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Women in Business Q&A: Laura Tenison, Founder and Managing Director, JoJo Maman Bébé

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As the founder and managing director of JoJo Maman Bébé, Laura has grown the company organically from its start-up in 1993 to become the UK's foremost niche multi-channel specialist in the pregnancy and baby market. Offering fashionable maternity wear, a Breton inspired children's collection and original nursery products, gifts and toys; JoJo offers everything you need from pregnancy to pre-school.

Laura previously ran a small fashion company before setting up a French property business based in Brittany. When she sold this venture, her aim was to bring the quirky nautical style home and offer practical and affordable fashion for mothers and babies.

Whilst start-up capital of just £50k and only two part time members of staff, Laura has grown the company to a forecast cross turnover of £44m in the current financial year, and employs of 570 people. The company, now with over 60 stores nationwide, continues to expand both organically in the UK and via trade sales to over 60 countries across the world.

Laura is a keen cyclist and is passionate about sensible environmental polices. She is adamant that it is possible to do well whilst doing good, and eschews waste in any form.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As the youngest of five children and with a father whose job took us to live abroad, I was never frightened of foreign cultures, travelling or embracing new ideas. When you run a fashion company, your supply chain is spread across the world and you need to be prepared to source around the globe in line with the skills, requirements and natural resources used by the business.

The youngest child is often entrepreneurial - needing to shout to be heard; often with older parents who lack the energy to be proactive. We bring ourselves up and have the natural ambition to survive against siblings who are bigger and stronger.

How has your previous employment experience aided your business?
I have had micro businesses since childhood; whether making and swapping dolls clothes for sweets in the school playground or making cakes and selling slices to neighbours. There was always a way to supplement our meagre pocket money and my mother did not discourage these ventures - in fact she bought me my first sewing machine when I was 13 years old because I had hand sewn 10 soft toys for a school fundraising event. Each pupil was tasked with making one thing to sell. I enjoyed putting my first production line together; making in batches speeded up productivity and increased my output!

Once I left school I undertook a self-imposed apprenticeship working for a British designer, manufacturer and retailer. I wanted to learn as much as possible before going it alone. In the end I did not have the funds required to launch a fashion business first since it is highly capital intensive, so I set up a service industry and sold it as a going concern three years later. Several banks had turned down my loan request but I was lucky that my big brother could lend me the £2,000 I needed in 1991 to get started. That loan has now been reinvested time and again and was the nest egg for our £50M turnover business.

What have the highlights and challenges been building JoJo Maman Bébé?
It has always been our aim to retain our small company values, recruit from within and encourage career progression for our teams. As the workforce grows, passing this ethos down can be difficult but we won't give up. We are not prepared to compromise our ideals in pursuit of profit. We invest heavily in training and still employ many of our founding teams. Long may this last, although we are aware that adding international growth increases the challenge. But the highlight of my career has to be the fact that we have built a strong business model and yet we are doing good whilst doing well.

Lack of borrowing potential and start-up capital made us frugal from the start. Keeping a close eye on cash flow has meant we have reserves when times are tough and there have been several economic downturns when extended borrowing could have been unsustainable. We remain extremely prudent, never buying on HP or asset finance and always looking at the worst case scenario. The business is now cash rich but we have an ethos of prudence, which underpins an ambitious yet sustainable organic grown strategy.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Choose an industry or field you are passionate about and find a team you respect and like spending time with. Never think that running your own company is the easy option. There is much to be said for ending a day at work and coming home to give full attention to your family. When you work for yourself the line between work and play is hard to delineate. A growing business needs all your attention, as does a growing family. Finding the right balance is tough and it's absolutely not for everyone. There is no easy option, but if you are prepared to work round the clock and expect very little 'me' time you may be OK. I barely watch television or read a novel, unless I am on holiday, and even then I must keep on top of my work each day. Every moment not given to my family or friends is needed for my businesses or charity projects. But this is no hardship - I'm lucky to love what I do. If you don't enjoy your work and you have a great idea, then stop talking about it and just do it!

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Brand consistency via every channel is essential. This is especially important for a small business where you may be outsourcing to several suppliers. Your company should be easily identifiable anywhere that a potential customer comes across it. Furthermore, never oversell yourself. It's easy to do with a good website designer and if you win a couple of awards, but the consumer is savvy and will soon complain and leave bad reviews via social media. Only instigate expectations that you are 100% sure can be surpassed. Never make a promise that cannot be kept.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't very well. But my children are older now and understand that I need to work both for financial reasons and because I want to keep growing as a person. When my first son was born the company was still tiny and I brought him to work with me. However, this was not ideal and I soon found an au pair who was a real life saver; working around my work needs but handing over full child care the moment I arrived home.

Family supper is sacred. I find that cycling home then cooking a proper supper de-stresses me and by the time the meal is ready I can just about have a good conversation. I insist on downing our technology; phones, iPads and laptops are banned while we eat, although they tend to sneak back in since I'm not good at keeping to the rules myself, let alone making demands of my teenage boys.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I don't like the culture of blaming others. As an individual it makes sense to choose your career path carefully and consider the expectations of a job which will make it difficult to juggle when you have a family. If you want to be an M&A city lawyer you need to be realistic - the long hours are often at short notice which makes family life tricky but are a requirement of the job. It's important to decide what lifestyle you want before committing to a career which may not be suitable for juggling with childcare.

Obviously an unsympathetic boss is pants for either sex, everyone has home life emergencies from time to time whether it be aged parents, a sick pet or childcare issues. Work is important and letting people down is not acceptable; family must come first - they are for life, a job can be changed.

Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? And if so, how?
I was always too busy to find a formal mentor but I have no concerns about asking for help and advice when I need it. I try to assist when people come to me, so I often have a favour in hand in case of need. I have also built up a great network over the years and can generally find the right person to ask if the need arises.

Which other female business owners do you admire and why?
I admire Shaa Wasmund of for her amazing business acumen, her technical skills and her networking. She's probably the best connected person I know, but she is always kind and helpful, time permitting. I'm a judge for the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman awards and get to meet dozens of truly amazing women who have achieved so much professionally but still find time to give back and raise children. The old saying goes, "If you need a job done, ask a busy woman".

What do you want JoJo Maman Bébé to accomplish in the next year?
This year is probably our most challenging yet. It's strange how I always think next year I will be less busy but each time I find a gap in the frantic schedule I fill it with even more commitments. Our target is to grow the company domestically with another 8 stores or refurbishments, and launch B2C in the USA in July with a new distribution centre, website and dedicated catalogue collection - which will involve a full press launch and campaign with several trips to New York.

Plus on the CSR side of my role which takes up a great deal of energy, we will launch and roll out our charity/recycling initiative, 'From a Mother to Another' which works to reduce landfill via our collecting, repackaging and gifting to those in need in the UK over 50,000 pieces of good quality kids' clothes. And finally at Nema, our charity in Mozambique, we are hoping to build two new schools, feed 1000 children a day a healthy meal and buy and deliver into the villages two new motorbike ambulances. I'm writing this on the flight home after a week in the bush visiting the projects. It's been exhausting, up at dawn travelling around in the back of a pick-up truck under the scorching sun auditing the charity work. But as I sit here writing this piece and enjoying iced wine, chocolate and electricity for the first time in 7 days I realise how much there is to look forward to and how incredibly lucky I am to have a job I enjoy at a company I am proud to have founded but which has been made a success by the amazing team I work alongside.

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