Five minutes with Laura Tenison MBE

Five minutes with Laura Tenison MBE

Laura Tenison started JoJo Maman Bébé with the proceeds of the sale of her first business; she has since grown the predominantly independent business into the UK’s leading boutique mother and baby brand.

Best known as a clothing retailer, JoJo Maman Bébé offers informal support and care to pregnant women and new parents in the local communities around their stores, as well as being an active player in regenerating high streets and town centres. Laura is a firm believer that business leaders have a social responsibility to lead by example – she leads her business on the ethos that “it is possible to do well whilst doing good.”

“More businesses should be run in a feminine way”

Women can be feisty and determined but will also nurture their businesses as they do their families, we have a huge emotional investment in them. Of course women should be included on the Boards of most businesses; we are likely to be cautious, with an eye on growing the business for longevity, but will be honourable about our commitments. I was once told that the majority of business plans written by men have an exit strategy within the first few pages whereas women concentrate on current essentials and put the exit plan on back burner. We used to have an all-female board but have recently added two men. You need a balance between the sexes and the skills sets of the individuals running a business.

“Good businesses think laterally”

So much about good business operations involves finding solutions to problems. I dont like accepting no for an answer. This is where I think we have done well as a company. In the first 15 years of the business we were severely under-capitalised, we had to find innovative ways to grow from a start-up to becoming a global retailer. We had to react quickly, be agile and efficient to compete with better financed and resourced companies.

“I think we are already in a vibrant economy”

I love the fact that we have such a multicultural population in London and on some levels great opportunities for our young people. I’d like to see more businesses working towards a circular economy business model. Running an ethically and environmentally responsible business is probably the most useful thing we can do. A vibrant economy is one where businesses of all sizes have the opportunity to thrive without the need to compromise on their ethics.

“Business should play a part in reducing the skills gap”

I would like to see more links between industry and the education sector. Universities and schools are churning out too many young people with the wrong qualifications. It would be great to see them asking businesses what we need. There are many vacancies we struggle to fill, and others dramatically over-subscribed. Graduates with the wrong degrees become despondent that they are unable to find roles they are qualified for – all down to a lack of communication. A simple annual audit asking businesses which departments they will require new starters in could solve this issue and reduce the skills gap or over supply. It’s pretty simple and we quantify this information for our business plans already.

“A moral conscience should be in the DNA of every company”

Corporate social responsibility should be high on the agenda for every business, not just as a tick box procedure but as part of the integral ethos of the board. If I were to invest in a company, I would be asking questions about their ethical and environmental credentials as well as looking at the balance sheet and EBITDA. I strongly believe you can do well while doing good and more investors should realise that a sense of morality is a valuable asset.

“Everyone in our team has the opportunity to further their education”

All employees have the opportunity to come forwards with requests to further their education, life experience or philanthropic involvement. In the past we have part-funded anything from degrees to language courses, allowed our teams to volunteer in schools and worked as buddies to our team members with Downs Syndrome. Our staff turnover is extremely low and my first two employees are still part of the business. Average tenure across the business is nearly four years, which is high for retail. I have a duty of care to those working at JoJo, as their employer and as their friend; their welfare is on my conscience.

“We have never promised to pay a supplier and failed to do so”

We have an old-fashioned attitude to business; we don’t spend money we don’t have. Some may say this is a restrictive attitude which slows down our growth, but for every investment that is overextended, there is one that has fallen by the wayside. Running businesses in a reckless way means there are manufacturers left unpaid, staff without salaries and consumers without their goods. I find it abhorrent to treat suppliers, employees and customers in that way – it’s a matter of respect. We have mostly experienced double-digit organic growth and been profitable since we were founded. Our financial record is better than many companies with a more aggressive roll out strategy. We will not compromise on our ethics in pursuit of growth, even if it may slow us down, but like the fable of the hare and the tortoise we generally seem to come first in the end.

“Throwaway fashion reflects our society”

As a retailer, I was concerned about the life span of our products. We looked at ways in which we could extend it by encouraging our customers to think about the bigger impact of consumerism. We want people to buy less and buy better – garments which can be worn time and again. As the youngest of five children, I was used to hand-me-down clothing and I thought we should do something about making it easy and fashionable again. Our From A Mother To Another recycling/charity initiative saves thousands of good quality little worn clothes and shoes from landfill, turning them into amazing emergency gift packs with outfits sorted by size, sex and season. Its a really practical help to those in need in the UK and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, whilst being kind to the environment.