Laura Tenison dreamt up JoJo Maman Bébé in a hospital bed as she nursed 20 broken bones. Now she is fighting for ethics in retail and to prevent the demise of many UK high streets.
From a concept conceived whilst holed-up in a hospital bed nursing 20 broken bones, Laura Tenison has nurtured kidswear and maternitywear retailer JoJo Maman Bébé into a global business turning over £58m. But this serial entrepreneur now plans to take her business with her on the pursuit of even greater goals – tackling head-on the ethics of retail and the demise of many UK high streets.
As we sit at her desk in the JoJo Maman Bébé London office in Battersea, where her two dogs, Truffle and Ruby, are snoring quietly in the corner, Tenison bristles with energy and launches straight into discussing how she has not let undiagnosed dyslexia and lack of business role models stand in her way.
“At school I was classified as being thick,” says the serial entrepreneur, who was awarded an MBE for services to business in 2004. “But what people failed to notice, was that I probably had ADHD and mild dyslexia, but equally I was incredibly creative and had always found ways of making money.”
This is demonstrably true. By the time she founded JoJo in 1993, she already had two previous start-ups under her belt: “a hand-to-mouth, made-to-measure” clothing business called Distinctive Silks launched while at school in 1981 to “monetise her hobby”, and a French property services firm, Aquilla Property, established in 1991. In between came a stint at Aquascutum from 1989 to 1991, under the wing of “Mrs [Margaret] King, the grand dame of British Retail”, where she absorbed all she could on vertical retailing.
As Tenison finalised the sale of her French business for £50,000 in 1992, to kickstart her long-awaited dream of opening a menswear business, a head-on car crash led to an unlikely source of inspiration. While recuperating in a London hospital she witnessed the struggles of another patient when buying clothing for her small children through mail-order catalogues – and the idea for JoJo was born.
“I opened my eyes to the kidswear market and realised there was a gap. What was offered was pretty dull.”
The name JoJo came from “a doodle” while in hospital, and market research on Oxford Street “while in a wheelchair with my leg in traction and jaw wired shut” led to the added focus on maternitywear and therefore the need to add Maman and Bébé to the name.
“I like symmetry – the fact JoJo and Bébé match – and that Maman brings it all together,” she says.
The vision was to create a mail-order business to fill a gap in the UK market for good outdoor kids’ clothing with a French nautical twist, inspired by “watching little ones in France walking on the beach in all weather, togged out in sensible clothes.”
“My British friends with children kept saying, ‘We can’t go out today – it’s raining,’ and I thought, ‘that’s horrendous.’ I can’t think of anything worse than being cooped up inside. I thought it was partly because we didn’t have the right clothing, so JoJo will manufacture the best outdoor clothing and fill that gap.”
The retailer was one of the first to sell babies’ wetsuits, 100% waterproof yet breathable outerwear “so a child could sit in a puddle quite happily without getting wet”, and wellington boots with cotton linings that could be worn all day.
The model is working well. Annual results for the year to 30 June 2016 show the retailer increased sales by 7% to £47.8m. This year turnover is expected to top £58m.
Kidswear comprises 60% of sales, maternity 15% and nursery products, gifts and toys 25%. Key items for spring 17 include a denim dungaree dress in maternity (£29) and fox appliqués in kidswear. Kidswear retails from £4 for hats to £45 for an all-in-one suit. Maternity retail prices range from £18 for a support vest to £79 for a two-in-one padded coat.
GlobalData predicts the maternitywear market will grow 21.1% by 2022 and childrenwear by 13.2%, and JoJo is in a good position to capitalise on this.
GlobalData retail analyst Charlotte Pearce says JoJo, which has a 15.7% share of the UK maternity market, has shown “impressive sales”. But she warns that it faces growing competition from mainstream retailers that are improving fit and style within their offering, and can undercut on price. She suggests Tenison considers introducing a more premium range of formalwear to command a higher price.
Tenison acknowledges high street ranges pose a risk, but says JoJo’s point of difference is the specialist design that goes into making garments that can transition through a pregnancy and beyond into early motherhood: “We have perfected our designs over 25 years. A retailer that thinks they can add a bit of adjustable elastic to a waistband and suddenly they’re making maternitywear, will be a short-lived business model.”
Jojo maman bébé denim shift dress
JoJo’s headquarters are in Newport, Wales, where Tenison grew up and initially used her parents’ shed as a stockroom. Today it trades from 80 UK and two Irish stores, but Tenison believes the shift towards more localised shopping means opportunities for new locations are constantly arising. She expects to open eight UK stores a year for the foreseeable future and has ambitions for at least six Irish stores.
On 23 June, the retailer opens in Whiteley, Hampshire, and Lymington on the south coast. Stores in Wanstead, east London, and Morningside in Edinburgh will follow in August.
Tenison believes these “community stores” will enable JoJo to champion forgotten high streets: “We want our store advisers to think of themselves as local independent nursery retailers and get to know their customers’ names, and the names of their children and dogs. Whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, or help when your child has an exploding nappy, or if you need space to breastfeed and a glass of water, you can run to JoJo and our team will help. If they buy, that’s the icing on the cake.
“What’s so gratifying is that once JoJo has opened in these communities, it opens them up to other retailers. My passion about regenerating high streets is being fulfilled. Why would you let tumbleweed blow down high streets? It’s infinitely frustrating to me that people ignore town centres.”
JoJo does not wholesale in the UK and has no plans to. Karl Doyle, former Mothercare group product director, describes it as “a fantastic brand” with “great brand credibility and DNA”, but believes it is missing an opportunity.
However, Tenison’s focus is on in-store service and, having trialled House of Fraser concessions when stores were launched in 2002, she is wary of losing control of the brand and the ability to provide the desired customer experience.
US wholesale is a focus for growth, though, particularly in the wake of the Brexit vote. JoJo launched wholesale, a localised website and mail order there two years ago, and operates a distribution centre in New Jersey. It has 400 US wholesale accounts, and will launch an Amazon shop in August.
With her youngest of two children due to leave home later this year, Tenison reveals: “Next year the US will be my new baby. We will probably be opening an office there.
“Eventually we would like to have bricks and mortar there but we need to build the business via mail order and online first,” explains Tenison. “We are all about practical reinvestment rather than vanity projects.”
Reflecting her Welsh heritage and the fact she still lives on a Welsh farm and commutes weekly to London, she adds: “Every dollar we bring in now is a tidy dollar!”
Jojo maman bébé baby tops and leggins
JoJo trades online and through 100 wholesale accounts in Europe, but in light of Brexit plans for the launch of a German website have been postponed.
Despite this, Tenison is bullish about the future outside Europe: “Brexit was a horrendous shock to all our systems. All we need is stability. Whatever happens, we are retailers – we are used to a disaster that we have to overcome, whether that is six weeks of rain, snow in May, Brexit or Trump – there will always be another disaster and, if you’re a successful retailer, you just trudge on.”
In addition to the health of UK high streets, Tenison is fighting for another cause: retailer ethics.
“One of my biggest problems with retail is that shareholders see it as a way to get rich,” she explains. “They see it as a way to cream off profit in every area of the business. It’s always about pushing margin, increasing prices, making consumers believe a brand is worth more than it is because of marketing and advertising.
“I want retail at JoJo to be honest, and a business with values. We are paying our teams as much as we can and giving our customers the best possible prices while remaining commercial.”
Her passion is evident: “What I love about retail is you can never get bored and there’s so much potential to do good. We are using business as a force for good and that’s so much more important than just selling clothes. We call it ‘the JoJo style of business’: putting the people and planet above profit.
“We are engaging with our consumers and getting them to think about consumerism in a different light.”
Last year JoJo secured B Corp accreditation, meaning it has met rigorous standards of social and environment performance, accountability and transparency. Tenison proudly rattles through its latest initiatives: giving 5% of gift voucher sales to in-house charity Nema Foundation, which has built five schools in Mozambique and is now rebuilding a hospital; this year’s Mother’s Day campaign, “From a Mother to Another”, through which shoppers donated 65,000 items of second-hand clothing and 1,000 pairs of shoes, which were sent to Syrian refugees in Jordan and UK families; positive discrimination to help asylum seekers secure jobs – the first of whom has started at the JoJo store in Balham, south London; supporting the Downs Syndrome WorkFit programme to help create sustainable jobs; and an intensive staff training week in Newport when Tenison meets every full-time worker.
Kate Sandle, community manager for B Corp in the UK, says: “Laura has a real pioneering spirit to change the way so many other retailers operate with a disregard for their people. That’s really impressive. She was the first in the UK with her own stores to take on this mantle to change the high street. She lives and breathes it, and has made sure this is embedded within the business.”
Doyle adds Tenison has “hit the nail on the head” with her social and environmental push as her core customers are going through big life changes and this means a lot to them. “JoJo is seen as a wholesome brand so they have the authority to pull it off.”
Even though Tenison – who also manages to find time to run a holiday let and property business – appears to be taking on more and more, the 50-year-old has brought in help through the appointment of former Jaeger trading director Gwynn Milligan as commercial director, who started last month.
“We combine my over-enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit and wanting to take on the world, with her number-crunching skills,” she says. “I realised there were only 24 hours in the day, and I was working about 18. When you run a bigger company, you can’t do everything yourself, but I’m probably still a micro-manager and I can’t talk to 800 people all the time. I just didn’t want to be the reason why the business didn’t continue to grow.”
Even though she has handed over some control, for Tenison there is always the next challenge.
“Retail is like climbing a mountain, you think you’ve reached the summit then you realise there’s another mountain to climb,” she says. “Life at JoJo never stands still.”