Turning point tales: You need to be fleet of foot, there’s no alternative

After having their first child, husband and wife Lucy and Kurt Jewson started making organic clothes for babies, before expanding their brand - Frugi - to cover children up to 10 years old and soft toys. The story of their business is one of well-time pivots and grasping the opportunities that have come their way...

The brand is now stocked in 40 countries by 450 independent shops, as well as by John Lewis and House of Fraser, and apperared in the 2016 Fast Track Ones to Watch list.

We sat down with Lucy to get a better understanding of what it takes to effectively pivot a business, why businesses are defined by turning points and the lessons she’s learnt as an entrepreneur.

So Lucy, tell us the story of your turning point and how it impacted your business.

I think the turning point for me with Frugi was about three years ago; the business was growing at about 40 per cent year on year and it felt very manic. We had just me and my FD trying to be experts in everything, we were struggling to keep up with the complexity that fast growth brings. It also felt like the whole responsibility for everyone’s success and happiness was on my shoulders and that kept me up at night, quite literally - I’d never run a £4 million turnover business before and felt quite daunted at the thought of doing that on my own when we were £30 million!

I decided we needed to "grow up" a bit and took the decision to create a board of directors. We went out and found a non-exec chairman who could point us in the right direction of how 'bigger brands' do things. Enter Ian Scott, who was just leaving Mulberry as Supply Director - Mulberry had grown from £25M to £160M during his tenure and so he understood a lot of the pressures that growth would bring. He gave us the discipline of board meetings, these made us concentrate on strategic planning a lot more than the nitty gritty we kept getting pulled in to and together we decided who else we needed on the board to leverage the growth we were expecting  to deliver in our three year plan.

Enter Caroline Flood, our new Commercial Director, who joined us from Cath Kidston. We also prioritised which other senior managers we needed, which has given us what still feels like a luxury - capacity to get things done!  Our skeleton is so much stronger now and the whole business feels much more planned and happy - everyone knows exactly where we are going (and how)  and that feels great!

How important is the ability to pivot in business?

It’s incredibly important to be what we call "fleet of foot".  In my previous life I worked for a huge blue chip company, where you felt that no matter how high you went, you couldn’t really influence the overall direction of the enormous steam ship you were travelling in. It’s really exciting for us to be able to analyse the market and see opportunities and react to them really fast. The economic environment is so challenging at the moment and uncertain with Brexit on the horizon and Trump in charge, that you must be constantly re-evaluating and adjusting plans to insure that you are considering all eventualities. Snooze and you really will lose in this new age!

How can entrepreneurs identify if a turning point is approaching?

For me, I always feel that a turning point is in the offing when things start to feel like they are getting a bit more chaotic and as a result a whole lot more stressful within the business. It’s then that you actually need to stop, take a breath - all go offsite and think. Is the answer just sticking in more resource to carry on running faster?  Or is it a change of structure, a change of direction, a new way of looking at something. It’s something that is so important to force your business to do on a fairly regular basis. We take a couple of days off site each year to really kick the tyres of our strategic plan and it pays huge dividends.

Why should businesses prepare themselves for disruption?

If the events of 2016, and so far this year, have taught us anything, it’s that things can change fast! I don’t think anyone could have really predicted even 18 months ago what the world would look like today. So being robust is key - looking to make sure you have a balanced revenue plan from multiple markets, spreading risk is important right now, for example. It’s certainly at the top of Frugi’s agenda. These challenges are exciting though, they breed innovation, keep us thinking on our feet and most certainly make us stronger. 

What do you think the future holds for the children’s clothing industry?

The great thing about the children’s clothing industry is that whatever happens to the economy, children still grow and will always need new clothes! The challenge for us within that is to ensure that not everyone gets them with their weekly shop. Supermarkets dominate the market alongside the likes of Next who have 11 per cent just by themselves. 

Lifestyle brands however are coming into their own, where people buy into the ethos of a company more, you can see it with Joules, Boden and Fatface for example - and this is where Frugi competes. Frugi is all about treating people and the planet right,  from seed to garment, so everything we make has an environmental story - most of what we make is made from organic cotton for example and our rainwear is made from recycled plastic bottles. Organic cotton tends to be softer and kinder to children’s skin - a boon for new parents. Worthiness alone won’t sell clothes however, we understand the need to be beautiful if we really  are to compete with those other lifestyle brand giants - so we invest heavily in design and innovation, to keep ahead of the curve on all fronts. It’s an exciting place to be!

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