By Kate Madley

In 2012, leading mother and baby brand, JoJo Maman Bébé, opened 11 UK retail stores, adding to their already impressive portfolio.

Heading into 2013, the brand is set to deliver new UK outlets and expand into international markets. Laura Tenison, founder and chief executive of JoJo Maman Bébé, talks to Wales World Wide about growing the brand, entering new markets, and her favourite Welsh exports. 

Do you think Wales is a good place to start a successful business?

“I don’t think Wales is worse than anywhere else to start a successful business, but I don’t think there are any specific advantages really.

“The reality is that if you want your business to succeed you need to follow the needs of the market which means you may have to move to a city near your customer base, if that’s what your business requires, or you will have to accept a lot of travelling. If you are in Sales, it’s up to you to visit your clients.

“There is no point being insular about life. We might all love Wales but I, personally, find my design studio works better in London, and our operations and logistics are best based in Newport.”

How did your business venture come about?

“I had just sold my French business because I was looking to move back to the UK having recently got married. I was looking for a new venture; a gap in the market.

“By complete chance I landed up in hospital after a very bad car crash and was placed next to a young mum with two small children. As I gradually started to get better, I began talking to my ward neighbour and she told me she had been in hospital for a few months and had been buying her children’s clothes via mail order. She had found the selection and choice was uninspiring.

“I started talking to her about my idea to launch a fashion company. It was her lack of choice of fun and quirky kid’s mail order clothing that spurred me on to research the market when I came out of hospital.

“Following an extensive market research survey, I came to the conclusion that, whilst the British public did want more middle market baby and children’s wear, there was also a huge demand for fashionable maternity wear at the time. So my first collection was predominately maternity wear, but of course customer requirements turn to baby wear after their pregnancy. The baby collection grew as my customer base got a little bit older.”

What percentage of your business are exports? How much of an impact has exporting had on the success of your business?

“In the past we have sold on a business to consumer level internationally via our website, and that still represents about 5% of our turnover.

“Just over a year ago we launched our international trade department with moderate investment, and it has grown 301% in this time. It currently represents only 3% of the business, but we can see from the early reception of the brand that it is going to mushroom. The B2B side of the business is very exciting for us and completely new.

“We more or less opened the flood gates and said we will sell on a trade basis internationally. We then did a few trade fairs in Moscow, Japan and New York to test the market. All of the territories explored were very well received.

“It posed a problem to us because we don’t want to lose focus on the core brand identity which is B2C multichannel in the UK. I don’t want to divert my attention to potentially more exciting ventures when we really are working in a difficult economic climate; any retailer that loses focus will just disappear.

“Our international department is going to be drip fed with investment, so we can grow it in a sustainable manner, and we ensure our directors concentrate on the core business, which is the UK market.

“At the moment the USA is very receptive to the brand. We are exhibiting at 11 trade fairs across the States in 2013, from the East to West coast. Our plan is to sell direct to third parties without the use of a distributor or an agent, to keep our costs affordable. This was the only business model which would ensure the retail prices remained competitive.

“After looking at the market, the language barrier and culture differences in Japan, we found it would be difficult for us to sell direct and, as a result, we have appointed a distributor. This adds substantial costs on to the final retail price, but the Japanese retail market will accept higher prices for high-end brands like JoJo.

“In Russia we have decided we don’t want to appoint a distributor, but we are going to work with two large retailers. One is very similar to ourselves, a privately owned multichannel retailer with a large turnover in the mother and baby sector.  They are testing specific JoJo merchandised areas within their stores.  We are also working with a large web only business in Russia.

“You’ve got to get out there and work out how your business can be turned to suit the customer in whichever area you are. So if your creativity does not suit the Welsh market you need to market your product where it will work. You’ve then got to tailor that business model to fit the needs of the consumer or client in that given area.  No business model should be ‘one size fits all’.

“I reiterate that we don’t want to lose our core brand values and the ethos of the company I created 20 years ago, so we are not going to grow too quickly. We would not work with a firm of venture capitalists who wanted to take risks with the business and force us to expand too fast.  Our plan is to retain the true essence of the business whilst expanding sustainably.”

Apart from what you are doing now, what are your main business achievements?

“The thing about a business like JoJo is that when I started I did everything. Initially I went to six high street banks and no one would lend me any money because they told me I was too young and too inexperienced.

“Eventually I worked two jobs, and borrowed £2000 from my brother to fund my start-up. I repaid the loan within 6 months, with interest, and I have never looked back since, although we have done our best to never over extend the business.

“People often blame the banks for the lack of business growth and I do think it is extremely difficult to borrow at the moment. To a certain degree there is a lack of social responsibility going on with the low levels of lending, even to viable businesses, let alone risky businesses.

“In the early years I taught myself how to run every area of the business, from being a garment technician to an accountant to a computer programmer. I was not very good at it all, but I gave it a shot – we had no other option.

“If you don’t have the funds to invest in staff, you have to do it yourself. The business may grow at a slower rate, but at least you will know all the different areas of the company. As we grew I understood how things worked; the principles of the warehouse pick and pack routine, database analysis, sourcing factories across the world and marketing.  In time, we employed experts in each area, which was a definite bonus, but not an option as a start-up.

“As the managing director, I have to co-ordinate very competent people who are much better than I am at their individual skills, but it’s good to have that understanding of all areas and to be the linchpin between them.”

Where do you think are the biggest opportunities for business (sector or countries)?

“We are not a business that is growing purely for profit; we work with a holistic approach, and we look after our teams, our suppliers and our customers.

“This business is being grown for longevity. Over the last few years I have been offered opportunities to open 200 stores across China, but we have walked away because we want to focus on our core market in the UK.  Britain is still a fantastic market for us; we opened 11 stores last year and our target is to open 12 stores this year and grow our e-commerce.

“We launched our first store in Dublin in November and its absolutely flying, and we can see several more sites in Ireland where we can see JoJo will do well. We are representing old fashioned nursery retail values. Our teams believe in the brand and the customer service we offer; they are a great shop front to our web business. If we were just retail I would be concerned, you need to be multichannel in our time.

“As e-commerce grows, retail becomes a showroom, a fact finding mission and a leisure activity. A three-month pregnant woman or a new mum will walk into our stores and be embraced with our cosy environment.  It’s such a pleasure to have proper sales advisors and real customer service these days. She might spend a little a bit of money with us, more than a discount store, but brand loyalty is high and people are discerning about where they spend their money. She will shop through our catalogue, browse the website and pop in to her local store. If she likes the brand she (or he) will recommend us to her friends.”

What advice would you give Welsh companies looking to trade internationally? What are the most common mistakes?

“I think lack of confidence is a big setback. I’m quite fortunate in that my father was a diplomat. Until I was 9 years old I was brought up in different countries. As a school child, I used to travel home from Belgium on my own. I was never afraid of travel.

“When I first set-up, I had to find factories to manufacture our designs. At one stage I met some suppliers from Colombia who were offering great prices and quality. I got on a plane, an overnight bus and arrived in Cali to look at two or three factories I had seen at a trade fair in France.

“I think that if you have no experience of travel, sourcing (or selling) internationally must seem daunting, whereas to me it looks like an advantage. Yes I was frightened about going to Cali, but at the same time I saw the opportunity and conquered my fear. We made baby clothes there for the first two or three years of the business.

“I think fear and an insular attitude to living in Wales is a disadvantage. People who want to broaden their horizons should really try and get work placements internationally. You can always come back to Wales and set-up. My teams are very proud of what we’ve achieved over the years, and it’s lovely to see the loyalty of the workforce who have helped me and the other directors make it happen.

“Don’t be frightened to go out there. To expand you will have to sell outside Wales, you have to explore the world.”

To what do you owe your success?

“Without a doubt, success comes from hard work, determination, the ability to forecast trends and notice gaps in the market, the ability to work well with others and, finally, a little bit of luck in finding great people to work with.”

What is your motto in life?

“Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.”

What is your favourite Welsh export (person or product) and why?

“Nessa from Gavin and Stacey – she’s just so funny and wise.”

Who do you consider as a Welsh international business achiever?

“Terry Matthews.”