Understanding Female Entrepreneurs

Carly Read

Interview with Carly Read

Carly Read is an incredible business woman who retired in 2012 after building her third business to a turnover of £89 million.
Her journey has not been easy, starting as a gutsy cheeky 27 year old: nothing was going to get in her way of finding personal fulfilment – failure is education, obstacles are opportunities and success is being the best you can be.
Carly has a heart of gold and cares passionately about the people she works with – clients and employees alike.
For now Carly feels fulfilled and happy with her career but you can’t help feeling the story is not quite finished…

Aviatrix: What was the catalyst that made you start your business?

Carly: A lack of fullfilment in the job I was doing at the time.  I didn’t go the conventional route through university, I wanted a more practical course and went to Bristol Polytechnic and did languages and learnt about business structures.
I started as secretary to the chief economist at Esso in the 1970’s but I was totally unfulfilled and there was an internal application to be a computer programmer which would typically have been a graduate appointment.  I was very lucky one day to get a lift with the MD of Esso after a marketing seminar. I was a bit cheeky and I was critical of the induction process at Esso.  At a board meeting he was asked who this woman was that had made these salient points.  At this time there was a drive in Esso to give opportunities to women and because I had been this cheeky person they gave me this opportunity to represent women’s futures in Esso.
They sent me on all sorts of courses including Practice of Management Principles. I was the only female amongst men from Esso’s office and refineries around the UK.  On my second training course in Bournemouth, I was working in a syndicate and our task was to devise a game to stimulate postive thinking. I became really ill and my husband drove to collect me and I hoped that the other delegates would not think that I was a wimp for not staying the course.
I was whisked off to the doctor’s and ended up in hospital and had my appendix out. I went to my parents to recuperate and a friend took me to a place where they sold findings (all the separate components of jewellery) and stones. There was no fashion jewellery in those days.  I set up making my own jewellery just as a hobby and decided to do a party plan. I popped invitations through doors to my neighbours, none of whom I knew, and about 30 people turned up for the party.
After that party several people asked about having a party and one person asked if she could demonstrate for me. I had to write out a commission contract for her.  The party business just grew and grew.  So every night I was at my pine table making jewellery for the parties.
When my husband was moved to Brighton with his work, I gave up my job and made enough money to pay my part of the mortgage with profits  from the jewellery parties.
I started selling to wholesalers and buying finished products as well as making my own jewellery.  I then recruited sales agents all over the country and started selling to retailers. Later,  I stopped the manufacturing side and imported all the jewellery ranges.


Aviatrix: Did you have a vision for the business?

Carly: No, but I was ambitious.
When I started the business I was twenty-six. I wrote two letters – one was in response to an article in the paper with all this talk about women’s opportunities (it was c. 1975) and not one woman had responded to an advert that Woolworths had placed looking for a female director for their board.  So I wrote to the agency and gave them ten good reasons why I should be that person and then I saw another job for the Burton group and I wrote to them even though I had no experience of retail. Burtons came back to me and commented about my cheeky response but admired my cheek and invited me to go and meet them.
When I met Burtons they told me about a new company called Top Shop.  They were talking to me about the possibility of becoming a manager of a Top Shop. I asked them about their jewellery and they said that it worked as a concession and they explained how it worked.
After the interview with Top Shop I contacted them to ask them who the concession manager was and arranged to go and see her.  I was seven months pregnant at the time and I was fearful that they would discount me because of being pregnant but I left the meeting with my first twelve Top Shop concessions.
I never received a response from Woolworths and to this day that is the only speculative letter I have written and never got a response.
When I look back now I was fearless, I had this unbridled confidence and I found nothing daunting.  I did not analyse anything at the time but now looking back the younger you are the less you have to lose.  The older you are the more you have to lose and the more pressure you have to succeed.


Aviatrix: What was your background?

Carly:  I grew up in a business background – we had a grocery shop at the front of the house and my grandfather had a bakery where I helped out in the bakery shop from a very early age.  So my whole life was immersed in business.  We had great big cupboards in our bathroom from when my grandmother used to make hats.  At school I used to sell the flavoured straws from the shop for the free milk that all the children used to get.
I was always looking for an opportunity either for my career or for a business for my own fulfilment.


Aviatrix: How did the business evolve – at what point did you think – this is going to be amazing?

Carly:  I grew with Top Shop and I got the opportunity to trade in Oxford Circus and that was the jewel in the crown.


Aviatrix:  Did you have a desire to start up a business?

Carly:  I knew I would but I was happy to try the career route first.


Aviatrix:  What three things would have stopped you?

Carly:  I could see no obstacles.  I did need an overdraft from the bank and my dad acted as guarantor.


Aviatrix:  What was an obstacle that you had to overcome?

Carly:  There might have been red tape that I had to overcome for a premises lease but there were no obstacles I could see.  I could see only opportunities!  Because Top Shop pioneered the concession route that meant that there would be loads of opportunities with other companies as well.
I just had to learn about the seasonality and the fashion trends working closely with Top Shop. Ralph Halpern (owner of the Burton Group) pioneered conferences where you could see all the clothing for that season so I could work out what the accessories needed to be.


Aviatrix: How did you know how to do that?

Carly:  Even though things are so much easier nowadays in terms of the information on the internet, back then much of what I bought was being manufactured in the UK. I bought leather belts from a manufacturer in Brighton and plastic extruded belts in every fashion colour from someone in London. When leg warmers were in fashion, there was a knitting industry in Leciester. I also bought from a belt and handbag manufacturer in Uppingham. This meant we could respond very quickly to fashion trends.
I soon realised it was all about fast fashion and we started manufacturing our own products.


Aviatrix:  How did you know what accessory to put with what outfit?

Carly:  I used to subscribe to a trend magazine so I used to know the colours and generally what the fashion trends were.  I don’t remember it ever seeming like there were hurdles. I believed in “seek and you shall find.”  At that point I had 30 or 40 people working for me and of course they kept up to date with what was going on in the fashion industry as well.


Aviatrix:  What was the biggest help in the early days?

Carly:  Probably the training that I got at Esso.  To be a computer programmer you have to have an organised mind and I was also conducting my own training and was good on my feet.  I could always think about the steps ahead and have someone research them.


Aviatrix:  Did you ever have a mentor?

Carly:  Not at the early stage. Not until the late 80’s when the company was bought out.  The MD (Eddie Ashby) of the company that bought us out had been to management school and had a number of degrees. That was the biggest learning curve between 87 and 89.  Through the growth of Top Shop we had become very successful just doing what I thought was right.  The biggest difficulty at that time was my naivety.  Eddie Ashby taught me about lateral thinking, cash flow forecasting and most importantly a business plan.


Aviatrix:  What do you mean by lateral thinking?

Carly:  Thinking outside the box, seeing things differently and from a different perspective to solve a problem.  An example of this was that I thought my expertise was in the product – the jewellery.  Eddie opened my eyes to see that I had also become an expert in the operation of concessions.  In the early 90’s I was working with Dorothy Perkins and they wanted to do a range of watches and I thought well I know about concessions and I can learn about watches.


Aviatrix:  Why did you sell the company?

Carly:  Because I did not do the cash flow projections and have a business plan the company got into financial difficulties and we were bought out.  I had two years working with the company that bought mine, learning all that I needed. The company were asset strippers and I lost respect for the company and resigned.
I then left to work with one of the companies who had been interested in buying my company.  They asked me to help them set them up in retail and in return I would get a percentage of the company. Within two years I had lost respect for them as well and left as they did not have monthly accounts and business plans.
In 1991 I then started up my second business and I felt I needed someone to do it with and I approached an ex employee.


Aviatrix:  What was it that made you feel you needed to do it with someone else?

Carly:  I had the same passion but I felt it was a much bigger thing to start again and I wanted to have someone to share the burden with.  I was 43 and had two children and I saw hurdles that just didn’t exist when I was 26.


Aviatrix:  What did your business partner have that you wanted?

Carly:  She was probably one of my gutsiest employees, she worked in Snob, and was 15 years younger than me.  She had the go getting bit and knew the figures.  She was not so good with clients so I focused on the front line of the business and I was responsible for getting all the clients.
I put in more money than her but we split the shares 50:50 as I was advised at the time it was important to make sure that there was an equal amount of effort and responsibility put into the business and this should be reflected in the shareholding.
We then ran that business (Fashion Force and Match Marketing until 2001) and got it up to a £30m turnover.  Unfortunately at the end of 2001 we had a minority shareholders dispute and the decision was made to put the business into receivership.


Aviatrix: At what point did you know that your business was going to be a success?

Carly:  I’d always had the confidence that Icon (my third business) would succeed.  I was never fazed by two failures because that is when you learn most.  It was in my partnership with Valerie which we set up in January 2002 that I really knew we were going to succeed, we hocked ourselves up to the hilt with a business angel as none of the banks would deal with us and my husband put in money and so did I.
I had just got the Asda account in 2001.  I heard that Asda were looking to go into gold and silver jewellery and I set out to get that account and I eventually did.  Getting all the accounts really helped my confidence and the partnership with Valerie.   We put our heads down for three years and we almost did not come up for air.
All of our previous clients supported us.  I had to wait for Stuart Rose to come back from his Christmas break before starting Icon as integrity was really important to me.  I wanted to tell him that we had gone into receivership not because of business failure but due to a minority shareholder dispute and he immediately put temporary contracts in place so we could continue with the service.  We did not lose any of the contracts as a result of the move because of the relationships that I had with the clients.


Aviatrix:  What made the business a success third time around?

Carly:  It was the perfect partnership. Valerie is an accountant and she enjoys all the necessary things in a business like IT, accounts, HR and I handled the front of the business.  I likened our partnership to a sleek red Ferrari where I was the driver and Valerie ensured there was petrol in the tank and the car was well serviced and maintained.
By avoiding distraction I could focus fully on driving the business forward and the relationship with clients and having the right branding and right products with the right brands.
Valerie had came into the business in 1996 and looked after the finances at that point.  She was involved when the business went into receivership.  Her support during that whole phase was incredible and it was right to split the business 50:50 when we set up Icon.  It became a great partnership and has grown into a deep friendship.


Aviatrix:  What was the key to scaling the business?

Carly:  It is straightforward to grow the business in a concession format because it is almost as easy to run 100 stores as it is for 10.  Once we had the UK coverage for the people to go into the retail businesses we had the framework in place to cover many stores.
The most important thing for my clients was brand integrity so we had separate teams for each brand and each team had to live and breathe that brand – I got the teams to write down what they felt was the key language, a pricing architecture, a customer profile – this was all part of the annual business planning exercise.
The success was in me writing a business plan every year that covered all the departments and the brand and I broke it down into short, medium and long term plans.  It would take about six weeks to complete – what had happened over the last three years, key challenges for the previous 12 months, the key issues and then I broke those down and gave them an objective and a short, medium and long term plan.
Valerie and I with our partners were lucky enough to go to the Beijing Olympics at the closing ceremony and when the London Bus came in – I turned to Valerie and said ‘we have to be part of the Olympics in 2012.’  We gave the challenge to a team in Icon for finding out how we could get a licence to be part of the Olympics. I was at Heathrow en route to Australia and I got the call to say we were successful with the souvenirs – the flags and the jelly wrist bands.  I still tell people now ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get.’


Aviatrix:  What made you decide to retire?

Carly:  I wanted to spend time more time with my husband and I had loved the business when it was smaller.  The business when I retired had grown to £89m turnover.  As it grew I enjoyed it less.  For me the business was about the interaction with people, recognising their strengths and developing them.
My word was always my bond, integrity was there and the business was personal – the business had become a machine and I didn’t like that.
I had a fantastic send off which was a perfect way for my time to come to an end.


Aviatrix:  What did you love about having a business?

Carly:  I loved being successful, I loved being in the industry, I loved working with clients and I love nurturing people’s careers.


Aviatrix:  What did you not like about having a business?

Carly:  The things I didn’t like, Valerie looked after.  It was all about the people.  In the later years I would go to the coffee shop in the office and I wouldn’t recognise people that worked there which I didn’t like.


Aviatrix:  If you started again what would you change?

Carly:  I’d want to keep it small and where you are part of a team working together.


Aviatrix:  If there were one piece of advice you would give to other women starting up their own businesses what would it be?

Carly:  Not necessarily to a female entrepreneur as I don’t feel that there are any barriers to starting your own business.  But it would be to believe in yourself and if you don’t ask you don’t get.  In other words I never shied away from writing a letter to say Stuart Rose when he was head of M&S and I always got a reply.  So don’t be afraid to ask.  Make sure you have got your cash flow projections and your business plan.  If you don’t know where you are going how can you direct anybody else.


Aviatrix:  If you had to identify any female attributes that have made you are, what would they be?

Carly:  Intuition, mulit-tasking and thinking outside the box.


Aviatrix:  What do you feel female owned businesses contribute to society?

Carly:  I think they care more about what the customer wants and have more intuitive feelings about the consumer needs and what other businesses need.


Aviatrix:  What makes you feel successful?

Carly:  I feel fulfilled with my career- I feel happy.  I haven’t necessarily closed the cover of the book.  I have been approached by people for mentoring and giving talks.  I now have the freedom to go out there and help others without the need to earn money and I love that.


Aviatrix:  If there was one thing you could change about the world that would create more success for women what would that be?

Carly:  I do not see the divide between men and women – I do in a corporate environment – but I think it is that you have to embrace and chase those opportunities and do not hold back.
Knowing you are going to have the downs as well as the ups.  In 2003 I was called to a meeting with Philip Green who was then at BHS and he said if you ever do not hit your sales plan because of anything that we are doing please pick up the phone to me.  We had to re-pitch for the business against our biggest competitor and we could not shake them off.   So we used the ace up our sleeve which was to offer to guarantee the sales plan so we would have to pay the commission even if we did not hit the sales.  We did not get the contract and it was devastating to us.
No one would give us an answer as to why we didn’t get the contract.  So we were outside the office and phoned to say we are outside please can we have a word so we can understand why.  He sent their CEO who explained that they had given an exclusive five year contract for all the Arcadian brands and BHS to our competitors, which meant that the competitor could not work for anyone else.  I have always been a great believer in the idea that good comes out of bad.  I turned to Valerie and said there is nothing we can do about it but this is great news. We have lost this turnover and I will go chasing the sales and we do not need to look over our shoulders for five years.  I then went to Sainsbury’s and we were able to land the jewellery range the day they launched ‘Tu’ clothing jewellery and we were able to get Tesco’s as well, Oasis and the global license of French Connection.


Aviatrix:  How is your approach different to other business owners?

Carly:  I wasn’t frightened of anything and if I didn’t know anything then I was prepared to go out and find out.  In the early days I spent a lot of time in libraries.


Aviatrix:  Why don’t you think more women do not set up businesses?

Carly:  I think there are a lot more pressures and hurdles now – not least the cost of starting a business like a website etc.  It is a lot more competitive now but you do not need to start offering something that is not available actually what you need to offer that something is better.


Aviatrix:  What will the impact of more female businesses be on the world?

Carly:  I think more women will break through the glass ceilings in corporate businesses.  This will eliminate some of the male arrogance.


Aviatrix:  How do you keep yourself sane?

Carly:  I am driven by ambition, hard work and just getting on with it but I find it easy to have a balanced life in my leisure time. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and I love travelling and seeing the world and what it has to offer.
There have been lots of personal challenges to distract me from work along the way as well.

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