Inspiring Women: Halos n Horns’ Leila Wilcox, CafeDirect’s Penny Newman, and Specsavers’ Dame Mary Perkins

How the ones running some of the UK’s best-known brands did it

The author of a new book on modern businesswomen, Michelle Rosenberg, introduces exclusive profiles of the women behind the growth of three enormously successful brands: children’s toiletries business Halos n Horns, Fairtrade leader Cafédirect and the ubiquitous SpecSavers

Female entrepreneurs ‘do it’ – run their own businesses, that is – in a surprising variety of ways, many with the aim of managing their work and home life as effectively as possible.

Some seek out full-time childcare. Others work only three or four days a week. Still more deliberately choose to grow their businesses slowly in order to retain some semblance of work-life balance, not just for themselves, but also for their staff. I wanted to illustrate that women can do things their way without feeling they have to behave like a man to make it.

Indeed, the majority of women I interviewed believe it is their gender that enables them to be so successful in harnessing the interest of their consumers.

They are able to use their emotion and intuition to promote a business concept that is part commerce, part social philanthropy in a way most men probably can’t. In short, it seems the very characteristics perceived as weak in the past are the ones that enable today’s businesswomen to be so attuned to the public zeitgeist. Some may argue that these women shouldn’t be defined by their gender. That they are simply business executives or entrepreneurs and their sex has nothing to do with it.

I beg to differ. I believe that gender has everything to do with it. I wanted to show that you don’t have to be a ruthless ball-breaker, chained to your desk to make it.

In fact, I believe these women are making it on their own terms. It’s the attractiveness of these terms and the success these women have made of them that make them so inspiring. What’s more, they make no apologies for being feminine.

Leila Wilcox: Halos n Horns

Award-winning children’s toiletries range Halos n Horns began trading in August 2005 and broke even in its first month. Incredibly, annual turnover was £9.7m for the first year.

Appalled by the chemical concoctions in her son’s shampoos and bath washes, founder Leila Wilcox issued a challenge to the major players in the industry by removing all the harmful gunk linked to eczema, asthma and contact dermatitis from her own range. Developing the concept with friend Karen Dwyer (who’s no longer involved in the business) and Ivan Massow (her mentor from the Channel Four programme Make Me a Million, which she won in November 2005), the Oxford and Soho-based company’s shampoos and body washes are now stocked in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda. Kid-friendly names like ‘Zingy Orange’, ‘Halo Baby’ and ‘Melon Mango Mayhem’ have no doubt helped.

Yet when she started out, Wilcox was startled by the fact that strangers were buying her products. She credits Massow for his encouragement. He said she could make Halos n Horns an international brand rather than limiting it to her idea of just selling online.

Thanks to a partnership with distribution specialists Ceuta Healthcare, which handles the day-to-day running of the business, the brand is expanding abroad in Ireland, Malta, New Zealand and Australia.

“We were constantly getting requests from retailers, distribution managers and even mums to sell abroad,” says Wilcox, “So we thought, we’ve got to do this. I couldn’t continue to develop, export and get all the products to mums, and they were getting frustrated. I was just so bogged down with the day-to-day running of the company that I couldn’t do anything to do with brand development, PR or marketing, so now I’m really focusing on where the brand’s going and international export.”

The crash

However, two months after exchanging with Ceuta, and just as she was in the process of handing over, Wilcox broke her back in a serious car accident.

“It meant Ceuta had to take over,” she recalls. “I would have probably carried on doing a lot more than I did, but because of the crash, I couldn’t. I was lucky, because if the crash had been a month or two earlier, then I don’t know what would have happened to the business. I hate to say it, but it probably would have gone bust, because I was the only one at that time before the exchange who knew who everyone was. I was doing everything, running the entire business.”

After the accident, she didn’t look at her computer or emails for around three weeks. “I couldn’t work, I lost every motivation, I just couldn’t get back into it,” she says. “Luckily, Ceuta took over and they didn’t need me to have any staff. They handled all the logistics, accountancy and distribution. Now I just work much more on the top line.”

With physiotherapy and hydrotherapy twice a week for her back and legs, the accident brought everything into sharp focus for Wilcox, who admits that the business now has a disaster recovery plan in place. “I used to do a lot of motivational speaking, but since the car accident I’ve realised that my favourite place is with my son,” she says.

Her plans include creating a full kid’s range, from nit shampoo to spiky hair gel, (“all nasty chemical-free of course!”), then products for adults. A sun cream range is also set for launch into retailers in spring 2008. “Eventually, I’d like to set up a charity or supportive network for women trying to set up businesses,” she says.

Her one piece of advice? “Never give up and give it your very best. That way you will never have regrets and, with luck, you’ll succeed.”

Leila Wilcox on women in business

“We have used the ‘one mum to another’ message to communicate our brand. If I had been a man, this would not have been possible. However, at first I felt disadvantaged. This, I later discovered, was because I was adopting a victim mentality caused by my own insecurities. Once I changed that mindset, I saw my gender as an advantage and played it to the full.”


Penny Newman: CaféDirect

Joining the UK’s largest Fairtrade hot drinks company in 1998, Penny Newman was promoted to managing director in 1999 and became chief executive after a 2003 share issue.

The 51-year-old has a consistent work record of balancing commercial and ethical trading, having spent five years with The Body Shop. She has also worked for well-known brands, including Wella, Avon and Fabergé.

Cafédirect was set up in 1991 by four non-governmental organisations: Oxfam Trading, Traidcraft, Equal Exchange and Twin Trading. It produced the first coffee to carry a Fairtrade mark. It works in partnership with 37 producer organisations in 12 countries to ensure over a quarter of a million small scale growers receive a fair price for products, therefore enabling them to make a decent living.

The company’s three major brands, Cafédirect, Teadirect and Cocodirect, sell through major supermarket retailers, independent retailers, Oxfam stores and Cafédirect’s own online shop.

Ethical share

“I was inspired by what Cafedirect was doing, and very concerned that it needed to have more of a marketing focus,” says Newman. “I hoped I could use my skills and my knowledge to take it on further.”

However, she was sensitive enough to realise that bringing in someone externally can be a challenge for the original architect of any business.

“I think if you come in at a declining point, it’s easier to think maybe we need to change things. If you’re still in a growth cycle, then that might be harder. Do you want to change things, or do you believe that change is needed?” she says.

With the growth in ethical shopping, more mainstream coffee companies are viewing Cafédirect as a competitor. While many have introduced their own ethical products, Cafédirect maintains its pioneering stance that 100% of its range is Fairtrade.

To further support its growth, Cafédirect went into partnership with Costa Coffee in 2000 to sell its Fairtrade coffee through the chain’s numerous outlets. Additionally, through an initial partnership with the Compass Group and the University of Westminster, Cafédirect has cafés in 300 university sites in various formats.

With Newman at the helm and to further boost expansion, Cafédirect then conducted what she describes as “still the biggest and most successful ethical share issue”, to raise funds for investment in new IT systems and marketing, in particular Teadirect and Cafédirect’s foodservice market.

They launched in February 2004 and were fully subscribed within three months, raising £5m. The issue attracted over four and a half thousand shareholders, the vast majority of whom were small investors who wanted to buy into Cafédirect’s vision and mission.

Growers onboard

“We just didn’t know if there would be people out there who would want to buy shares in Cafédirect and there were. I was so pleased,” says Newman. The move ensured that the ownership of the company now includes Cafédirect’s customers, growers and staff. Indeed, growers own 4.9% of the business and sit on the board of directors.

“You’ve really got that connection, so that the company and the brand is now owned by the producers and consumers. That for me is quite a personal achievement,” she adds.

Cafédirect now employs around 35 staff and had an annual turnover of £21.6m in 2006, with pre-tax profits of £48,000. “However,” Newman is keen to emphasise, “it was a year when we put more investment back into the company as well as increasing our investment in social programmes for producers. And we paid around £684,000. So if you actually add this to the £48,000, you can see the profit we actually made. But we decided to put a larger chunk of that profit into helping the producers in building on their needs for the future.”

Newman is keen to move the company into new markets and see how Cafédirect can develop internationally.

“Recently we’ve started to launch ourselves in Hong Kong and hope, at the end of the year, to do that in Singapore and Taiwan as well,” she reveals. “We’ve also done a trial in Gallery Lafayette in Paris. While that’s exciting, we also have a market here in the UK that we need to build and to grow.”

Penny Newman on women in business:

“Maybe one of our particular traits as women is to have self-doubt in larger chunks than men. I’d rather go to my grave knowing I’ve had a go at it, rather than thinking ‘oh, I thought about it’ and ‘oh, I wish I had’. Sometimes we don’t listen to ourselves enough – we’re too self-critical. I say: ‘Just get on with it!”

Dame Mary Perkins: SpecSavers

“I have a wardrobe of specs! I love the new bright colours of plastic and metal frames around now,” says Dame Mary Perkins. The 63-year-old mother of three and grandmother of seven set up her visionary company in Guernsey with husband Doug in February 1984.

They met on the first day of their optics degree. Admitting that optometry runs in her blood (her father was also an optician), Perkins had long harboured a desire to support independent young optometrists, especially women, own their own practices and receive help in running their businesses.

On leaving university in 1966, she had a choice: either work for an optical company or start on her own. With Doug by her side, she chose the latter. They ran their chain (which grew to 23 stores) until 1980, then sold up, spending the following four years on a break, researching the market and waiting for deregulation from Margaret Thatcher’s government to enable them to run with their new ideas.

Perkins estimates that they invested around £500,000 into the fledgling SpecSavers through the sale of those 23 stores, but admits she never kept tabs on the exact figure.

“It wasn’t some lump sum we put in the beginning. But initially, what with spending on advertising and being away from home (paying for hotels and the like), it all simply added up,” she recalls.

Sharing the workload

This travel involved visiting the US to research the franchising of opticians. “What I didn’t want was a whole chain with a head office employing different opticians all over the country,” explains Perkins. “I wanted opticians to own their own stores, which is what they do, but on a 50/50 basis. They take care of the day-to-day running, while all the other stuff is done for them from my office here in Guernsey.

“So you see, they don’t have to worry about their VAT returns, their advertisements, their marketing and their buying.

“Their payroll is taken care of, while all of their accounts are also done for them,” she continues. “All they have to do is go to work, look at people’s eyes, make sure they’ve got the right glasses and contact lenses, and there we are! It takes all the strain of running a small company off that person.”

SpecSavers made a profit within 12 months, which is a reflection of how well their unique vision and determination to remove the barriers to visits to opticians were being received by the public.

Perkins explains how they encouraged optometrists to join the group. “At the time, opticians were seeing just a few people a week and charging high prices – they were making a good living,” she says. “What we were trying to say is lower the prices, see a lot more people and this will work much better.

“It will expand the market and people will come more often because the glasses aren’t so expensive. It was a slow process, but we’ve had steady growth from year one.

“We’ve always been opening stores – even after the first year we were opening 20 or 30 a year. We have more than 1,000 minds focused on moving the business forward all the time.”

Going global

SpecSavers’ expansion into the international market began with the Netherlands, around 10 years ago. “It was quite a big leap, because, when you go to another country, even if you’ve got a winning formula and a winning business in the UK, it doesn’t mean it’s going to translate well anywhere else, even if you think it’s going to,” Perkins explains. “You have to adapt to the local culture and the local people really.”

SpecSavers now has 838 optical stores across Europe (including 604 in the UK and Ireland), 111 hearing centres (11 of which are overseas) and a supply chain to more than 150 stores in Australia.

As a privately owned company, SpecSavers does not divulge its profits. However, turnover in 2006/7 was £879m and the company had a staff of 15,000. “Profits are ploughed back into the business to ensure that we continue to offer the best possible service, with up-to-date equipment and fresh looking stores,” says Perkins. “We never rest on our laurels!”

  Dame Mary Perkins on women in business:

“I didn’t take any time off work to have children – apart from two weeks – and if it was necessary to travel or stay away from home for business, then that’s what I did!”

About the book
Michelle Rosenberg is a B2B PR specialist and an entrepreneur. While working at Aurora, founded by Glenda Stone in 2000, Rosenberg realised that women were succeeding in business in enormous numbers.
The success stories included in this book cover a wide variety of business interests, from Fairtrade coffee to baby clothes, from children’s toiletries to trendy spectacles. And a variety of business types, from high-street chains to online selling. Whatever your line, these stories will inspire you to go for it – to rise above the average and reach for the top.
So get up there with these high-f ying women, and find out what makes them tick, and how they achieved their outstanding success. Inspiring women you will meet in the book include: Chrissie Rucker, of the White Company;
Debbie Moore, of Pineapple; Romy Fraser, of Neal’s Yard Remedies; Tamara Hill-Norton, of sweatyBetty, and Sahar Hashemi, of Coffee Republic. Inspiring Women: how real women succeed in business is out now (£12.99, ISBN 978-1-85458-410-6)



(will not be published)