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Geoff van Sonsbeeck

The chief executive of maternitywear etailer Isabella Oliver is building on its Drapers Awards victory last year by diversifying into womenswear, part of an ambitious plan to take its turnover to £75m.

All the best business plans, so they say, are cooked up on the back of a napkin but Isabella Oliver’s was formed around the swimming pool at chic spa Babington House in Somerset.

Dutch-born Geoff van Sonsbeeck took his pregnant wife Baukjen de Swaan Arons to the country house spa where she got chatting to another pregnant woman about the lack of well-designed, good quality clothing for pregnant women. The other woman was Vanessa Knox-Brien, a former designer for US lingerie chain Victoria’s Secret, and the trio decided to set up a maternitywear business.

In February 2003 van Sonsbeeck and de Swaan Arons left their well-paid jobs at blue-chip firms Shell and Orange respectively and set up maternitywear etailer Isabella Oliver in a back bedroom of their north London home.

With their first child newly on the scene the move may have seemed bold. Van Sonsbeeck admits he had no direct retail or etail experience, but what he did have was international corporate experience at Shell and Heineken.

In addition to that he holds a master’s degree in business economics as well as a degree in finance. He speaks six languages and was trained as a NATO prisoner of war interrogator while doing his Dutch national service because of his linguistic abilities. He says a history in negotiating has stood him in good stead in retail.

Van Sonsbeeck, who is chief executive of Isabella Oliver, was not surprised to become an entrepreneur. “I always knew that I would end up running my own venture,” he says. “My job at Shell was all about new project development, setting up ventures and selling them off, so a start-up was not something new to me. Baukjen was head of marketing at Orange International so along with Vanessa’s design background we had a great clutch of skills between the three of us.”

The split of responsibilities in the business remains broadly unchanged between the three founding directors. De Swaan Arons runs the marketing, brand development and creative feel of the business, Knox-Brien designs the product and feeds into brand development, while van Sonsbeeck looks after the finances and logistics.

Van Sonsbeeck says: “All the skills are complementary but we are equals. Baukjen has an MBA so we will challenge each other when it comes to strategy, which is great for the business.”

As well as possessing a great deal of experience the trio also had a healthy dose of luck. A friend of a friend knew TV fashion guru Trinny Woodall, who was pregnant at the time, and asked her to take a look at the clothes. She started wearing them and talking about them to her celebrity pals and the media, which gave the business an enormous boost in its first few months.

Nearly six years on and the etailer, which was named after the female founders’ two first-born children and started as a 10-piece collection with £120,000 funding, has sales of just under £10 million and produces and ships its 90-piece range to customers from a small factory unit in north London’s Kentish Town.

The website receives 1.5 million visitors annually, roughly the equivalent of every pregnant woman in the UK visiting it three times, and has a 4.4% conversion rate.

Last year, Isabella Oliver beat young fashion etail giant Asos to the Drapers Etailer of the Year Award and this month it moves into a whole new arena by entering the highly competitive womenswear market with its ready-to-wear collection, Isabella Oliver 365.

Van Sonsbeeck says: “Although we were fairly confident that the initial business plan for Isabella Oliver was sound, growth was much faster than we had expected. We reached our targets in our three-year plan by the end of year one, so by May 2004 we had moved the business out of our house and rented a floor in this factory.”

This year the business has been taking stock of that growth and consolidating it to ensure it has the infrastructure to move forward and support launches into new international markets and women’s ready-to-wear. An impending relaunch of its website on a new platform is intended to help it do just that.

Given the pace of growth the business is remarkably deleveraged, with very little debt. Van Sonsbeeck says: “It’s a cash generative market that we are in. We are still a very small business and employ just 47 people full-time, so we have managed to live well within our means. We may be still growing in a niche market but we are aware that we are not immune from the economic pressures that every other retailer is feeling at the moment. So we are cautiously optimistic while making sure that we are being prudent in everything we do.

“There has been no need to go outside of the business for any finance apart from the run-of-the-mill credit facility from the bank. That may change at some point but
at the moment this is the way we like things to run.

“I can’t say we haven’t had people expressing an interest in getting involved and we always listen and learn a lot. There are some smart people in the finance world but for now we are happy with our set-up.”

Isabella Oliver may not be ambitious for outside funding but the business certainly has an appetite for building sales. Van Sonsbeeck says that by its 10th birthday the brand aims to have an annual turnover of £75m.

Adding womenswear, van Sonsbeeck hopes, will help the brand reach that target. He maintains that womenswear is a natural extension for the brand. “Maternitywear is a great niche market but it is exhausting in terms of customer recruitment,” he says. “Your customer finds you and buys within a tiny window of time – we have worked out that the bulk of the business with a customer is done in just eight weeks from weeks 12 to 20, and then you have lost her until she is pregnant again.

“We get so much feedback about the brand and how much people love it. We felt that we engender all this loyalty, 32% of our customers repeat purchase within four weeks, and then let it go once our customer has given birth. Ready-to-wear allows us to exploit that loyalty and allows our customers to carry on interacting with the brand.”
The womenswear collection will be a huge test of that loyalty, coming as it does as harder times hit consumer spend.

Some might have expected Isabella Oliver to diversify into children’s products or nursery hardware rather than move into womenswear, where it faces enormous competition.
“This brand is about pleasing women, not children. That’s what the essence of it has always been,” says van Sonsbeeck. “What we want to build is a women’s lifestyle brand.
We can take it to so many places if we get that right.”

The Isabella Oliver 365 collection launches in February for spring 09. It is a 30-piece range that aims to deliver understated style with luxury fabrication. Many pieces are suitable for workwear but can be easily dressed up with accessories for the evening. De Swaan Arons describes the pieces to Drapers as “best friends in the wardrobe that you know you can rely on.”

The average order value from Isabella Oliver’s maternity range is £160. Pricing on the 365 collecton has yet to be fixed but de Swaan Arons says she wants the offer to sit as an alternative to the likes of Jigsaw, Reiss or Whistles and below the likes of 3.1 Phillip Lim and Joseph.

Womenswear may be an exciting new venture for Isabella Oliver but its core maternity market, van Sonsbeeck says, is ripe for growth globally. International sales already represent 45% of turnover, with the US a key market that it will target for growth.

The brand launched in the US two years ago after being in the market passively for 12 months. Other regions where it will look to grow are Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France. Van Sonsbeeck says: “Isabella Oliver needs to be a global business. That is where the opportunity is. We have been selling in the US for the past two years and soft launched with an online marketing agency two years ago.

“It works pretty well, we can fulfil orders in two days from the UK. We have learned a lot and there is a lot to learn. Best of breed in etail is coming out of the States in terms of functionality and processes such as search engine marketing. Whereas in comparison I think we [the UK] are actually leading the US in terms of editorial content and the creativity that goes around all that.”

The latest active international launch for Isabella Oliver was in Canada in July this year. This market was chosen because it is similar to the UK with the fewest issues around sales, tax and customs. Canada, says van Sonsbeeck, is continuing to trade above plan.

The brand is already active with what van Sonsbeeck calls “a passive site which serves the Eurozone”. Its first active launch will be later this month in France, for which the site will be supported by a French customer service centre and set-up costs have remained moderate at about £50,000 to £60,000.

Van Sonsbeeck says: “The French market will be interesting. At present there are not many specialist maternity etailers. Maternity in France is all about the multiples’ offer from players such as home shopping giant La Redoute. We should do extremely well there because the Isabella Oliver brand values of customer service and easy-to-wear chic will be easily understood by the French customer.”

Although van Sonsbeeck is upbeat about the prospects for Isabella Oliver he is well aware that the economic climate is likely to have some impact on the business. “We are trading well but are sensing that over the past couple of weeks the customer is holding back,” he says. “There is a big crisis of confidence issue for the customer out there at the moment. We need to be aware of that and arm the business accordingly.

“We are focusing, like everyone, on costs and are still very profitable, but we want to be ready for whatever the consequences of the past few weeks in the City are going to be for us.

“Overall I am optimistic. Times like this always bring opportunities if you can afford to invest in the right areas of your business and you have a great proposition. You should be ready to reap the rewards when there is an upturn.”

Co-founder and chief executive, Isabella Oliver
1998 Senior strategy consultant, Shell International
1994 Financial controller, marketing and sales manager, junior export manager, Heineken International
1993 Prisoner of war interrogator, Military Intelligence Agency, NATO

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