Page last updated at 05:54 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 06:54 UK

Learning from the recession

By Clare Matheson
Business reporter, BBC News

There is no doubt that the recent recession has been a painful time for most businesses - but some have managed to come out on top.

L-R: Gill Riley, Laura Tenison, Victoria Stapleton, Louise Wymer
Despite the recession these women managed to keep trade ticking over

That's certainly true for the following quartet, especially as up to 120 small firms were going bust a day at the height of the the financial crisis, according to accountants BDO.

The four have had to work even harder in the business world, as they are all female entrepreneurs. A recent Businesslink survey found 20% of women entrepreneurs still feel they have to work harder than men to prove themselves in the business world.

And while the ladies span the diverse sectors of fashion, construction and food all four have a similar tale of belt-tightening and innovation against a turbulent economic background.

It also seems their hard work paid off - they were all nominated for this year's Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year Award - so how did they do it?

LAURA TENISON, JOJO MAMAN BEBE

Laura Tenison, founder and managing director of pregnancy-to-preschool retailer JoJo Maman Bebe, faced real funding problems during the downturn.

Laura Tenison
Innovative savings helped nurture the baby wear retailer in tough times

With cash extremely tight before the recession, the withdrawal of banking funds meant she had to put some of her own money back into the business during the hard times.

But while she had a tough four months she managed to trade through it, personally explaining the situation to clients and customers.

Hard times also meant she brought had to cutback. But as well as the usual salary freezes and cost-watching there was also some more unusual measures, such as investing in teapots so that money would ultimately be saved on teabags. "It's amazing what you can save," she says.

Above all though the firm also kept in mind its customer.

"Cost prices are always rising and customers are not better off. Efficiency means we can offer reasonable prices and customers understand its a good value for money brand."

"I know we all have enormous financial difficulties and so our customers are likely to be squeezed in the next few years, so it's important to keep company safe and not take too many risks," she adds.

As a result, the Newport-based firm, which was set up in 1993, is expected to reveal an increase in turnover from £19.5m in 2009 to £21m this year.

VICTORIA STAPLETON, BRORA

Fellow fashion retailer Victoria Stapleton, head of Brora, also had a tough year in 2009 but managed to keep her business stable by making efficiencies at head office and changing the mix of products sold.

Victoria Stapleton
Ms Stapleton believes in sticking close to the production process

Widening the range of products on offer, as well as using more fabrics such as tweed and silk as well as its staple cashmere, was welcomed by fans of the luxury clothing brand.

Ms Stapleton also argues that keeping the business British has helped her chop and change with the seasons and foibles of her buyers.

"The real difficulty has been to carry on finding factories in this country to make dresses and woven fabric as so much manufacturing has moved abroad," she says.

But she persevered - even breathing new life into one mill threatened with closure - and her network of small craftsmen and larger manufacturers "now allows us to turnaround orders quickly which therefore means happy customers", she says.

Keeping her business "different" is also a key to remaining successful, Ms Stapleton says.

"Our key differentiator to other cashmere makers is our cashmere made in Scotland, the real joy of working there is that you can handhold the process," she adds.

"We were thrilled to open a shop in Edinburgh last summer, especially as the main cashmere shop there is stocked with Chinese-made cashmere, and the Edinburgh customers really want to buy Brora so it's been fantastic."

However, the re-emergence of the "quality versus quantity" ethic among consumers during the downturn also helped the firm cash in.

"Sales of our classic cropped cardigan actually rose 100% as people have started investing in long-lasting clothes," she says.

As a result the firm managed to keep its turnover level at around £13.3m.

GILL RILEY, GGR - UNIC

Gill Riley and her brother set up their construction firm GGR in 1997 making the most out of a gap in the market for glass safety equipment.

Gill Riley
Ms Riley relies on smart use of cash and resources

A few years later she spotted another gap worth exploiting for small cranes and with the purchase of a single mini-crane at an exhibition in Japan GGR - UNIC was born. The GGR Group is now made up of six brands which rent and sell building equipment, and has a turnover of £17m.

But while Ms Riley's firm is responsible for helping to put together Portcullis House in London, supplying cranes for the 2012 Olympics site and helped to instal most of the glass in West London's high end Westfield shopping centre it has hit its fair share of problems in the recent past.

She admits the firm's European operations were dealt a big blow as a slowdown hit the industry when the recession fully took hold.

"We sell a lot in Europe so we have been affected there where crane sales have gone down," she says. "But rental levels are up on what they were."

She has also said that GGR did take a hit as more companies went bust earlier this year - but the firm had seen it coming and became more careful with where it puts its money and how it uses its staff.

"We just work smarter and wiser now," she adds.

LOUISE WYMER, THE CATERING ACADEMY

Catering entrepreneur Louise Wymer knows a lot about sacrifices.

Customers have been cutting back on their spending, government rule changes meant her firm had to change her schools menu and her husband gave up his job to look after their seven-month-old baby when she went back to work last summer.

"We've certainly been hit in manufacturing sector where clients lost money, one even went under," she says.

Louise Wymer
Cheaper isn't always better, says Ms Wymer

"But then the challenge is to find a solution. Instead of people spending £4-5 on lunch it is now down to £2 or £3 per person, so our challenge is how to get more patronage at less money to maintain the business."

But the firm has benefited from having a diverse client base, and growth in its schools and college sector has helped to offset losses elsewhere helping it to boost its turnover to around £20m in 2009.

"There's more people in the [education] sector and their disposable income tends to stay the same, meanwhile most part-time workers are still working part-time and they still have the same cash," Ms Wymer says.

Meanwhile, new government nutrition guidelines meant the firm had to undertake the costly move of scrapping the menu it provided to schools and start again.

"We did see a drop in earnings, but it's coming back now," she adds.

And while the squeeze may have led to cuts and change, it has not changed her principles.

She sees the small size of her firm as a strength, one that means she can keep a closer eye on the business and react more quickly than larger rivals allowing it to change its offer if clients are feeling the squeeze.

But she also maintains some things just cannot be sacrificed, such as her ethical trading beliefs - and good locally-sourced food and keeping waste out of landfill does not come cheap.

"If you're looking for the cheapest possible solution I'm probably not the solution," Ms Wymer says.



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