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 Laura Tenison, founder and MD of pregnancy and childrenswear chain JoJo Maman Bébé, who tells us why the recession has been good for business, why she doesn’t necessarily believe in gender equality, and admits to a professional admiration for Bob Geldof...
MT: What’s been your experience of the recession?
LT: I think this recession has been a fantastic opportunity for companies that have always had a deep sense of responsibility to their employees and their suppliers, as well as their customers, to actually have that methodology proven. In greedy boom times CSR may seem like a PR tick box, but actually when it comes to recession, those values pay off. For example, we had a cashflow situation when the banks would no longer allow us to increase our borrowing, but because we’ve been very loyal to suppliers over the years and because we’re known for being a good company to do business with, our suppliers supported us.
MT: What has the recession taught you about running a business?
LT: When the recession hit, we had to tighten up our overheads, but because we’re an owner-managed company, we’re fairly efficient about the way we run our business anyway. It’s also been a period where we’ve had to make sure that the public understands our core brand values - and that investing in clothing which may be a little more expensive than the supermarkets but has the quality to be a hand-me-down for two or three children, is actually an investment purchase.
MT: How have you tried to invest in CSR and better working practices?
LT: Our sense of CSR isn’t a recent thing; it’s something that’s been endemic in the company since I started it 17 years ago. The welfare of our staff is something in particular that’s been very important to me since the company was founded, partly because I like the people I work with! We have a family atmosphere, which obviously is harder to keep going as the company grows, but we try to keep our staff engaged by encouraging them to grow with the company. It’s all about looking after the people who work for us, because they, in turn, will look after our customers.
MT: Which leaders do you admire or look up to?
LT: I’m inspired by people who are honest about their business practices, which is why I admire Bob Geldof. Quite often I get frustrated by business leaders behaving like politicians and giving the press what they want to hear. Sometimes you just have to say: ‘love me or hate me, this is the way we do it and we do it because we believe it’s right’.
MT: The competition 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?
LT: I think it’s still relevant to have women-only awards – and there would be no harm in having men-only awards too. At the end of the day, women and men do have different roles in some cases, although not always. I know that I work extremely hard compared to most men in similar positions to me because I’m not prepared to compromise. I put equal level of importance on running my company, on working for the charity I support and on my family and children. It’s a very difficult juggle – apart from anything else it means I get very little sleep.
Laura Tenison 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). We’ll be speaking to the remaining two finalists this week, ahead of next week’s result.
Incidentally, we’re about to start compiling our very own ‘35 Women Under 35’ list for 2010. So please send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org 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 (and feel free to nominate yourself).
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MT talks to JoJo Maman Bébé's Laura Tenison