Bra entrepreneur tells buyers: 'innovate to survive'

5 October 2012

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5 October 2012 | Rebecca Ellinor

Ultimo bra entrepreneur Michelle Mone is fuelled by the fear of failure and says if you’re “passionate about something, never stop”.

In a candid presentation at the CIPS Annual Conference 2012, Mone told delegates how she had progressed from living in a tenement in Glasgow to becoming a multimillionaire and intends for her company to become the “Victoria's Secret of the UK”.

Mone always had an eye for a gap in the market having started her own paper delivery enterprise in Scotland before she was a teenager. She rapidly progressed through the ranks at Labatt Brewing Company after joining with no qualifications and was devastated when a merger made her job redundant when she was 24. She now describes this setback as “the best thing that ever happened to me” because without it she wouldn’t have achieved what she has.

After spotting another gap in the market – a comfortable, cleavage-enhancing bra – she spent three years of her life inventing it getting into £480,000 of debt. Her break came when she turned up at Selfridges department store in London heavily pregnant with her third child, desperate and without an appointment and convinced the buyer to see her and try on her creation. “The rest, as they say, is history,” she said.

She had just £500 left to market her product, which she did by hiring a group of actors to dress like plastic surgeons and protest against it. That stunt generated £43 million of publicity and six months’ stock sold out at top speed. “Having less money makes you more creative, I still only allow us to spend £500 marketing a new product.”

Mone has hit more than one challenge along the way. She said her success at a young age made her arrogant: “I thought I could just make two colours of the same bra for the rest of my days, but I learned you have to immediately be thinking ‘what’s next’. The hardest thing when you build up, is staying there. In business you have to innovate. If you don't you have no chance of surviving.”

Her company was almost ruined after it gave a fraudulent distributor £1.6 million of credit. “The banks wanted to close us down. But I said ‘I am not giving in’. Losing money to fraudsters was the best ever mistake I made, because otherwise I would have been a complete arse.”

She said she now focuses on working hard, playing hard and giving something back to feel fulfilled. Mone does a lot of charity work and donated her fee for speaking at the event to Cash for Kids. And advised those who want to set up their own business to “do research, make sure you get funding and don't be afraid of change”.

Her company MJM International now owns brands including Ultimo, Bra Queen, Adore Moi and Ultimo Beauty, among others, and Mone was awarded an OBE for her contribution to business in January 2010.

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