Michelle Mone: View from the top: From support act to leading lady

Lingerie success story Michelle Mone says that her 12 years in business feel more like 50. The Ultimo entrepreneur tells Tara Craig about her inspirations, her plans and why she still wakes up smiling every morning.

It says a lot about Michelle Mone, founder of one of Europe’s leading designer lingerie brands, that despite being given the wrong start time for her appearance at Personnel Today’s HR Directors’ Club breakfast briefing, she still turns up bang on time and strides onto the stage, scarcely batting an eyelid.

She spends the next hour enchanting and inspiring a room full of battle-hardened HR directors, pausing only to let their laughter die down as she tells one anecdote after another, from a career which she herself acknowledges “has been like a movie”.

Family illness forced Mone to leave school, without qualifications, at 15. By this stage, she had already decided to become an entrepreneur, and admits, without a trace of embarrassment, to having had a poster of hero Richard Branson on her bedroom wall, while her friends were opting for the more conventionally appealing Duran Duran.

By 24, having garnered her basic business experience in the marketing department of Canadian brewer Labatt’s, Mone was already married with two children. Redundancy, the urge to work for herself, and an uncomfortable bra led her to design the Ultimo, which she intended to be “natural and comfortable, like a boob job in a bra”.

Bravura performance

Mone’s drive and confidence in her product is such that, heavily pregnant with her third child, she managed to bypass the traditional order process and talk a buyer at London department store Selfridges into trying on an Ultimo bra. Selfridges placed an order, and Mone, having gone into labour during her management board’s first meeting, paused just long enough to give birth to youngest child Bethany, before getting back to building her brand.

Today, nine years later, Ultimo is estimated to be worth £45m and is the most successful of the six brands that make up her company, MJM International, with a new line designed by Mone’s 15-year-old daughter to be launched next year.

Mone is rightly proud of her products, but accepts that they would be worthless without the people behind them.

“People are very important to an organisation, because you can’t be successful without a good team around you. I always let them know that they’re very important, and that it’s nigh on impossible to do it on your own.” She claims Ultimo is now the biggest designer lingerie brand in the country, and has her team to thank for that success.

Some of her staff have been with her since she launched Ultimo, and Mone is keen to keep them. She runs a “very, very tight ship”, and freely admits that she will pay a salary to those who do their job, but will really reward those who go the extra mile.

Room for growth

She’s keen to promote MJM International as an organisation where promising employees can realise their potential, and where they can make it right to the top without taking their expertise to the competition. Two of the company’s board directors joined at entry level – one as a bookkeeper, the other as an accounts assistant -and have ended up as finance and operations director, respectively.

“We always say to our team: don’t think that there’s never going to be any room for growth here. Once we start opening up offices in America, and you’ve got to the top in the UK, if you want to go and run the American show, that might be a possibility,” says Mone.

“I always say to people in the organisation that we’ve all got to win. If I’m winning and you’re losing, you’re not going to be happy. If you’re losing and I’m winning, I’m not going to be happy. So let’s all win, then we’ll all be happy.”

And as a mother and businesswoman, Mone acknowledges her employees’ family commitments.

“I understand that some women want more time with their kids, and that’s why we accommodate that,” she says. “If they’re passionate about their job, then they’ll get the work done. It’s incredible how a lot of these women get the same amount of work done in three days, because they plan their time.”

She says that communicating these plans is vital for keeping employees engaged.

“We were at a stage, a number of years ago, where we were not doing that,” Mone admits, “and our staff would read things in the paper before we had told them. Now, if there’s going to be an announcement in the press, we bring everybody together, and we tell them first. We make them feel part of it – because they are. And we make them understand that without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

MJM International functions, Mone says, “like a chain”. The planning team can’t plan without the sales people, the sales people can’t sell without the sample people – everyone serves one another as a customer, internally, she explains.

Uplifting business

Just so no-one is left in any doubt about what they should be doing, six years ago Mone introduced key performance indicators (KPIs). She has her own, too, and goes through them with the management team every Monday, admitting that she gets a bit competitive, and makes sure that her work is done, rather than let down her team.

So great is Mone’s enthusiasm for KPIs that she has introduced them at home, and reviews her children’s performance against them in a weekly family meeting. Her motto, for both work and family life, is ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’, and, she sas: “You can’t be a good manager unless you manage yourself well.”

Mone has strong views on why the UK workforce suffers from a lack of skills. “There’s a danger that we could become ‘Lazy Britain’, and we can’t let that happen. I remember, in my mum and dad’s days, they just used to work, work, work. Nowadays, people think that the world owes them a living,” she says.

“There’s far too much sickness in the UK as well,” she adds. “We need to change the mindset, and have these people want to turn up to work. People going off for a long period of time, because they think ‘I’m going to get paid anyway, so what’s the point?’ It’s not just about the pay, it’s about wanting to turn up and contribute to the company,” she says.

Mone admires global coffee chain Starbucks for the way it has developed consistency of behaviour and standards among its staff.

“Every time you go into a Starbucks, whether in London or America or Glasgow, they’re all pretty much the same people. They all tend to be smart and a bit funky – and happy. And I think what we’ve got to realise as well in the UK is that a smile doesn’t cost anything. We have to change our attitude, because getting that customer to part with their money is getting harder and harder.”

Well aligned

MJM International’s HR director, Catherine McCrea, sits on the board of directors – indeed, Mone seems surprised that this isn’t the case in all organisations – and the HR strategy is closely aligned to the business strategy.

“We all know where we’ve got to get to, and we all know the team we’ve got to take with us. And we know the people who are missing from that team,” says Mone. It’s up to McCrea to fill those gaps. This means that she needs to be commercially minded, with a firm grasp of what is happening with the business.

Asked what qualities she needs in an HR director, Mone replies: “Someone who’s used to working with an entrepreneur, because entrepreneurs are quite difficult. Someone who’s exceptionally commercial. Personality is the key. Along with drive and determination. Someone who will be commercial, and do what’s right for the business, but also what’s right for the employees – so that everyone is happy.”

Taken for a ride

Mone believes that it’s getting harder and harder for HR practitioners to do their jobs, strangled as they are by increasing red tape and the pressure put on them by litigious employees. She says: ” It’s ridiculous that any employee can take you to a tribunal for no reason whatsoever. It’s ludicrous, some of the claims that they come out with, like: ‘I didn’t get a new chair, so I want £100,000, because I don’t think you appreciate me as much as everyone else’. It should never be allowed.” HR teams, she says, must follow the law, but need to be as commercial as possible.

“You need HR,” she concludes, “because it’s fundamental to your business, and to your team, to have happy people.”

Michelle Mone – an entrepreneur’s life

  • 1987 Announced her intention to become an entrepreneur. Left school without qualifications.
  • 1992 Joined Labatt’s to gain business experience.
  • 1996 Made redundant by Labatt’s. Began designing the Ultimo bra.
  • 1999 Launched Ultimo.
  • 2000 Launched Ultimo in the US. Won ‘Businesswoman of the Year’ at the Corporate Elite Awards.
  • 2004 Launched a new brand in partnership with Asda.
  • 2007 Launched the first group of standalone Ultimo shops in branches of Debenhams.

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