If you’ve had kids over the past decade the chances are you’ve spent an indecent amount of money with Laura Tenison’s French-inspired maternity and babywear business.
Laura Tenison is talking nineteen to the dozen and chewing on a piece of toast when EN speaks to her on a Thursday morning, the day after she hosted an evening business meeting at her home that ran into the early hours and ended with three of her firm’s senior staff staying the night. Her young son is on wake-up and breakfast-making duty for the visiting troupe while Tenison herself is getting stuck into what is likely to be another 18-hour working day that will see her pedalling a push bike between meetings, overseeing currency hedging deals and directing the next stage of an award-winning corporate social responsibility programme – as well as picking the kids up from school and cooking the family meal.
And this isn’t your average female-led business.
While JoJo Maman Bébé – the maternity wear and baby clothing brand Tenison founded in 1993 in Newport, South Wales – is in a traditionally female-dominated sector, its scale is out of the ordinary (to those readers who get the hump with these pages because of such seemingly stereotypical assumptions, evidence from the Government Equalities Office and the Women’s Enterprise Forum shows that the average female-led business in the UK turns over around £250,000 – half the amount of the average male-led business – and is most likely to be operated on a part-time basis).
In the last 17 years the firm has grown organically year-onyear by at least 15 per cent and recorded EBITDA of 11 per cent on a £19 million turnover in 2009, while remaining wholly owned by Tenison. From a one-woman mail-order-only start-up, it’s opened more than 25 shops across the UK, employs around 300 people and has become known as the niche market specialist in the pregnancy, baby and nursery market.
But, far from sounding exhausted, Tenison is responding to every question with an energy and passion, though her manner is efficient – clipped even.
This morning is typical of most in Tenison’s household. Since starting the business and giving birth to her first son less than three years in, functioning amongst chaos has become the norm – “a matter of survival” as she puts it – that would be unachievable, she says, without superhuman amounts of energy and a coffee addiction.
“I never ever expect anyone to have my levels of energy – and that’s not me being arrogant,” she says. “I do have incredible amounts of energy and I like pushing myself to extremes. I like active holidays, too, it’s just the way I am.”
Indeed, the manner in which Tenison started the business was pretty chaotic too. She was brought up in a middle class family – her father was a diplomat and she received a convent education – and her decision, in her early 20s, to develop her entrepreneurial tendencies and put her skills with a sewing machine to good use by starting a small menswear business was supported neither by her father nor the bank.
She says, “I started off with a micro business in the early 90s making and selling men’s clothes as a sole trader then I tried to raise money to launch a bigger fashion label but no banks would support my business plan.
“I was young, inexperienced and I had no track record – fairly standard reasons. And there was a definite arrogance at the time that I was a girl in my early 20s and I was middle class.
“The bank manager said, ‘Why don’t you ask your father?’ In fact, I did ask my father and he said ‘no’ because he thought I should be getting on with a job and not wasting time trying to start a business.”
So, in order to establish the all-important track record – and at the behest of a friend looking to relocate – Tenison then set herself up as a specialist property agent in France, finding rural properties for British clients, with a £2,000 loan from her brother.
“I started a business in the service sector to gain a track record with the bank and hopefully earn a bit of money,” she says. “At the time we were going through terrible negative equity with our housing in this country and quite a lot of people were turning to France to get on the housing ladder.”
She sold that business two and-a-half years later for £50,000. But before returning to the UK to pursue a future in high-fashion menswear, Tenison was involved in a severe car accident that left her with 20 broken bones and a wired jaw. Unable to move from her hospital bed, she observed another patient on the same ward bemoaning the difficulties of buying nice baby clothes by mail order.
There and then, she says, JoJo Maman Bébé was born – inspired by the nautical Breton fashions she’d seen in France and funded by her £50,000 that was matched by an overdraft from the bank.
“I had £100,000 in 1993 to put together a collection, buy stock, do photoshoots, print a catalogue, rent premises and trade,” she says. “And realistically it wasn’t nearly enough money but of course, being naïve, you just go for it and hope you will sell some stock.”
JoJo turned over around £35,000 in its first year with Tenison living a “hand to mouth existence”.
She converted the cellar in the property she’d bought while she was employed into a rudimentary
bedroom and rented out the main bedroom above to keep the business ticking over and to pay
“I certainly couldn’t pay myself and I couldn’t take any money out of the business,” she continues. “I’m never one to not find a way round it. There is always a way if you are willing.”
JoJo grew consistently year on year but was still in a fragile position when she had her first baby.
“It wasn’t particularly good timing but he was a very welcome child. I think when you are planning a business to that extent you don’t ever plan to have children – they just sort of happen,” she says.
Tenison spent a day away from the business on maternity leave and, not willing to employ a nanny or sacrifice business growth or a family life, she spent the following year building JoJo as if it were a family-owned business and set about creating an environment in which family commitments were accepted and celebrated. Tenison says she knows the names of all her staff and their children and says she will walk out of the most important directors’ meeting, having made her apologies, in order to take her son to football practice.
She says her son spent much of his first year next to Tenison’s desk in a moses basket and he and his brother, born four years later, have been modelling JoJo clothes from a very young age.
They are both due to start work sweeping the floor in the firm’s warehouse when they reach 16. “I trained the baby to sleep most of the day but then he’d be up all night,” she continues. “It was a very tiring time and, looking back on it, it was all a bit of a blur and I’m not sure I’d wish it on anyone but it is possible. There is a small risk that sleep deprivation can send you over the edge but I kept going on adrenalin.”
By 2005, when the firm’s turnover had reached the £10 million mark, Tenison was on the verge of taking on outside investment but the credit crunch and the recession caused her to rethink her plans. Asked whether she’d consider it again in the future, she says, “It would be foolish to rule it out.
“We have grown organically to this stage and we have grown slowly and steadily in a sustainable manner but that growth could be accelerated a little bit with an investor.”
Tenison introduced a profit share scheme to the business while in the start-up stages and a staff education programme later on and she is a trustee of the company’s designated charity, Nema, a Mozambique based organisation targeting infant mortality. She says she runs the company with the ethos of a social enterprise, “but we are 100 per cent a commercial entity”, and any investor would have to appreciate and understand JoJo’s set-up.
“I feel that by putting the people you employ, your suppliers and your beliefs ahead of bottom line profit, the profit comes anyway because the people will want to work for the company,” she explains. “If people have belief in the company, if people have respect for their employer, they are more productive.
“That is why we will make a very comfortable EBITDA of around 11 per cent whilst running the company not particularly for profit. I think investors are becoming aware of the fact that just because you are attempting to do good you don’t necessarily have to compromise your bottom line.
“Obviously, someone would look at our staff education budget and say, ‘Do you really need that?’ If we train our staff well then our customers trust them and come into our stores and spend more money – so yes, we do.
“I don’t put our manufacturing out to tender every season even though I know we can save a few
pennies because I build up relationships with factories and when it comes to the credit crunch those same factories who don’t normally extend credit to us will extend credit to us because they trust me, they trust the company and they trust our ethos.
“You can look at a business for a short-term profit or you can look at a business for longevity. I want
this one to be here in a few years’ time.”