Laura Tenison isn't meant to be in work on the day of our interview. She's supposed to be at home recovering from an eye operation but, like many entrepreneurs, any kind of enforced inactivity isn't something that comes naturally. "I'm very lucky in that I love what I do," she says. "A great deal of my enjoyment in life comes from coming into the office and I find it incredibly demoralising being away from the workplace." So in she's come, accompanied by her two dogs Ruby and Truffle, who are regular features at the office.

"What she does" is head up niche retailer JoJo Maman Bébé, the multi-channel operator based around the concept of fashionable maternity wear and quality children's clothing, which Tenison set up in 1993 as a sole trader and is now growing into an international business. Today, the company is unrecognisable from its early roots as a mail order business - although its catalogue operation has survived - with a strong web presence and an expanding network of 60 stores, which is the main focus for Tenison at present, along with the international push.

"I still find every new store that we open so you'll often find me cycling around the town looking at empty store locations and stopping to Tweet or Facebook customers to see what their opinions are," she says. "It means they will feel engaged with the brand before we've even opened a store, so they know it's coming, they've had an input into where it is and they get a discount voucher to spend when it arrives. The reality is that multi-channel retail is probably the only way to survive today."

What has not changed, though, is her commitment to both producing a quality product and a strong ethical code of practice, where generating employment and operating in a responsible manner are just as important as the bottom line. "Of course we have to be profitable and we've got to have a safety net in case the weather is bad in retail and that hits sales but we don't have to line our pockets at any cost," she says.

"We offer good quality employment and a good service and build long-term relationships with our suppliers across the world, and audit them ourselves. Customers want a well designed product at a good price but the story behind the brand is becoming more important. A lot of people have an understanding about where they spend their money and if they get the feeling that our stores are nice places to work and shop in, it helps perpetuate a good feeling about the brand. It's good business sense as well as being an ethical way to work and employ people."

Defying convention

JoJo Maman Bébé may have been the centre of attention for Tenison for the past two decades, but it is not her first business, and all the markings of an entrepreneur were there from an early age. "Many entrepreneurs have the same traits and quite often we have issues with authority," she says. "My father was a diplomat and moved around a lot so I found getting on at school tricky." When the family finally settled on her father's retirement, it was on a remote farm in Wales. "I was nine-years-old and I really had very little to do and one of the ways I found to occupy myself was to make things," she remembers. Initially her attention was on Barbie dolls, and after a while it progressed to mini-skirts and clothes for her teenage friends.

Soon her focus switched to menswear, starting up a small business called Distinctive Silk and undertaking contracts for weddings. Despite this, under pressure from her parents, she embarked on a traditional career path, undertaking a bilingual secretarial course - she quit after a year, describing it as "mind-blowingly dull" - and then taking a post at a corporate organisation as a copy-chaser.

"After about six months I had made myself known to the managing director, which was probably totally inappropriate, and I told him the way he was running this department was completely ridiculous," she says. "That section of the company closed down a couple of years later. I'm not

saying I could have saved it but it was fairly obvious to those on the ground that these inefficiencies were happening and they weren't being noticed by those further up the management team."

This experience left a deep impression. "To this day at JoJo we listen to those people working in our retail stores or on the factory floor," says Tenison. "We have staff forums and we bring them in when we're looking at operational changes. In large corporates not enough of that happens but I'd far rather listen to someone working on the shopfloor than bring in a consultant to tell me how to rearrange my operations."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, her stint in the corporate world did not last long, and she decided to head off to the Middle East, ostensibly to source material for her menswear company. "I spent several months travelling around buying silk which I sent home as stock for my new business," she says. "Partly I was on the hippy trail but partly I was researching the prospects for my business and looking for suppliers because at the time I had been buying my stock from Liberty, which the only place that sold this very beautiful silk I needed for my one-off pieces." Her travels took her to Australia - where she ended up running a hotel after the manager left, teaching her management skills she didn't know she had - and then back to the UK.

"When I arrived back I was absolutely sure what I wanted to do and that was to set up a fashion company, but I didn't want it to be a hand-to-mouth one," she recalls. "I wanted to set up a larger scale commercial fashion company because I felt my ability to work with people meant I could provide ethical and safe employment for more people." Knowing she lacked experience she sought a role in the industry and landed a job working with upmarket fashion chain Aquascutum. "I wanted to go to a manufacturer-retailer because my business had cut out as many middlemen as possible," she explains. "We had a very diverse market from upper-class British country ladies to lovely elegant Japanese ladies. I was very good about getting on with both sides, and understanding your customer base is essential in retail."

But when she left after 18 months she still found herself unable to get the funding she needed to get the business off the ground and again headed off overseas, this time to France. After receiving poor service from a local estate agency, she launched her own property business, helping British customers buy properties and project-managing the renovations. "I did that for about two-and-a-half years and then sold that as a going concern," she explains. "The proceeds of the sale and some investments I had made when I was there came to about £50,000 and finally I came back to the UK, and went back to the banks."

Maternal instincts

Now, though, the business idea was different, based around the French nautical style for which JoJo Maman Bébé would become famous, and with an emphasis on childrenswear rather than menswear. "I'd come up with the concept while in hospital, having had a very bad car crash," says Tenison. "I spent several weeks recuperating in bed next to a mother of two young children who was trying to buy for her children from her hospital bed. I didn't have my own children at this time but, seeing what was available by mail order, childrenswear offerings were extremely limited. I had my knowledge of Bretton fashion having worked in Brittany and I loved the French nautical style which I thought could be brought back to the UK in a more commercial manner than it was at the time." Finally, everything came together, and JoJo Maman Bébé was born.

While the initial concept was based around childrenswear, Tenison was keen to test out her concept with her target audience of new mums, and the feedback she got was surprising. "A lot of people liked the idea of a mail order childrenswear catalogue but more and more people suggested maternity fashion, because there was nothing to buy when you're pregnant. I thought this wasn't a bad idea because you can advertise directly to pregnant women and they're very receptive to information. I thought I'd start the childrenswear with newborn sizing and hopefully sell it to my maternity clients. I decided I would revolutionise maternity wear and I can probably be blamed for the fashion in the early 1990s of wearing lycra garments to expose your bump rather than hiding it in the fabric."

The catalogue remained the basis of the business for its first 10 years, although Tenison was quick to spot the opportunity of the internet. "We developed a website long before many of the high street multiples and that meant we were able to tap into that," she recalls. "In the early years our internet users - those buying through our website - were virtually all male, geeky computer types but now 99% of our customers are women, either from home or work, and now we have a mobile optimised website we're seeing more and more purchases from mobile phones."

It was only a decade ago that Tenison took the decision to start opening stores. "We understood that our mail order catalogue and our website were ideal tools to push our customers to our new stores," she says. "We'd not only built up a vast database of over a million pregnant women and parents to analyse, we could also engage with our customers by asking them if they wanted a store and where would they like it to be. That sort of interaction is needed; opening your doors on the high street and hoping people will walk in is optimistic."

She admits that the arrival of the stores created a challenge in ensuring the ethos around which the company had been built also spread beyond head office. "When you're a mail order and internet business you have a creative department and customer services department which are very tightly knit and it was very easy for us to be 100% JoJo," she says. "As soon as you start opening different stores across the country that company ethos can be diluted." All new teams now spend a week at head office being "submerged" in the company culture to instil in them just how the business works.

Keep it simple

Tenison believes any retail entrepreneur today needs to keep their product offering simple and remain true to themselves. "I have seen people come in with fantastic ideas which fill gaps in the market but they're too complicated for the consumer to get," she says. "It needs to be relatively simple; people want to understand the history of a brand so don't pretend to be bigger than you are. Be totally honest about how large your business is and what kind of background you come from. The unique selling point for the independent retailer is personal service and attention to detail, so don't try and compete with the mass market."

She also has a few words of caution for anyone thinking of building a business with a view to selling it and making a fast buck. "There is nothing wrong with selling a business but to build a good business you need to look at it for longevity," she says. "We seem to have forgotten that running a business puts an awful lot of responsibility on the owner and that shouldn't be taken on lightly. The hardest thing about running this business for me is that as we grow my sense of responsibility gets higher, and thoughts of an exit become very remote because the reality is that I'm now responsible for 600 people's livelihoods. I know some wonderful business owners who have employee share schemes and run their businesses very much along the lines of a social enterprise but I wish there were more of them."

JoJo Maman Bébé is not the only focus for Tenison. She's also the trustee of the Mozambique charity Nema Foundation, set up eight years ago by Amy Carter-James, the owner of a local beach resort where Tenison had stayed with her children. "They would play football with the local children outside what was supposed to be a school but what was basically three walls and no roof," she recalls. "My son asked if we could rebuild it and I thought it was a good idea."

To date the charity has built two new schools in the area and set up a scholarship fund to send older children to senior school, and has also helped provide much needed equipment such as water pumps and mosquito nets as well as paying for an agricultural technician and health worker. "It's a totally holistic approach to trying to reduce infant mortality through education but we don't just throw money at them," she says. "It's all about building the society so in the future they will become self-sufficient but in a sustainable manner." As well as providing financial support, JoJo Maman Bébé helps with administrative support including handling the accounts, and it is now the retailer's official charity.

International expansion is also on the cards for JoJo Maman Bébé. The business has already expanded into the US through a network of distributors - it hopes to open a distribution centre in 2015 - and also has a presence in both Japan and South Korea. "We've gone from £55,000 turnover internationally to around £4 million," she says. "It's totally self-funded at this stage and I find it very exciting looking at a new territory and working out how to take the brand into that, growing in an organic manner while trying not to lose hold of that very important ethos. My principal job at the moment is rewriting the business plan for international growth."

Closer to home, the intention is to open a further six stores in the UK this year, as the company takes advantage of its niche place in the market. "The independent nursery retailer has really disappeared off British high streets so we have very little competition," she says. "We feel that our stores will to a certain degree be showrooms and billboards for our online business, but people also want to come in and feel the quality before they commit to buying online. We think we can continue growing in this country, at least in a modest fashion." Further developing relationships with customers is also on the agenda; the business recently bought a 40-year-old bus which it will use to go on a customer roadshow in the spring.


When she's not busy eyeing up new stores or international locations, Tenison splits her time between a London base near the company's Battersea office and a cottage in East Sussex, and also retains a cottage in Wales, where the head office remains, in Newport. But with her children now teenagers, she's had to find another outlet for her undoubted energy, which she derives from doing up houses. "I'm always busy on a new building project of one type or another, in between building stores," she says. "My experience from the French property company has come in handy."


From rags to riches: How Laura Tenison turned a childhood hobby into an international retail chain

1967: Born in Pontypool, Wales, but spent her early years moving around due to her father's career as a diplomat

1993: After a false start in a corporate career and two fledgling businesses behind her, Tenison launches JoJo Maman Bébé as a mail order catalogue business

2003: Opened first store in Battersea, London

Named Welsh entrepreneur of the year

2004: Awarded the MBE for services to business

2007: Became a trustee of Mozambique charity Nema Foundation. JoJo Maman Bébé provides financial and administrative support to the charity

2008: Named female entrepreneur of the year at the Fast Growth Business Awards

2010: Named Veuve Clicquot businesswoman of the year

Awarded an honourary doctorate of business at the University of East London

2011: Named businesswoman of the year at the Women in Public Life Awards

2014: Plans to open a further six stores in the UK, and continue expanding internationally