Ally Dowsing-Reynolds talks about becoming a CEO, being brave and deciding how to be her own best boss.
Editor CAROLINE PAIGE
I had to go with it and think, OK, I’m doing this and we’re going to do things how I want to do them.
My first interview for the FEMALE LEADERS series is with a good friend and confidante of many years. Ally also forms half of the power couple behind the Yorkshire-based lighting and interiors biz, Dowsing & Reynolds. She’s a self-confessed learning addict and oversharer. And I knew her journey to CEO would be a story worth sharing.
How did you become the CEO of Dowsing & Reynolds?
I worked for marketing agencies for over 20 years. As Head of Digital Strategy, I worked on accounts for brands such as Sensodyne and the Met Office. Being involved in growing their brands and services gave me a perfect grounding. Dowsing & Reynolds was set up by my husband, James, and I worked on the side for the business for a few years. As it got bigger, I joined part-time to grow the marketing and e-commerce team.
When our daughter arrived in 2018 something had to change. I couldn’t split my time between Dowsing & Reynolds, my role at the agency and parenting too. My ambition was to be director of a marketing agency, but it no longer felt like the way I wanted to do things. I was ready to achieve more but joining James at Dowsing & Reynolds full-time felt scary – not having peers around to support me. Eventually, I made the jump.
I gained experience as a company director. I concentrated on increasing brand awareness and making it a premium brand. By 2021, I was doing a lot more and we became co-CEOs. It worked for us. It meant we both had a couple of days at home each week. James covered the financial and manufacturing side and I focused on culture and leadership. We’d expanded fast and needed to ensure we felt full ownership of decision-making.
At the start of 2022, I became the sole CEO. We’d talked about it for a while and decided it was time. James is a real entrepreneur. He’s a ‘build the plane while it’s flying’ kind of guy. That was brilliant to get the company this far, but it wasn’t the right strategy to take us forward. James has an instinct for business and he said: “You know what, I think you should be my boss. You should take over and I’m gonna focus on product development.”
I didn’t think everything would change. But responsibility for the whole company required a huge shift in mindset. Again, I felt I was leaving a position of safety and support. I had to go with it and think, OK, I’m doing this and we’re going to do things how I want to do them. I’m in control of the business now – for better or worse.
How do you find peer support as a CEO?
James is a board director and still advises me on the financial side of things. He’s leaving it to me, but it’s a transition. We’ve had a bumpy time these past few years – like every e-commerce business. I hired an experienced financial director, who works with me a day or two a week and we have a great finance manager too.
As a female CEO and parent (this can apply to men too) you try to juggle so many things. One of the hardest aspects of the job is not letting stress spill into family life. So, I joined a network where I can talk to other women in my position – some running far larger businesses. It’s a network founded by leading women (including Claire Davenport, former CEO, Not on the High Street) to encourage women to go for leadership roles. I want to hear what other women do because it can be a lonely and high-pressure job.
Now you're CEO at Dowsing & Reynolds, are you your own best boss?
If something has a negative effect on me, I work out what I can do about it. Mum died when she was 55. She died of cancer caused, we thought, by stress. That experience stays with me. I want to do a great job, but I don’t want it to stop me being there for my daughter – or for life itself.
Leading a company during uncertain times meant I tried to burn the candle at both ends. I was spinning from one thing to another and ignoring signs to stop. I was seeing the effects of it – tension headaches and feeling exhausted. And knew I had to get back those breaks that mean we can function well. Now, I’m conscious I need to schedule breaks between projects and days off. I don’t try to do everything.
I want to do a great job, but I don’t want it to stop me being there for my daughter – or for life itself.
Do you think Covid has changed interior design?
Definitely. We were already talking about how interior design affects the way people feel. We were sharing our interior design choices for our house. The pandemic meant huge numbers of us spending all our time at home. Many were working in a cramped home office or at the kitchen table. People became interested in our message about feeling good at home.
Many people realised they hadn’t created the sense of home they wanted. We wanted to give them confidence to improve it. We shared how the right lighting, colours and belongings around you can make you feel good. Because your home can affect how you feel.
How have you shared your story to grow the Dowsing & Reynolds brand?
Dowsing & Reynolds want to help you understand how your surroundings make you feel. I’ve experienced the journey myself thinking about the interior design of our home. I’m the kind of person who wants to share information when I find something out. I’m a natural oversharer. That’s me. I like to tell everyone.
I love it when someone sees something I’ve shared and decides to make a change in their home. It’s not me telling them what to do. It’s about giving them confidence to change something, so they feel better.
It’s not me telling them what to do. It’s about giving them the confidence to change something, so they feel better.
Who inspires you?
My mum. She wasn’t perfect – we had a difficult relationship at times – but she gave me a lot. She taught me to be curious and determined. I left sixth form, without finishing A-levels, because I was bullied. When I got my first job in digital marketing, I had no qualifications! It was my fifth interview, but I hadn’t given up. That experience also stayed with me.
My old boss and friend, Paul Mallett, has inspired me. He’s firm but takes time to understand and guide people. He’s a cerebral kind of lateral thinker. Because he’s so good it was hard for me to form my own identity at times. I spent a few years trying to figure it out. He always believed in me and reminded me how good I am.
And I’m inspired by Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, because she’s so passionate about what she does. She’s open that she didn’t have a clue what she was doing when she started, but she kept going. I love that about her.
What’s the last thing you read that resonated with you?
The last book I read and loved was Mary Portas’s Work Like a Woman. She rose to the board at Harvey Nichols and fought for recognition in an alpha culture. Later, running her own agencies, she reassessed how she wanted to work as a woman. You can run a company with compassion, drive and ambition – and be bloody good at it!
You can run a company with compassion, drive and ambition – and be bloody good at it!
I also love The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel. It’s not the kind of book I’d normally read, but it’s brilliant. It’s about how your personal story with money influences your business perspective too. It’s useful to think about the psychology of how you make decisions about money.
Finally, what advice do you have for women who want to become leaders?
You’ve got to have determination and confidence. If you’re not confident yet, it comes by throwing yourself into it. Being uncomfortable for a while allows you to grow. It’s scary. But you must throw yourself into those situations – because when you do the confidence comes.
Dowsing & Reynolds want you to create a home you love. They specialise in lighting, interior fixtures, fittings and finishing touches. They design beautiful products that bring joy to the everyday. They’ve won many awards. If you’re into interiors, you’ll recognise them from – Grand Designs, The Great Interior Design Challenge, Interior Design Masters, Elle Decoration and Living Etc (to name-drop a few).