veg patch.

By her own admission, Sharpe’s life has something of the “Good Life” about it, in reference to the 1970s sitcom of the same name following the trials and tribulations of a couple as they abandon the rat race in favour of a life of self-sufficiency. It all marks a huge shift from Sharpe’s previous career as a senior director at PwC working in audit and six years doing a five-hour round trip commute into London from the family’s Suffolk farmhouse.

Sharpe admits she probably continued the commute for too long “out of stubbornness.” As homeworking is forced upon vast swathes of employees due to COVID-19, Sharpe says she has always preferred face-to-face working as a means to forge good working relationships. “Auditing is all about the relationship with your clients,” she says. 

Chartered accountant Sharpe left full-time work in 2018 and joined asset management firm State Street Global Advisors as a non-executive director. Since February last year, she has also been a trustee on the main board of the Suffolk Agricultural Association (SAA), a charity that promotes food, farming and the countryside and its importance to Suffolk through a range of education programmes for young people at its Trinity Park showground in Ipswich. In addition to her trustee role, with responsibility for governance, Sharpe is also Chairman of the Audit, Investment and Risk Committees.

It seems prophetic that since moving to Suffolk in 2002, it was her family’s annual pilgrimage to SAA’s flagship Suffolk Show, a two-day event that attracts around 100,000 visitors every year and one of the oldest traditional agricultural shows in the UK, that encouraged Sharpe’s foray into animal husbandry.

Lockdown restrictions have had a devastating impact on the charity, forcing it to cancel the main agricultural show and a number of other ancillary events including the Schools Farm and Country Fair, that plays host to around 4,500 primary school pupils from almost 100 schools, due this year to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

The showground remains shut, and all but four staff have been furloughed. While the charity’s insurance will cover some costs, the loss of income from external events is a significant financial blow. “Our number one priority was to establish that we’re financially secure – fortunately our investments are doing better than we thought.”

The charity has just agreed to develop a programme to provide direct outreach to Suffolk primary schools as a replacement for the Schools Farm and Country Fair, as well as reaching out to next year’s higher education agriculture students to see what kind of support they need.

“We’re also starting to think through our strategy for next year’s show and working through some scenarios – from the show running as usual to a physical show not being able to run at all,” says Sharpe.

She is thankful for some of the excellent training she has made use of including a “Decision making in a crisis" course facilitated by Women on Boards and significant resources and free virtual courses run by the Institute. “One that I benefited from greatly was "How to run successful virtual board meetings" – the timing was perfect, as it came just before I had to chair my first Investment Committee meeting for the SAA.”

In anticipation of a return to some semblance of normal, a collective sense of helping each other through the crisis prevails. A circus the charity has a long relationship with is being allowed to stay on the showground site. The show director is one of the largest growers of asparagus in the country and many circus performers have found work on his farm.

Against a backdrop of uncertainty, the routine of tending her animals has proved a great source of comfort during the past few months and her training and experience as a chartered accountant has stood her in good stead. “If you don’t plan anything and struggle every day there’s no basis on which to make any decisions.”