Managing Yourself & Leading Others

Reading Time: 22 minutes Helen Broughton MBE DL is the Danbro Group’s Co-Founder and CEO. We sat down with her recently for a wide-raging discussion to find out how she’s managed herself, her mental health, and her business for more than two decades. Enjoy.

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Managing Yourself & Leading Others

managing-yourself-and-leading-others
Reading Time: 22 minutes

Managing yourself and your mental health. Leading others and looking out for their psychological wellbeing. Being responsible for employing - and paying - dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. Driving productivity, maintaining standards and running a successful business. Raising a family as a working mum. Improving your community and the opportunities available for the people within it.

In their own right, each of these matters represent very real challenges that affect so many people up and down the country, and indeed around the world. Let alone taking on all of them at once. Work and wellbeing are intrinsically linked, particularly for those who head up businesses and large-scale organisations. So, what impact can all this have on the individual at the centre?

Helen Broughton is a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, and community figure. She’s the Chair of Trustees for international children’s charity, Operation Orphan, and a Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire. She also sits on the boards of a host of reputable organisations across the North of England. And, along with her husband, Damian, Helen is an MBE and the Co-Founder of the Danbro Group. She is currently the company’s CEO. We sat down with her recently to try and gain an insight into the methods and mechanisms she’s honed and developed to successfully manage herself and lead others for over 20 years.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we examined Danbro’s company culture and how the business looks after its employees’ wellbeing. We discussed the impact that running the business has had on Helen’s own mental health, as well as her motivation as a business leader. And, we looked at the subject of mental health in business through the prism of women and young mothers. First, we asked Helen what advice she had for entrepreneurs who may be struggling with stress or anxiety whilst running a successful business, and how she's handled this herself?

1. Managing yourself and leading others

According to official figures, in the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were ‘over 820,000 people in the UK suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety’. Tight deadlines and heightened responsibility were amongst the more common reasons referenced by respondents. With that in mind then, how has Helen learned to manage the pressures that work presents? What methods has she adopted over the years, and what tips does she have for other business leaders to help them manage their own mental health at work?

“I feel fortunate to have a faith that anchors me and provides a framework for my life,” she begins by saying. “That said, I still do a number of other things to keep myself well. For instance, since taking over as Danbro Group MD, I’ve been seeing a counsellor. I tend to see them once a week and it helps me unpack things. It’s been super helpful for me having a safe place to vent and work through the things that bother me.”

“I’m also a member of a great business network too. There are more than a dozen of us who spend a day together every month. Built into that is half a day of learning. So, we learn from a guest speaker and we unpack each other’s problems together. If someone’s got a pressing problem that particular month, they’re given some air time in the afternoon. We then try and help that person get their head around the issue at hand, and give them tangible takeaways to go back to their business with. We all operate at the same level too which is really useful. MDs and CEOs of reasonable-sized businesses. This is something I’ve done for a while now and it’s been a fantastic source of support.”

“I’ve made some very good friends. It’s reassuring to know that I can pick up the phone or send an email and somebody within that framework will know something, or have some resource, or have a contact that can help. They’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs.”

“So, those are just a couple of the things I’d recommend. Try and access professional support and don’t be afraid to talk. Don’t be afraid to share your weaknesses. And, of course, it’s always important to have a network of great people around you who love you and want the best for you. You can’t put a price on that.”

“As well as Damian’s support, I also have an amazing team of directors around me. I’m so fortunate in that regard and, on a personal level, I could turn to any of them if I was having a bad day. They often send messages to check-in to see if I’m okay. We’ve invested a lot in relationships amongst the directors and, in my opinion, it’s really paid off. We have lots of fun. And, whilst we recognise that there are big jobs to do, they get done far better and far more quickly if we all get along.”

2. Looking after your own mental health in business

When it comes to looking after your own mental health in business, plenty of business owners are ‘guilty’ of putting their company’s welfare ahead of their own. So, how much emphasis should you place on your own mental wellbeing as a business leader?

“I don’t think anyone starts a business and doesn’t put the business first, at least for a time,” says Helen. “Nine times out of ten this is something I’ve done, so I’m not sure I’m best placed to give out advice on this. What I will say is that if you love what you do, those decisions aren’t that hard to make. In fact, it’s often possible to find a resolution that serves the best of both worlds. And, a major plus of having your own business is the flexibility it affords you to take time out when needed.”

“In terms of looking after my own mental health, this is something I’ve prioritised more as I’ve grown in experience. For instance, every year, I take five days away by myself. A few years ago, on one of these trips, I read a great book about essentialism. Having read that, I came home from my trip feeling much clearer about what my purpose in my role was: to cast vision and remove barriers.”

“So, I now know that if I’m doing other stuff outside of that, it means I’m not fulfilling the purpose of my role. The other thing that happens when I pick up tasks like that - if I’m trying to be the listener, the problem solver, the organiser, the motivator, the disciplinarian, and the decision-maker - is it prevents other people from developing and growing in each of those areas.”

3. How does mental health affect business owners?

As we’ve discovered previously, mental health affects business owners just as much as their employees. In some cases, even more so. So, as a business leader, how should you handle occasions such as a big meeting or an important presentation on days where you’re not feeling your best or have received some bad news? Here’s Helen’s take.

“Compartmentalising is key. Oftentimes, you’ll get some news and just think, ‘bloody hell’. And, no matter what you’ve got on your to-do list, it dominates your mood. In those instances, I’ll normally take a few minutes to stop and think. If I can cancel that meeting or presentation to allow me time to process it or deal with it, I will do so. In fact, depending on the circumstances, I wouldn’t think twice about it. If you’ve got something important that needs dealing with and you’re able to rearrange, just do it.”

“It’s a cliché but being prepared helps. It helps you deal with those unexpected things that tend to occur from time to time. If it’s an important meeting I’ll always make sure I’ve looked at the papers, read up on the subject matter, worked out what I want to say, and made sure I understand who’s going to be there. Sometimes I might get a blank piece of paper and put everything that’s going on in my head on that page. Then, for the duration of the meeting, or even for the duration of that day, that’s where it'll stay.”

“As a person, I’m quite emotionally led. As a business owner, you’re bound to have people reach out to you and say, ‘can I talk to you’. If I was unable to postpone a meeting, as I suggested earlier, I’d refer them to one of our dedicated listeners [more on that later]. I always make time where I can but I wouldn’t be able to let someone through my door if I knew that I didn’t have time to do them and their problem justice, or give them the attention they deserve.”

So, what’s the one piece of advice Helen would give to business owners who may be struggling psychologically?

“As with anything, the worst thing you can do is keep something to yourself. If you’re suffering as a result of poor mental health, it’s imperative that you find somebody to talk to. If possible, make it a professional. Talking to family is essential too, of course. But, be mindful that they’re sometimes too close to help you objectively. Especially with business-related problems. As a business leader, you need to find people who will tell you the truth - in good times and bad. Rather than just wanting to make you feel better or telling you what you want to hear.”

4. How do business owners deal with burnout?

Managers, directors, CEOs, and senior staff members regularly rank amongst the groups who are worst affected by work-related mental health problems. Research from Mental Health UK and small business lendersiwoca, found that a whopping ‘eight in ten small business owners in the UK had experienced common symptoms of poor mental health’. And, with more and more of us working remotely, or from home, cases of ‘burnout’ are on the rise - particularly amongst small business owners. Longer days are becoming increasingly common and the emergent ‘always on’ culture is putting a squeeze on downtime. The boundaries between the home space and the traditional workplace are eroding.

What’s more, around 40% of UK employees take less than half of their holiday entitlement. And, research from AXA has suggested that nearly one-third of SME staff regularly work seven or more hours of overtime every week. So, how can business owners ‘deal with’ burnout and are there any steps you can take to prevent it?

“Burnout is definitely a real thing,” Helen acknowledges. “However, I do believe you’re less likely to get burned out if you’re doing something you really enjoy. That’s not to say there haven’t been times where I’ve struggled with my own mental health, though.”

“One example that always springs to mind relates to a fairly seismic systems upgrade we had a few years ago. Without going into too many specifics, for a couple of weeks, it was hell. It was absolute hell! We had staff working 18-19 hours a day. I recall closing our payroll the midnight before the Easter Bank Holiday weekend - I was still in the office - and despite the relentless effort we’d put in, there were still contractors who hadn’t been paid. In over 20 years, this has never happened before or since and it’s safe to say I did not cope well with it at all.”

“I had a constant feeling of anxiety. I had a knot in my stomach for days. I couldn’t sleep. I remember one morning, over that weekend, actually calling my Mum and asking her to come round and pray with me. I just felt, and I can feel myself getting emotional discussing this even now, that it was on me and that, frankly, I’d cocked up with it all. People, employees and contractors alike were at their wit’s end and it was super, super stressful.”

“Fortunately, when I’m feeling low, that’s when Damian steps in, and vice versa. That’s the major benefit of being in business together. Damian’s default is ‘getting to action’. But, even with his support, I remember that being a particularly bad time.”

5. Running a business (as husband and wife)

For almost three decades, Helen and her husband, Damian, have gone through the process of raising a family - and raising a business - side by side. The pair, who have three children, Daniel, Grace, and Elizabeth, have spent nearly a quarter of a century spearheading Danbro’s meteoric rise from a small-time start-up to an industry-leading provider of accounting, employment, and financial advice. Now, the notion of starting a business with your spouse is one that will frighten the living daylights out of most married couples. But, after two decades, hundreds of employees, hundreds of thousands of contractors, and the mammoth refurbishment of world-class facilities on the Fylde Coast, Danbro’s impact both within the industry and the wider community is greater than Helen and Damian could ever have envisaged. The big question for Helen then is whether, when it comes to business, it’s been a help or a hindrance working so closely with her husband?

“Sometimes it’s helped. Sometimes it’s not,” she says honestly. “Our working relationship - and the dynamic between us - has changed and developed a great deal over the years. Despite being married for so long, we are different people and we do approach things differently. Like any business, there have been occasions when things haven’t gone so well. But, I can honestly say it’s never rocked me, or our relationship, to the core,” Helen declares.

“It’s definitely reassuring that, if I ever wake up panicking about work in the middle of the night, I know I can talk to Damian about it. That kind of thing is a huge benefit to both myself and the business. That said, though, it has sometimes made it more difficult not to take things home. Remedying that is something we’ve become more intentional about as the years have gone by.”

“We now have a rule which, I must be honest, doesn’t always get adhered to but in any case can be enforced at any time. That is: we never talk about work before 8am or after 6pm. Simple, but effective. As Damian’s now taken a little step back from the business, if he ever wants to know something and asks me about it outside of those hours, I can play my trump card and say ‘get some time in the day with me!’ I invoke that golden rule whenever I get fed up with his questions…!”

“When it comes to the success - or otherwise - of our business, though, we don’t tend to worry about ourselves too much. The things that have truly bothered us during periods of difficulty is the impact it’s had on other people, specifically those who aren’t in our position.”

“For instance, on the rare occasions that we’ve had to make people redundant, which fortunately hasn’t been often at all, I’ve naturally worried about the individual concerned. I think about their feelings and their livelihood. I worry about the impact on them far more than the impact on me.”

“So, before we make a big decision like that, Damian and I always look at what we can do, if there’s anything we can shoulder. What we take out of the business is always cut first. That’s something we still feel strongly about today. For the first decade or more, we ran the business on our personal overdraft and credit cards. Constantly in the red. It wasn’t a chore but it’s what we felt we had to do.”

“I’ve always thought that the best leaders are ‘servant-hearted’. It should never be about ‘you’. It should be about what you can do. If your company isn’t making money, should you be taking money? It comes down to conscience. In business as in life, I don’t feel comfortable asking anybody else to give something up if I haven’t first given something up myself.”

managing-yourself-and-leading-others

6. Managing yourself and leading others: What motivates you as a business owner?

It’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to struggle psychologically when they finally achieve their long-term ambitions or milestone moments. Whether it’s an issue of fulfilment, motivation, or gratification, for many, issues arise when they’ve reached the top of their mountain. To quote the late boxing champ, Marvin Hagler, “it's tough to get out of bed and do roadwork at 5am when you've been sleeping in silk pyjamas.” So, as someone who’s achieved so much in life, and in business, what drives Helen to continue moving forward?

“I haven’t even come close to what I want to achieve and honestly don’t think I ever will,” Helen declares. “I’m a big dreamer with big aspirations but, intrinsically, I’m not motivated by money or success in the traditional sense.”

“For me, it’s the thrill of the journey. I love seeing people realise they can do things that they never thought were possible. What really motivates me is employing people, giving them a shot, and seeing them become the best they can be. What I’ve found is that, if you have a business that’s successful, you can create opportunity for others to achieve their ambitions.”

“Don’t get me wrong, the financial benefits of running a successful business are wonderful. It enables you to do more both personally and professionally. It opens doors and it creates opportunity. I’d never sit here espousing that ‘money doesn’t matter’, but it’s not, and never has been, what motivates me.”

“People pulling together to make something good happen - and growing in the process - is what gets me most. I'm proud that we started a business that has enabled that to happen. I also enjoy the influence that success in business brings. I like the responsibility of making important decisions; and the power to enact real change and do things differently.”

“Going back to what I said about motivation, I’ve always thought that I don’t need to run a business or live in a big house to be happy. I’ve always had the ability to make whatever task I’m doing, however mundane it may be, interesting. I think I could find happiness in any job.”

“I’m a competitive person. And, if there’s no one else to compete with, I’ll compete with myself. My first jobs in the council were very repetitive, so I’d try and do things faster than I did the day before. I like to challenge myself in whatever I’m doing. That’s the way I motivate myself.”

7. How do you switch off from work and relax?

“Switching off from work has got easier over time but it’s not something that comes naturally to me,” admits Helen.

“Away from work, I try and do normal stuff like being with family and friends, reading (a lot!), going on holidays, walking, etc. Oh, and I love playing games. Not so much the computer variety but, take it from me, card and board games are a great stress-buster!”

8. Mental Health & Women in Business

Mental health does not discriminate, but it can affect men and women differently. Some disorders are more common in women such as depression and anxiety. Moreover, there are certain types of disorders that are unique to women, such as perinatal depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and perimenopause-related depression.

The difficulties many women face when it comes to business is, sadly, nothing new either. And, the struggle of growing a business whilst raising a young family is something that will be familiar to plenty of female entrepreneurs.

Helen and Damian also started a family around the same time as starting their business. So, we wanted to understand how Helen was able to prioritise her time effectively in those earlier years, as well as how much emphasis she now places on her mental health and the importance of a good work-life balance. We also wanted to know if she thought being a woman had made it harder to achieve the success she has in business. But first, here are some important statistics surrounding women’s mental health in business…

“We already had our son, Daniel, when we started the business. [Our eldest daughter] Grace came along just after when we set up the umbrella company [in 2000],” explains Helen. “By that point, the business had been going for about 18 months. If I’m honest I don’t think, looking back, that I did prioritise that effectively. I didn’t spend as much time with Grace in her first 12 months of life as I would have liked. And, as a mother, I do have regrets about that.”

“As Damian worked elsewhere and only had two weeks paternity leave, I returned to work a fortnight after I gave birth. I did have people around to help me and my Mum was really great. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t see Grace or that I wasn’t around for her, but it was one of our toughest years as business owners. We had very little time off and the demands were constant. It was what it was and it had to be that way but it’s still one of my regrets.”

“I remember in the December of that year, I called Damian, who was working away [contracting whilst simultaneously co-running the business], in tears to say I couldn’t do it anymore. He listened and said, ‘Okay’. He gave his notice in, came back into the business from the January, and we recruited our first employee on the back of that. That allowed me to have three months out whilst Sharon [Oldham, Danbro’s first employee] and Damian took care of the business, before stepping back in again when Damian took on some more contracting work. It was great because it gave me so much more time with Grace as well as a bit of a reset, which is so important for any business owner - and new mother! So, as I say, I’m not sure I did get that balance absolutely right.”

Does Helen believe, then, that it’s harder for women with children to start a business?

“I’m not sure I’d say that. I definitely think it’s easier to speak about that if you’re a woman in business. I do think it’s true that a lot of women are maternal and have a desire to look after their children. That’s absolutely natural. So, I think, as a result, women are perhaps more susceptible to regret in that area. But, at the same time, I don’t want to sit here and say that it’s ‘harder’. I’m sure there are lots of businessmen who would love to spend more time with their children. But, if you have a partner who’s the primary caregiver, I suppose it takes that pressure off doesn’t it?”

“At the end of the day, it’s a choice that people make that works for them and their family. Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t have more women in senior positions is because lots of women choose not to pursue it because they feel the sacrifices are too great. That said, these days, more and more men are positioning themselves as the ‘primary caregiver’. The landscape is changing.”

“Before we started the business, I was a stay-at-home Mum with Daniel. One of the things I used to say was, ‘it’s my job to make sure that Damian goes to work and doesn’t have to worry about the family’. He might not have liked the state of the house when he came home, mind, but that’s another matter! As a business owner, though, it’s different. You do have more freedom. So, if I wanted to take the afternoon off to go food shopping, I could do that as I was on my own clock. In the early years, we’d often work into the wee small hours after the kids had gone to bed. We'd answer the phone to clients at all hours of the night and at weekends.”

“Over time, we were able to start implementing boundaries to keep things in check. For instance, the late-night phone calls stopped after we got a drunk call at around 3am. That’s when we started putting the answerphone on at 8 O’clock - back when they were a thing! We stopped working every weekend and started taking more than just a handful of holiday days each year. But, of course, that’s not a luxury that a lot of working mums have.”

9. Should companies prioritise mental health?

What about employees’ mental health then? As an employer, driving the performance of your business and demanding high standards from your staff while staying attuned to their mental wellbeing can be a difficult balance to strike, particularly for larger-scale businesses. So, should companies prioritise mental health? And, what policies and processes can they implement to support that endeavour?

“When it comes to employees and helping them with any stresses, anxieties, or personal problems, it can be very hard. In fact, the times I struggle most are definitely when I see other people suffering,” admits Helen. “The reality, though, is that you can’t control other peoples’ feelings. As a business leader, you can only do what you can do. That’s why we, as a company, have invested in ‘listening’, ‘feedback’, and ‘self-awareness’ training, which has helped people to manage themselves more effectively, both for their own benefit, as well as their team and the business at large. We’ve also invested in employee benefits and facilities here at Jubilee House [Danbro’s HQ] to help support people’s mental wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. Whether that’s flexible working, free financial advice, private medical insurance, access to our on-site gym, a multi-faith room, or our dedicated ‘listening room’.”

“Our ‘listening service’ has been running for over a decade now. It came about because I was chatting to my friend’s husband one day and he mentioned that they provided the workplace listeners service at his business. I thought, ‘what a great idea’. So, I did some research and not long afterwards we put things in place to provide the service ourselves.”

“As part of my research I spoke to other friends who had businesses and I remember speaking to one who’d had an employee who’d sadly killed himself. I never wanted people at Danbro to ever feel like they didn’t have anywhere to go and no one to talk to. We, like lots of businesses, have had situations where we’ve had people who were struggling with difficult things. Things that they couldn’t talk to family and friends about. I wanted Danbro to be a business where people always had an option. No matter what was going on in their lives, be it personally or professionally. And, that’s where our listeners come in.”

“Whilst I am now a trained listener - and I use those skills a lot - I’m not a ‘Danbro workplace listener’. And, that’s deliberate, because I’m not always the best person to deal with those situations. Emotionally, I usually just want to ‘fix’, which might not always be possible. And, because of my position, I sometimes have the power to fix things too. However, depending on the particular issue, that’s not necessarily a good position to be in, either for myself or the person talking to me. So, it’s important that I’m able to defer to other listeners, which is an option I regularly take.”

“The success of our listening course has also led to our ‘feedback course’, as well as inspiring some of the practices included in our strategy weeks. We now have employees who actually give talks on this stuff themselves, completely unaided. For instance, we recently had strategy sessions with our people managers which were run by Sammie, our HR specialist and Head of People. That’s super exciting for me because Sammie created those sessions herself. I was originally going to lead them with her but, instead, I opted to step away because it’s important for Sammie to grow. And, as always, she did a fantastic job.”

“That part of the business really excites me. When I see someone growing in a role and loving what they’re doing. They ‘own it’ and, like in Sammie’s case, they often end up doing it better than I could ever imagine it being done! That goes for my team of directors as well. I’m so proud of the fact that I’ve built a business which employs people who are doing jobs that I absolutely can’t do.”

10. How do you manage mental health in the workplace, amongst employees?

What about Helen as a business leader though? This article is about ‘managing yourself and leading others’. So, as a business owner, how does she manage mental health in the workplace? And, what does she believe are the best ways to handle delicate situations when it comes to employees? Here’s her take on how best to deal with that.

“As a business leader, people need to know that they can come to you with any problems or concerns and that you’re not going to lose perspective or ‘flip your lid’ on any given issue,” Helen explains. “It’s so important that business leaders don’t come across as defeated or hopeless. After all, there is always something that can be done.”

“That said, I have a huge amount of compassion and sympathy for people who struggle with things like anxiety and stress. I know how completely debilitating it can be. I grew up with a mum who struggled with depression,” Helen bravely shares.

Leading large groups of people and making big decisions has a direct impact on people’s mental health symptoms. So, is there a way to square that circle with yourself as a business leader? To better cope with that pressure? Well, to Helen, it comes down to perception.

“The way I see it, that responsibility is a privilege. Yes, I might have 150 people who look to me to lead them in times of difficulty or hardship. That brings with it additional pressure. But, whenever I have a problem, I think to myself that actually I have 150 capable people, 150 brilliant minds, who can help me resolve it. How wonderful is that?”

11. Managing yourself and leading others: How important is company culture?

Cultivating a positive, inviting, progressive working environment is crucial if you want to engender a company culture in which employees know that their mental health is taken seriously. As a business owner, Helen is particularly passionate about Danbro’s principles and its general ethos. She’s mindful of the impact - both positive and negative - that a company can have on an individual’s wellbeing, so she makes a conscious effort to personally represent the values that underpin Danbro as a business. But, how does she manage to remain so positive and optimistic, for the benefit of her team and employees - particularly when times are tough?

“I don’t know if I’m naturally positive, but I am naturally an optimist and I do consciously work on being positive,” she said. “I like to convince myself that I’m a realist as well, but I definitely rely on hope to get me through tougher times.”

“Hope is my favourite word because there’s never anything that you can’t do. To paraphrase Captain Tom, there’s always hope that tomorrow will be better than today, and that next week will be better than last week. You’ve got to be optimistic, both in life and in business.”

“I suppose my challenge has actually been to reign that in slightly because it can comes across as dismissive of how people feel in the moment. I am conscious of that. And, as I’ve grown in experience, I’ve realised that being real is far more important than just being aimlessly positive or optimistic. As a leader, people need to know that you’re real, you’re truthful, and that you ‘get it’.”

“At a more granular level, I never want people to feel like they aren’t wanted, or that they don’t belong,” she said. “As a business, we do what we can to make sure people know that we’re here for them, as was evidenced during the pandemic. I guess I’ve always been like that. As a child, I was the one that would chat to the kid who was on their own in the playground at school. Because I know what it feels like to be the kid on your own in the playground.”

12. Finally, how big an impact (positive and/or negative) does owning a business have on your personal life?

“The impact that running a business has had on my life has been huge and, predominantly, positive,” says Helen. “Thankfully, it’s been largely successful too and we’ve been able to employ hundreds of people.”

“I never thought, when I was younger, that I would be a ‘career person’. In fact I’m probably not your typical career person even now but I can honestly say that I absolutely love my job. I’ve found a lot of value and a lot of my personal identity through what I do in work. It’s enabled me to travel a path that I never even thought was possible; opening up so many opportunities as well.”

“It amazes me every single day!”

Blog written by
Helen Broughton MBE DL

Helen Broughton is the Danbro Group’s CEO. She founded Danbro along with her husband, Damian, back in 1999 and they’ve since helped hundreds of thousands of companies, contractors, sole traders, and self-employed workers from across the UK to achieve their ambitions in business.

With a keen social conscience and a strong emphasis on family, Helen ensures Danbro supports the local and wider community, donating time and money to causes close to her heart.

For that important work, both Helen and Damian were awarded MBEs by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and, in 2019, she was also appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire. Helen is Chair of Trustees for the Danbro Foundation and international children’s charity, Operation Orphan, as well as being an active member of her local church. She and Damian have three grown-up children and live in Lancashire with their two fur babies, Alfie and Leo.

 

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