One of the country’s top entrepreneurs is in the region today to launch her new lingerie concession. Urmee Kham caught up with Ultimo founder Michelle Mone.
MY team of technical advisers – they’re the best in the world, says Michelle Mone. The advisers she’s talking about are not working in the car industry, or in IT, but in the bra industry.
And her claims are borne out by her success; her Ultimo bra range has become the biggest designer lingerie brand in the UK, worth £45m.
When business analysts discuss this market, they don’t always find it easy to resist the puns.
Let’s just say that many descriptions of the performance of her bra company MJM International focus on its upward trajectory and high exposure.
The brand has successfully courted tabloid papers, and most recently, Hollyoaks actress Gemma Atkinson, the ‘face and body of Ultimo’, was cavorting around the jungle on I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here, garbed in a floral bikini on prime-time television.
Mone says, almost in awe: “We’ve had to order to so much fabric to cope with the demand, its been such a hit.”
Mone certainly has canny business sense, and she famously replaced Ultimo model Penny Lancaster, Rod Stewart’s current wife, in favour of his ex-wife, Rachel Hunter. The move generated an estimated £18m of free publicity.
Today the 35-year-old entrepreneur will be opening a new Ultimo shop in Debenhams in the MetroCentre with model Danielle Lloyd.
Mone says confidently: “ I hope to have 100 stores next year. These are proper shops within Debenhams. I’ve opened 10 within four weeks.”
She believes these concessions will allow her to have a bigger presence on the high street, where she believes Ultimo has the potential to become a player in its own right.
“I love Newcastle, it’s just like my home town of Glasgow.”
She visits the region frequently, including a Business Link event at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium during the summer.
She continued: “I was there recently speaking to over 200 women in the Hilton in Newcastle and they were just buzzing. I like Newcastle, there’s a real entrepreneurial spirit, a real buzz there, like in my home town of Glasgow.”
The humble bra celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and that century of support has been marked by several punctuation points.
One of the most noteworthy was in 1999 when Mone first entered the market in with her famous cleavage-boosting gel-filled Ultimo bra.
Mone found her entrepreneurial skill at an early age in the east end of Glasgow when her parents were unable to work and she was forced to earn a living as a teenager.
She became a model before taking a job with Labbatt’s Breweries as an office junior.
By the age of 22, Mone was running Labbatt’s Scottish sales and marketing team. “I think the reason that I’ve done so well is because I’m determined. Ultimo is the biggest underwear brand and it has come from nothing,” she says.
“We’ve taken over Gossard and it just goes to show that it doesn’t matter where you come from. I left school at 15, my brother died at 10 and my father was struck down with an illness which left him in a wheelchair and I had a dream and I worked hard to achieve it and I’m now the third most influential woman in the UK.
The important light bulb moment came in October 1996. It is a story that she retells with enthusiasm. After an uncomfortable night at a dance in Glasgow, she sat at her kitchen table until dawn puzzling over what was wrong with her underwear.
She then set up MJM International Ltd with her husband Michael in November 1996. After nearly three years of testing for the perfect bra, she created a cleavage-enhancing yet comfortable bra. This, combined with bold marketing, saw Ultimo, her gel-filled bra invention, launched in Selfridges.
Soon it was being worn by Hollywood stars like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock and brought Mone requests for stock from luxury New York store Saks Fifth Avenue and eventually a World Entrepreneur of the Year title and a place on the Prince’s Trust Council.
She went on to support the Sultan of Oman in setting up women’s enterprise in the kingdom and speaking to 2,000 people with former presidents Bill Clinton, who she describes as gorgeous and Mikhail Gorbachev.
A multimillionaire today, Mone achieved a place on The Sunday Times rich list before she turned 30.
But Mone is not without her share of business difficulties. She almost lost the business after a Canadian distributor “ran away” with £1m of money and stock. “It was a disaster, and we almost went bust.
“I learned a very important decision not to trust everyone you meet.”
But she is quick to move to the positive as she adds: “If you have a dream, you have to go for it. Even if you haven’t done well in school, you can do it but you are the only person in the driving seat so you are the only one who can make it happen.
“We have fought with the big boys in the lingerie industry and they tried to stop us and put us out of business but we came back.”
The big boys of the industry is not an understatement.
The famously competitive industry had previously been dominated by just four giant corporations (Sara Lee, Vanity Fair, Warnaco and Maidenform), which grew by around 40% over the 90s – during which worldwide bra sales nearly doubled, from $2.2bn in 1989 to $3.8bn by 1997.
Sara Lee, whose international brand names include Gossard (and its famed Wonderbra), Playtex and Berlei, last year sold more than £1bn of lingerie, and owns over half of the European bra market.
According to the market-research agency Mintel, £647m was spent on bras last year in the UK alone, with 80% of all women buying at least one bra.
Mone is confident about her brand with her sights set on global domination in mind.
“I want us to be the Victoria’s Secret of the UK, then we want to go global,” said Michelle.
“I’m not going to stop until we get there. That’s my dream and I’m so focused on it.”
Victoria’s Secret is the top American retailer of lingerie and beauty products with sales surpassing $5bn and an operating income of $1bn in 2006. These are lofty ambitions.
It is often quite difficult to keep up with the fast-talking Glaswegian. She is constantly on the go and thinking about new ideas and new ventures.
It doesn’t seem like a cliche to say that she’s a driven woman and a woman you wouldn’t like a run in with, given that her favourite film is The Godfather.
But she’s rattling off all the new ideas about bras for backless dresses.
“I am a woman and I want to help out. I know what its like to be a mum, a wife and to run a business. There are so many men versus women in the business world. And women need a boost.”
She says this without any irony and doesn’t pause for breath.
“It is important that successful business people should give back, with money or their time, otherwise they shouldn’t be successful. We have to give a bit back. That’s what I did, and if you give back you get looked after by the man upstairs.
“The new shops will have consultants to answer fashion dilemmas and will have everything from A cups to G cups, we’ll have it.
“We also have shape wear.” She pauses as she almost whispers: “It’s the most powerful stuff in the market. There are leggings – ankles to high up the waist and they will slim everything, your hips, you legs. Very powerful stuff. We are launching four lines in the area.
“I’m the only woman in the industry who is involved in the design stage. I invent these products and I’m passionate about the fact that as a company we create and manufacture these products. I have 1,200 people in China and I market to retailers.”
Mone has just moved her empire to a new £5m building in Glasgow and she is busy developing new underwear lines for high-street retailers.
She has her own Michelle range for George at Asda, and she has Adore Moi range with Debenhams.
She is currently in the process of looking at the bridal market and the maternity market. Again she uses her own experiences. “When I was pregnant, I remember thinking that maternity bras are the ugliest things ever.”
When she’s not thinking underwear she is at home with her husband and three children Rebecca, Declan and Bethany. “The nanny and the housekeeper become your managing team.”
She has regularly featured in TV documentaries including Trouble at the Top and has recently been filming the new series of The Apprentice where she will be featured as Alan Sugar’s business adviser. She divulges that she filmed with former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins who she describes as a “horror”.
But as if all that wasn’t enough, Mone is now stretching out to the health market. The idea again, comes from personal experience. “I had put on a lot of weight and it was making me unhappy. I tried everything and then I found this herbal pill and it worked wonders for me, so I bought the company from herbalist Professor Jan de Vries,” she says it with her typical gusto.
She has gone from a size 22 to a size 12 and has just two stone to go before she hits her target.
She says perfection is her most irritating habit. She explains that she has obsessive compulsive disorder and has to have her tins facing a certain way when she gets in.
“It takes me 17 minutes to get the house the way I like it – cupboards in kitchens, the works. My staff know not to let me in certain rooms and I insist that each arch lever label is printed out on the computer. I’m a total obsessive compulsive.”
But Michelle Mone’s attention to detail is perhaps something to which all economic augury-watchers could aspire.
It’s an old observation that women’s fashions can predict business trends. The more revealing, or sexually alluring, the more benign the economic outlook.
So, for example, there were short skirts in the 60s and in the Lawson boom of the late 80s, and the sustained growth of the past 15 years has seen a sexualisation of public space. More shapeless clothes characterised the difficult late-70s. Does this actually work? Who knows – but it’s one reason why the success of Ultima will be watched attentively by more than simply the fashion-conscious.