This week, MT is speaking to the four candidates short-listed for the highly-prized Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year title. Today it’s the turn of Victoria Stapleton, founder of clothing retailer Brora, who tells us about the importance of remembering employees’ birthdays, how much she admires leaders who stick to their guns, and why she won't make short skirts…
MT: What’s been your experience of the recession?
VS: I think it’s very tempting during the recession to become discount-led and to change your core business, to try and generate sales. The recession was very nerve-wracking, and we had a tough year like everybody else. But we managed to keep our turnover almost exactly the same as the year before (I think we were down by 1%), and our margins were actually up, partly due to a change in our mix of products, and partly due to greater efficiency at head office. So we made a 10% pre-tax profit, which I'm over the moon about because it means we can afford to invest in the business this year.
MT: What has the recession taught you about running a business?
That you can always look at your business and find areas where you’re being extravagant. I always run my business right down to the bone, I don’t believe in extravagances. But there's always a way of making a saving. The other thing is that if you’re selling a product that people love and you feel really confident about it, you don’t have to discount for people to buy it. We're very transparent: we make everything in the UK so our margins are very tight and we can’t afford to discount, but our customers know they are getting value for money, for a beautifully made British product.
MT: How have you tried to invest in CSR and better working practices?
So many people have been on this extraordinary journey with me. We have a very low staff turnover, even in our shops; my manager at the Kings Road branch has been there for years, for example. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but we care about people. It's very personally run. People’s birthdays are remembered - they can have a day off if they want, or they can choose a present from Brora. We also regularly have lunches or a drinks thing of an evening.
MT: Which leaders do you admire or look up to?
There are a lot of people in the fashion industry that I admire for their creative flair. Nicole Fahri always puts a good collection together. The other person who I think has really stuck to her aesthetic is Margaret Howell. It's a great example of a British brand that hasn’t been swayed by the volatile nature of the industry. Sometimes I wonder things like ‘should we be doing these skirts that are really short’, but actually, my customer doesn’t want to wear a skirt that only just covers her bum. I think that you have to stick to your guns about what you do. So anyone in business who does that, with the right ethics, I have great admiration for them.
MT: The award is sometimes called the Oscar for female business leaders. To what extent do you think competitions like this (and MT’s own 35 under 35, which looks to highlight the next generation of young female business leaders) are still necessary these days?
I think people should feel warm about them. I’m overwhelmed and incredibly flattered to be chosen as a finalist in the Veuve Clicquot competition. And whether it’s for men or for women, if a business is doing something that’s great and all their CSR is in the right place, an award is a great way to be able to recognise that.
Victoria Stapleton of Brora is one of four finalists for the 2010 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year award (judged by, amongst others, our very own editor Matthew Gwyther).
Incidentally, we’re about to start compiling our very own ‘35 Women Under 35’ list for 2010. So please send your nominations to email@example.com by Monday 19th April (including a full biog, an outline of job responsibilities and details of any outstanding achievements both inside and outside of work). Nominees must be aged 35 or under on the 1 July 2010 and be living and working in the UK. Feel free to nominate yourself.
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Dragons Bannatyne and Caan get fiery over non-dom row
Use Budget to slash tax, says small business group
MT talks to Brora's Victoria Stapleton