The My Ambition series, developed in partnership with leading mid-market private equity firm LDC, shares the personal stories behind successful businesses, uncovering how exceptional leaders realised their ambitions and what they have learned along the way.
“The thing I’m most proud of? Creating a brand from nothing.” When Tracy Lewis joined lingerie maker Eveden back in 2003, the company sold its wares wholesale to a few players across the UK. Lewis had a background in retail, working for high street names including Mothercare, M&S and Next. Lewis saw an opportunity to turn a small business into a global player. Her strategy? “First, I hired a really great CFO. Then, I built a factory in Sri Lanka, which handled 50% of our manufacturing, and allowed us to own our vertical. Then, we began building the business internationally. It’s a big wide world and I wanted to get out there.”
Lewis had “no experience” in lingerie when she took the job but spotted an opportunity that the business and its competitors had yet to fully exploit: larger bra sizes. “Women were becoming more aware of the need to wear the correct size back then,” she says. “Victoria’s Secret wasn’t cutting it with an A-C cup and Eveden had two fuller-bust brands in its portfolio, Freya and Fantasie, which went up to a K.” Eveden was supplying the companies that would become market leaders in larger bust lingerie, such as Bravissimo, but she wanted the company to own its own slice of the pie. Lewis began building up Freya and Fantasie across the world, leveraging Eveden’s intellectual property – it designed these super-comfortable and well-fitting bras in-house.
After a couple of years, these brands were doing well across Europe and Australia, but Lewis noticed that in the US, the products weren’t quite right for the Latino body type. This was the chance to tap into another under-served market: she launched a new brand, Elomi. “I was concerned we weren’t getting the growth we needed in the US,” she recalls. “I remember briefing the team on my vision and then bringing it to life in 2008. Elomi became our biggest turnover brand in the US.” It also made the business a pioneer for inclusivity in the lingerie industry, which traditionally featured only slim models. “We found incredible curvy models for Elomi and we were really ahead of our time in driving that agenda,” she says. “We helped promote a message of inclusivity across the world.”
Under her stewardship, Eveden went from revenues of £28m to £85m in under a decade. Exports went from less than 5% to 60% of the business. Eveden was soon selling its lingerie and swimwear in 52 countries.
Bringing a private equity partner on board, really helped accelerate the company’s growth. “I’m not sure we could have got to where we did without LDC,” says Lewis. “Even though it was a minority investment, without it we would not have grown at the rate we did. We needed the support – and the push.” We considered expanding overseas through acquisitions, Lewis recalls. “It would have been a way to accelerate growth but would have also been a big distraction. The challenge from our investor was: ‘Why can’t you accelerate what you’re doing instead? Shouldn’t you be upping your spend on marketing and branding? As a result we grew with an unfaltering focus on our own brands and our growth, which created real value in the business.”
In 2012, Eveden was acquired by the Japanese industry leader Wacoal for £148m. “Becoming part of a bigger company felt right for the business and we shared our success with a lot of people – down several levels in the business. But I still check on the figures to see how the business is doing,” says Lewis. “It will always be my baby.”
Leading mid-market private equity firm LDC has partnered with Management Today to share inspirational stories from across its network to mark 40 years of backing ambitious business leaders across the UK. Here more about Lewis’ journey here.
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