We have 88 stores in the UK and Ireland and will be opening 3 in the US in April, to celebrate the third royal baby’s birth. These are our first stores stateside and they are being opened following huge demand from our online customers who wish to feel and touch the collection. We have been selling via trade sales and online for a few years in the US, but opening our stores has been a long-term ambition. We want to be the convenient, specialist mother and baby brand – offering everything you need from pregnancy to pre-school on your local high street or community mall.
Let’s start with the big news–opening stores in the US. So why now? And do you see any difference in your US and UK customer–will the lines/stores be the same?
We are opening 3 stores in April because we can no longer turn a blind eye to the ongoing demands from our local customers to fill the obvious gap in the market for a specialist mother and baby brand.
Retail in the US has suffered recently – the Amazon effect has taken its toll on too many independent stores and the larger retailers seem to look to profits first, forgetting the importance of good customer service, attention to detail and high quality. JoJo fills this gap in the market as a truly specialist mid-level brand with stores which are child friendly and helpful, well-trained teams ready to measure you for a pregnancy or nursing bra, assist you with advice on purchases for every maternity and baby stage. We are also the ‘go-to’ place for new baby and children’s presents with an eclectic collection of fashion, product, gifts and toys. Much of our range is designed in house in London, with great British design.
Parents in the UK, US or the world over want the best for their little ones, with easy shopping options, good service, and good value. Consumers are becoming pretty demanding, but we think we can offer them what they need with our omni-channel service you can buy online, via mail order or in store with click and collect, and easy returns.
We read how you got started, but what we wonder when looking back, what were some of the biggest challenges you had getting going, and something along the way that maybe didn’t work out as planned?
Growing a fashion company with our own design and retail stores is all consuming. I don’t think I ever realised how hard I would work when I started out. We are in constant contact with our factories, our teams in the UK and now our new employees in the US – this means a working day is almost 24 hours long! As the CEO you need untold reserves of energy to support and trouble shoot concerns as they come up. There will always be a problem in our type of business; whether it is a hurricane flooding a store, a team member with personal concerns, devaluation of our currency, a container ship which has been delayed or just the good old British weather keeping our customers from leaving their homes. Challenges appear daily; my role is to find solutions and never accept no for an answer.
Did what you call “the JoJo way” evolve as you grew the company, or did you have a pretty clear sense early of how you wanted to conduct business? How would you describe what is most important to you about that now?
I launched JoJo when I was 26 as my third little business. It was 1993 and I had never heard of the term ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. But I was so grateful for the help my loyal and long serving team gave me and I would give back to the best of my ability. I am number 3 on the payroll list because I had to pay my first two people before I could afford to pay myself. To this day I am not the best paid person in the business. I was brought up to respect others and to ‘do unto others as you would have done unto yourself’ … so our ethos just comes naturally. I could not run a business any other way.
Having a happy team and engaged customers is of the utmost importance to me now, just as it was when we launched.
Tell us about why you became a B Corp, and if you discovered things about your company or your personal goals in that process.
I’ve always run the business in the best way I can. I’ve not read manuals, taken lessons or had a mentor – we just worked it out and did what came naturally, making sure we grew the business with a moral code of conduct. I started being asked to give speeches about the secrets to our success and at the end of my presentations people would ask me why we were not a B Corp. I knew nothing about the movement, but when the third person suggested it, I decided to do my research and was surprised to discover the synergy with our ethos. We are a commercial business but we believe that we have a responsibility to the communities in which we work and trade, our remit is to run our business as a force for good and to give back where we can, both to people and planet. We believe you can do well whilst doing good.
What I learnt by undertaking the stringent audit required to achieve certification was that there was much more I could do for my teams. It poesd questions I had not through about and helped us to translate my ethos into a corporate structure which could be cemented for longevity. Being a Certified B Corp is now part of our Company Statutes and will outlive my time in the leading role.
Ethical fashion seems, in just the last year or so, to be hitting its stride. Have you seen any changes in customers interest in that? Your designs are so cute–do you see a role for you in educating customers about ethical business and fashion once they already won over by your clothes?
Our remit is to offer the most gorgeous styles, at the best price in the best quality with the best service that we can. Our customers come to us because they need or want something for their maternity, baby or child. Our ethos, charities and eco initiatives are the icing on the cake and we don’t trade off them; they are just part of who we are. If our customers want to learn more about JoJo they will, but if they just want some great baby fashion that’s what we are here for and our fantastic well trained teams are ready to help them.
You’ve been so successful, and in a very competitive space. What have you discovered about yourself along the way–has anything about being an entrepreneur surprised you? What’s the best and worst aspects of it for you?
I guess you may find it surprising to hear that this business is not about money. JoJo is about people and design. Of course, we need to remain profitable, but having a happy team and working hard to get the collection right is of higher importance. My goals have not really changed since day one, they have just grown a little. The best times are when I see our teams chatting happily to customers at this, the most exciting time of their lives. Designing the most practical baby and children’s styles which are also totally cute, is of huge satisfaction. Seeing our innovation being copied and becoming household essentials across the world is incredibly flattering.
The worst part of the business these days is being unable to have a close personal relationship with all of our teams. In the past I could be there for everyone and I selected our factories personally, getting to know the owners and workers. These days with 88 stores across the UK and Ireland, 950 people working for us directly and over 200 factories, my brain can’t hold all the data! But we still employ may of our founding team and continue to work with many of our early factories – we have come a long way together and enjoyed the journey.
How did you decide on the charity you partner with?
We got to a stage where we could afford to give a reasonably large amount of money to charity and I wanted to be sure it was being well spent. I was concerned by the high level of governance costs many charities have so we decided to join forces with a small charity and take a hands on role as trustees and administration, not just unquestioning donors. This way we manage the accounts and can run it to get the best return on our investment. Nema Foundation had just launched and we wanted to do something about the horrifically high levels of infant mortality in rural Northern Mozambique. One in three children were dying before they reached their 5th birthday. Over 10 years we have done so much; we have built 5 schools, we give 1300 children a nutritious school meal, we run health, education and enterprise projects plus two ambulances. Infant mortality rates have dropped sharply as a result but there is still so much work to do. This year our goal is to build a maternity and pediatric hospital ward… it’s a big target, but we love a challenge!