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This Fashion Life: Laura Tenison

The founder of kidswear retailer JoJo Maman Bébé tells Drapers about growing her business in the tough kidswear market

You’ve been nominated for the annual Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award - how important is it to be nominated and why do you think you were selected?

It’s hugely important. If you’re a business woman in fashion, two of the most prestigious awards to win are this one and the Drapers Awards, which we won two years ago for best kidswear retailer. We’ve grown from humble beginnings and now as a role modelfor women in business I think I tick the boxes. Our business ethos runs along the lines of social enterprise so we try to put people and environment issues above the bottom line. But I’ve always tried to get across to business leaders that this ethos converts itself [financially]. We are a profitable, commercial business.

Which other businesswomen do you admire?

Anita Roddick [founder of The Body Shop]. When I was growing up she was the only female role model and a pioneer not only in running a growing business but also in attempting to maintain a small company ethos.

The kidswear market is notoriously tough, so how have you managed to grow into a £21m business?

Our unique selling point is that we concentrate on filling the gaps large retailers don’t or can’t supply. For example, we concentrate on waterproof yet breathable kidswear, on sun protection clothing, on organic cotton or recycled fabrics. We take these niche markets and make them popular. We also offer a truly multichannel shopping experience, with stores, online and mail order.

What advice do you have for kidswear indies competing against the multiples?

Don’t try to compete with them. Customer service is paramount at indies. Some have been rude to me and I’ve never gone back. You have to bend over backwards; make rules but break them when it comes to keeping customers happy.

What impact has the recession had on JoJo Maman Bébé?

We had to scale back our retail roll-out but because so many of our rivals have gone out of business we gained market share. People got greedy, over-borrowed and extended themselves during the boom period, but we grew organically and everything is self-financed.

You place a lot of emphasis on corporate social responsibility, including donating to charity. How do you pick your chosen charities?

We’re run under a strict code of moral and ethical conduct and when it comes to charity we don’t just want to tick the boxes, we want to get involved. We got involved in the Nema Foundation [based in rural Mozambique] because my children made friends with some local boys when we were on holiday, who took us to see their school. I decided it would be great to rebuild the school because it was just four mud walls with a leaky roof for 400 children. We now do their book-keeping and their HR policy, so we know every penny actually goes to helping children on the ground.

What was the last clothing item you bought? A Breton-striped MaxMara top.

Who is your favourite designer? An old school friend called Selina Blow who has an own-label store in Chelsea, west London. She was [style icon] Isabella Blow’s sister-in-law.

If you weren’t working in fashion, what would be your dream job? It would have to be a probation officer.

What is your favourite shop? Galleria Conti in Battersea, south London. I go once every six months and the owner Marietta remembers my name, my kids’ names and my dog’s name.

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