A business with a difference

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Tracy Mort, winner of a NatWest everywoman award for inspiring female business leaders, talks to workingmums.co.uk about her motivations for starting a business and how she has built it up.

Tracy Mort never envisaged the success she would have when she set up her affordable luxury beauty business Grace Cole seven years ago.

“When I started it I just hoped it would survive,” she says. She now employs 28 staff and had a turnover of £10.3 million this year.

In fact her success came very quickly.  In her first year she made just under £1m from a standing start. “I didn’t even have a written business plan, although I knew exactly what I wanted to achieve. It was still quite spectacular, though,” she said. “I still pinch myself.”

By the second year she had made a turnover of £2.7m. By the third year it was £4.4m then £6m then £6.7m. then £7.6m. Even now the business is still growing at great speed, constantly innovating and Tracy has plans to open an office in the US. “My aim is to build a quality brand that is recognised in every country in the world, “ she says. So far she supplies 86 countries.

Her achievement is all the more impressive given that just after she started the business the world entered the 2008 recession. “It could have been a disaster,” says Tracy, “but it worked in our favour. People in retail were pulling back. It was much more difficult to get orders, but a lot of people started to trade down and we were ready to accept business.”

The challenges she faces now are how to keep up the initial passion and enthusiasm of her staff. Tracy says the team have done this “remarkably well”. “It’s all about employing the right people at the right time,” she adds.

It’s also about training people up and ensuring they have a sense of career progression when they start work for the company.  “I wanted to take people on from the bottom as buying assistants and train them up so they had a clear progression path. It’s really important to me that every member of staff has a career development path,” says Tracy.

Learning the ropes

She began her career in retail as a buyer in 2001, just after her daughter was born. A lot of her experience was in the construction industry where she learnt a lot about negotiating contracts. “I always wanted to start my own business as I don’t like being told what to do, but I needed to learn my craft. I worked for an import/export business where I learned a lot about negotiating with customers and designing products,” she says.

She was then headhunted by a health and beauty company called Elizabeth French and worked there doing marketing, buying and sales. The company was sold to another business who had very ambitious plans, but, according to Tracy, not much idea of how to bring them about. She says they taught her how not to do business.

At this time, her brother became very ill and suddenly died at just 34 years old. Tracy was 32 at the time and she says his death changed her whole outlook on life. Her company went into administration. Tracy had no job, but says she was no longer afraid of anything. It was the perfect opportunity to set up her business. She just needed to find some funding. The previous owner of Elizabeth French was ready to back her and was going to join the company, but he soon became very ill. He has, however, been a key mentor to her.

Tracy says it was her grief for her brother that drove her in the early days. “I worked 24 hours a day. I was so driven and my grief kept me going,” she says.

Her mum helped with childcare and her husband, who had his own business in the construction industry, was very supportive. Tracy worked from home in the dining room. Her first employee was someone who had been made redundant from her previous company and she has taken on three more staff who lost their jobs there. After six weeks, she moved the company to an office by Manchester airport. She now has an office in Cheadle.

Initially, Grace Cole was a seasonal gifting business. It launched in February 2007, already nine months behind for orders for the following Christmas. The team had to create all the designs, get samples of products and get suppliers and customers by August. “It was a huge challenge, but a lot of people believed in us,” says Tracy.

There was an important trade show in April which was fully booked. She booked a hotel room near the show and invited buyers to come and see the handmade samples she had brought along. Everyone she invited came along – many were people she knew already – and she took her first orders that day. “What sold it was the passion and enthusiasm we showed,” she says, adding that her experience in retail had taught her how to design products that people wanted and what price they might be prepared to pay for them.

Buying British

Her first years were spent firefighting, but by 2010 she started to focus on the state of the world economy and to ask questions about what her company could do to support the UK economy more. She had been buying her products from China up to that point, but started to investigate how it might work if they were supplied by UK manufacturers. She redesigned some products and found the right factories to make them. The prices were a bit higher, but not massively so. Her thinking was that the ethos of having her products manufactured in the UK meant she could charge a bit more and build her brand as Grace Cole England. The name had been chosen because Tracy wanted her company to have a story behind it and thought Grace Cole sounded quintessentially English. “I wanted people to feel they were dealing with a person not a company. The idea was that there was a person making the products so they could relate to it,” she says.

Tracey now says the idea of buying British was the best business decision she has ever made and is part of her wider vision of building a business that makes a difference. For this reason, she feel it is vital that it has strong business values, that employees enjoy working there and are rewarded for their work as well as being given an opportunity to progress.

Tracy’s achievements have been recognised with several awards, including last year’s Everywoman Award at the NatWest everywoman awards. The Award is given to one person from all of the nominations across all of the categories and recognises the most passionate and dedicated female business owner, whom the judges feel has overcome significant challenges to achieve outstanding business success.

Tracy says the award was a huge surprise as it was not for the category she had entered. When the citation was read out, it was only a few minutes into it that she realised it was her. “I was dumbfounded, especially since it is for women in business. There are so few women entrepreneurs and we are not often recognised as such. I want to be a good ambassador for businesswomen,” she says.

*Nominations for this year’s NatWest everywoman awards close on 14th July. They are free to enter and individuals can be nominated or can enter themselves at www.everywoman.com/ewawards.  The core categories are:

Artemis – for a woman running a business who is aged 25 or under.

Demeter – for a woman running a business who is aged between 26 and 35.

Athena – for a woman running a business who is aged between 36 and 49.

Hera – for a woman running a business who is aged 50 or over.

Specialist category:

Iris – This Award is given to the most inspirational and successful female entrepreneur who runs a business that uses technology in an innovative and disruptive way.

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