Laura Tenison set up retail company JoJo Maman Bébé 17 years ago after hearing complaints from mothers that baby clothes on the market were dull and downmarket. Since then the company has grown organically with 27 shops throughout the UK as well as an online store selling high-end baby clothes, maternity wear and other baby products.
In 2010 Laura won the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year Award for both the commercial success of her company and its ethical and environmental initiatives. She spoke to RetailChoice.com about her success and what she looks for when hiring key people for her business.
Q: What’s the history of your retail career?
A: I was very retail-focused [from an early age]– I started my own business when I was still at school, making and selling clothes. While I have no formal retail qualifications or training, I have 22 years’ experience of running retail businesses. One of the great things about being self-taught is that you have to rely very much on your own experience, to dictate how you want your company to run. I’m completely self-taught, but I know how to read a balance sheet and I find it absolutely essential that we update our cashflow forecast on a weekly basis. I see our sales figures on a daily basis and I keep a strict eye on our overheads and our cost controls.
Q: What’s special about your retail business?
A: We’ve found that many British consumers are fed up of the mass market shopping experience and prefer our kind of boutique-style stores where you are personally greeted by a member of staff and helped with your shopping. I know what it’s like to have small children and it’s stressful enough going into a store with a fractious toddler. If you’re then told off by a sales assistant when that toddler touches the merchandise, it’s very off-putting! We offer a more child-friendly experience. So I think that’s why we get the repeat trade and our customers are extremely loyal.
Q: What do you look for in your employees?
A: It goes without saying that one of the things we look for when we’re recruiting is child-friendly staff. I also don’t want employees who are focused on the hard sell. In fact, I’m well known for telling our customers not to buy too much! I like to think that by building up confidence in the brand, our customers will understand our company ethos and not require a hard sell.
Q: What skills are vital in the retail sector?
A: Nowadays it’s essential that anyone coming into retail has a good understanding of Excel and financial spreadsheets. Store managers should take ownership and responsibility for the finances, so that they understand when their store is making money, and when they’ve repaid the capital invested. We also require our store managers to go through in-depth training in employment law. They should understand that working in a JoJo Maman Bébé store is more than just a sales job – it’s an all round business approach.
Anyone coming into the company as a buyer or designer needs to know how the business works on a financial as well as a design level. The sector is not just about design, but also, more and more, about cash management. The hardest part of our job is buying and designing up to a year in advance and predicting not only the right styles to sell, but also the cash flow forecast. When you're working with the Far East and paying with staged payments or with credit, it can be hard to know exactly when that cash demand is going to hit your balance sheet.
Q: What would you say are the real benefits of a retail career?
A: I think it’s a shame that retail isn’t the first choice career path for more young people. Retail managers are well paid and they have an extremely satisfying job. Creative and business minded individuals who like helping others will thrive in retail and may not be stimulated in an office environment. They should take the plunge and follow my example!