Enterprising Women: The Lives of Successful Business Women, by Carol Dix.
Bantam, 199pp; £14.99. Review by Clare Lorenz.
One third of all new small businesses nowadays are started by women. This enjoyable and informative book tells the story of 19 of them. Three of them manufacture things - things as diverse as Trinidadian herbal pepper sauces, spongeware decorated pottery and mail order maternity clothes. The rest offer a wide assortment of services and products.
Some of their companies are long established and well known. Prue Leith (the woman responsible for the vastly improved British Rail sandwich) has traded as Leith's Restaurant and Leith's School of Food and Wine for 29 years and currently turns over £7-£8 million pounds.
At the other extreme, Bridgewater Pottery and Ceramics was bravely founded, by Emma of that name, only seven years ago, when she had just come down from university. It currently has a turnover of £1.5 million.
Quoting verbatim from interviews with her entrepreneurs, Carol Dix brings their rags-to-riches stories alive. She questions them about their private lives, as well as their motivations for starting up in business, and so delves willy-nilly into the "whole life" package of responsibilities that these women have embraced. This approach may not be to all tastes since business affairs have traditionally been regarded by many as distinct from the rest of life. It does, however, serve to underline the non-conformist attitudes (in a business sense) of several of her subjects.
Susan Hay, for example, of Susan Hay Associates, was not prepared to contemplate using her house as collateral for a loan from a high street bank. It struck too deeply at the basis of family security. Others among these business women are prepared to admit that they had no business plan when starting out, because they had no idea what a business plan was. If this smacks of amateurism, it implies no lack of flair, nor - since they all evidently did find some way to proceed - of effectiveness.
Each company's story gets separate treatment. But the author attempts to draw parallels for the reader by grouping her accounts under headings such as "The start-up: lessons from the front line" and "The doggedly independent streak". The later chapters are devoted to the art of expansion - except in the case of one woman who chose to sell up and return, thankfully, to being an employee rather than continue as an employer.
These tell-it-like-it-is stories bring out many of the problems faced by small businesses, particularly in the early years. Dounne Alexander-Moore, who founded Gramma's Original Herbal Pepper Sauces four years ago (and who is the only British black woman ever to have won a national business prize), illustrates the tenacity and selfbelief needed to launch a new product in the face of dour British scepticism.
Her battles against unhelpful bank managers, and the iniquities of 2% extra interest charged on the Government's Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme, called for tenacity. In spite of selling 1,000 jars of pickle to Harrods in her first week of supplying the store, Alexander-Moore was told she was being too ambitious in asking for a £50,000 set-up loan.
"Only recently, despite my proven success I was told by a bank manager that I should have stayed in my kitchen and remained small. 'It's only a jar of pickle' were his words." After the goal posts had been moved by the original bankers often enough to try the patience of a saint, her first company went into liquidation in April 1991. Yet in August it was reborn, with new bankers, as Gramma's (UK) Ltd. Alexander-Moore can now boast that hare products are in 1,000 UK stores - including those of several of the big chains. Export sales, at least as far afield as Ireland, will begin this year.
While the high street banks were striving (for a time, at least, successfully) to defeat Gramma's expansion plans, growth was virtually thrust upon Susan Hay Associates. The firm provides and manages day nurseries on behalf of employers, and had been retained as consultants by Midland Bank which was proposing to create 300 workplace nurseries.
Even so Susan Hay, who was in her second year of trading, was surprised to get knocks on the door from not one but five venture capital companies. Number Three seemed to understand her long-term research-based approach better than the others. It also had experience of the "amenity provision" area into which childcare is slotted in venture capital circles. So it was to this firm that Susan Hay was happy to trade part-ownership in exchange for the funding she needed for growth.
The perils of writing a book such as this during a recession are obvious. Would any of Carol Dix's chosen enterprises collapse along the way?
"There was a moment ... when I feared the worst", she confesses. But no. Her subjects all sounded, "to a woman", cheerful, cautiously optimistic and definitely looking forward to the future.
"On the whole," she writes, "they tend to be people who have not over-borrowed nor over-extended, who are not pushing to be the biggest and the brightest among their competitors. They admit to leaner times, to a tougher fight. Yet, as entrepreneurs, they seem genuinely quite confident."
Clare Lorenz is a writer on business and education matters.