Waving the banner for women in business

2016 NatWest everywoman Awards. Photo by Steve Dunlop

When Joanne Bass couldn’t get the flexible working pattern she wanted at her job after her first maternity leave, she negotiated a deal to sell her company’s products independently from home. Within a short period she was outselling them.

Over the last six years, she has set up two companies, recruited her husband to one of them, had two more children and struggled with a sick baby and post-natal depression.

Her achievements were recognised earlier this month when she won the Athena Award at the NatWest everywoman Awards. The award is for inspirational women running a business trading for between six and nine years.

Joanne says she didn’t expect to win, even though her husband suggested she needed to prepare an acceptance speech just in case. “It was a massive surprise,” she says. “I got up and cried when my name was announced.”

From sales manager to entrepreneur

Joanne was working as a sales manager for an exhibition equipment manufacturer when she went on maternity leave with her son. She asked to go back three days a week, but her boss wanted her to do the three days over five mornings. She felt her hours would soon creep up and she wasn’t ready for that as her son was only six months old.

Her boss asked her to come up with a solution so she suggested selling the company’s products from home as an independent. However, when she became very successful the company cut off her supply chain. Joanne, who had had a lifelong ambition to own her own business, had not planned to do it just after her maternity leave, but decided to take the plunge – she decided to manufacture the products in house and buy in others from suppliers.

She worked from home for two years, taking on an administrative assistant, before deciding she needed her house back and that she had to take the leap of faith to expand her company, XL Displays.

Illness and post-natal depression

Four years ago, her second child, Sophie, was born with a rare congenital condition called Choanal Artesia which means she had no nasal passages and was unable to breathe properly. Joanne had to really push to get a diagnosis.  “I realised something was wrong. It was horrendous. I had to tell the ENT consultant that I would hold them personally responsible if they didn’t do something,” she says.

Sophie was in hospital for four weeks. She then had to have four operations up to the age of five months so she could breathe with stents being put in place to open up nasal passages. Throughout that time Joanne was trying to run her business, taking and processing orders in hospital waiting rooms and corridors. “I had to keep going,” she says.

Sophie has had one more operation two years ago and is now doing fine, but she has a lot of infections which can often result in an asthmatic reaction.

Joanne then developed Post Natal Depression. To counter it she decided she needed to focus on pushing the business forward, setting up a new website and taking up running. “I needed some sort of channel to get out of the depression,” she says.

She set up the Early Learning Furniture website. The idea came to her while she was up at night feeding Sophie and stumbled across the wooden chalk and white board products sold by one of her suppliers. “The quality was great and no-one else was doing anything similar online,” she says.

“It provided another focus for me that was unrelated to being a mum and feeling inadequate,” says Joanne, who lives in Peterborough. “I was looking after my son and a poorly baby and this was something just for me and something I could do well. It was something I could get my teeth into.”

A family business

She also put a lot of energy into XL Displays, which had stagnated slightly since Sophie was born. Her husband, who has a background in production and graphic design,  had been helping out with advice since she started and he came on board full time, taking charge of doing Google Adwords. That led to a big increase in demand as well as pressure for the business to succeed now that the family’s entire income was dependent on it. Annual turnover now stands at £4.2m. That fast growth in sales has presented its own challenges.

Joanne says the biggest has been getting processes and procedures in place, including a management structure so that she does not have to deal individually with the growing number of staff the company employs. “The structure was put in place a year ago and it means I am only dealing with six managers instead of 38 members of staff individually,” she says. That has bought her some time to strategise. Before that she was just existing from day to day and problem solving as she went along.

Another challenge has been learning how to deal with financial issues, something Joanne describes as a massive learning curve, and hiring the right staff. All staff are drawn from the local community, including four apprentices.

Joanne now has an induction process in place and a good recruitment agency who understand the company’s ethos, with the big emphasis they place on customer service. “That is my background. It’s all about the customer journey and it is what was lacking in our industry, for instance, following up to check that an exhibition has gone well,” says Joanne. That focus has brought the business five-star online reviews.

She says having a family friendly culture is important to her, given the reason she set up the business. Sophie used to have a cot in the office and Joanne, who is expecting her fourth child, says she would sleep there after going to nursery. Her children, now aged two, four and six, sometimes come into the office. Two members of staff in marketing and HR work school hours and the business has a family day in the summer with bouncy castles and entertainers.

Joanne and her husband, who now have a nanny, also have a no work rule over the weekends. She admits that she works long hours to keep the business moving forwards, but says being self employed means she has more control over when she works so she can make time for important family events.

Independent woman

For the immediate future Joanne is looking to grow her Early Learning Furniture business because of the emotional relationship she has with it.  Meanwhile, XL Displays is doubling in size so they can sell more products and equipment, with an aim to produce more fabric print items in-house to increase net profit. “The products we sell from roller banners and pop-up stands up to large exhibition stands are something every business uses so there is definite room for expansion,” says Joanne.

She has managed to grow the business with very little external support and is proud of her achievements. Over the last six years, she has only had one business loan of £17K. Everything else has been self-funded. “I’m not one for borrowing money,” she says. “I’m all for independent, strong women. I don’t like having to be beholden to someone else. That was one of the main reasons I set up my business.”

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