POWER MUMS: Tracey Woodward, Urban Retreat

Having learned to read at 14, Woodward is now commercial director of the biggest salon in the world. No mean feat for a mother of two...

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 27 Nov 2013

Tracey Woodward’s mother had her at 18. At 14, Woodward was still unable to read or write - her mum continually encouraged her to skip school to look after her baby brother.

Inspired by the charismatic pharmacist at her Saturday job and her Mum’s best friend, Woodward learnt to read using Jackie Collins novels, realised she had a natural aptitude for numbers working at Booker’s Cash and Carry and, in borrowed shoes two sizes too small, got herself a job on a Clinique counter. She has a son of 21 and a daughter of 11.

What inspired you in to pursue a career in beauty?

It was the pharmacist from my Saturday job at Kingswood Chemist when I was a teenager who told me that just because someone is educated doesn’t mean they are smarter than you. Just because they’ve read things in a book doesn’t mean they know everything.

I wanted to be a beauty consultant because they wore great shoes and make up; it was the closest I could get to Dynasty. One day, my mum’s best friend saw this tiny ad in the Evening Standard for beauty consultants for Clinique. You had to go to the Westbury Hotel. I borrowed size 3 shoes – I was a 5 ½ - and I got the job, I was one of the youngest Clinique consultants in the UK. That was the start of my career.

How did you get from there to here?

I was the fourth, then third girl on the Clinique account, then the counter manager, then business development manager, then I went to Estee Lauder as a manager of a bigger account, then I went to assistant manager of Allders of Bromley, then department and floor manager. When I had my son I went back to work after four weeks of maternity because otherwise they’d have given my job to someone else. Which was tough but I was organised and determined to do it.

Then I moved to Duty Free, Terminal 4 cosmetics, where I increased the business by £600,000 in less than a year by implementing good customer services. They promoted me to Terminal One, which I didn’t want to do because it added nearly an hour to my daily journey and I had a small baby. But in those days you didn’t get much of a choice so I got on with it.

From there I was headed hunted for Donna Karan – I cried every day for the first six months because I felt so out of my depth but loved the brand and the people.

After a stint at Aveda, I ended up at (organic beauty range) MOP and grew it from a UK turnover of £25k to £5.5 million in two and half years.

At the same time I met my new husband when I was looking for a house. The estate agent said the owner wanted to meet me - we swapped numbers and even though I didn’t take the house, we ended up going out and it just clicked: within 18 months I was pregnant.

Did you think to take a break then?

Er - not really. When I was working at MOP, my husband opened a deli in East Dulwich. It grew fast - it now turns over £650k a year - so I left MOP and started working on the East Dulwich Deli. It was all hands on deck: our 10-year-old son used to work at the till and our baby daughter Ava slept in her pram next to the counter.

Meanwhile, Urban Retreat at Harrods was not performing as well as it could and they approached me. They asked me to help put some standards in place - and to sweeten the deal, they said if I joined for a year they would give us the Café concession for Urban Retreat (East Dulwich Deli in Harrods), so I took the job - and in eight years we’ve gone from £5.8 million to £16 million.

And now I’m thinking what’s next. I am part of the Women’s Leadership team for the Princes Trust, I work with Look Good Feel Better, last year I helped raised close to £500k for the Terrence Higgins Trust at their Christies event earlier this year.

How did you manage being a mum with your roles?

When I had my first son, my husband worked in Sizewell B, the power station, and was always away so I was like a single mum. My mum used to help - she’d calmed down by then. She came back when Ava was born for two years before she started nursery. Now we have a housekeeper three days a week

I suppose I’m a bad mother in that I’m not there every day. But I’ve always encouraged my kids to be responsible for things themselves. I’ve always tried to give my kids responsibility as they grow up, make their own beds etc. I used to give my son his own weekly maintenance money so he chose what he spent it on which in turn helped him understand how to look after money.

You always think that someone else is better than you – making the cakes and going to the PTA, but it’s not what I want to do. So I focus on what I do want to do. I always have that element of guilt and compare myself to other mums.

My daughter has a lovely accent because I used to play Joanna Lumley stories to her every night!  I’ve a London accent and my daughter is posh. People wonder if she’s mine - my husband always laughs about this but my goal is to always look for improvement, even in our kids.

When didn’t it work?

You think you can’t cope when you put them in three school dresses in a row and none have all the buttons on. It is the small things that break you. You have to deal with it, though – I’d go out and buy a dozen dresses. I used to cry over the fax machine running out of roll so I went and bought 36 rolls. You have to have a back-up plan. You have to allow yourself those times and not see them as failures. Even though they feel like failures at the time.

What impact has your lack of formal education had?

I have tonnes of common sense and when you’re not educated you learn how to use that. But I do think I’d have done better with an education. My kids are so bright. I like to think I’d have been a doctor or a barrister but I don’t know if I’d have been any more successful. And I don’t think my kids would have benefited in the same way as they have from having a mum who had nothing. When I was a kid there was no food in our cupboards.

How do you keep in touch with your customers?

I love colour counters and textures and nail polish and perfumes. I haven’t removed myself from the shop floor. I walk the shop floor two or three times a day, I pay as a customer, I book people in and get feedback. I think it’s really important; it gives you the continued confidence if what you’re doing. You can move up the ladder and feel removed and lose confidence. If that happens to you, you must dive back in. Same with kids, if you have to check in all the time, you’re not spending enough time with them. We always eat together, we make ice-cream in our new ice-cream maker, we go for walks with the dog, we talk.

Who runs your household?

I don’t do anything with money apart from my own personal bills - my husband deals with all that. But I do all the food shopping on Ocado – Ocado is the answer. I book our all holidays. If you’re a businesswoman you need Winser London, an online fashion boutique, easy to wear, it is a lifesaver – dresses are about £100, good quality and they wash. If I find comfortable shoes I buy four pairs. The last thing you need to worry about it what you’ll wear tomorrow. For something a little extra special I always turn to Maria Grachvogel for timeless pieces that look fab.

Do you sleep?

Lots of people ask me that. I get up at 6am and go to bed at 11.30pm. I’m out of the door by 7.30/8am and I get in about 8pm and go out three nights a week networking. My colleagues would say I’m relentless.

I don’t keep a list anymore. I used to cry over long to-do lists that never went down. If it’s up here in my head I’m going to do them. I’ll do the one I don’t want to do the most first. I have action lists for specific brands. I have an amazing assistant called Daisy.

What should business or the government do to help working mums?

I’d like to see education change – I want more support for young mums. We should bring back home economics and cooking and how to look after ourselves. We’ve told people they can have everything they want and really they can’t. We’ve taken away their ability to understand diet and nutrition. We don’t tell people how challenging it is to fall pregnant at 16. And we don’t teach them about money or health. It’s scary. We have to support the youth of today otherwise this country won’t be a great place to live.

Are you thriving or surviving?

At 21 I was surviving. Now I am thriving. To remind myself, I drive down Dorset Road in Stockwell every day where we used to live in a two bedroom flat on a rough estate. My goal now is to be on the board of some amazing brands that need people what think like their customers. My aim is to assist M&S and the Orient Express – always keeping it real...

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