MJM International (Ultimo): Michelle Mone

Michelle Mone, who started lingerie company MJM International and the Ultimo brand, on shaking up her industry

You have to suffer for your art. Or that’s what Michelle Mone, who set up lingerie company MJM International and the Ultimo brand in 1996, appears to think. Learning from mistakes or misfortune has helped make it a £10m business, with turnover projected to double and profits set to treble.

Lingerie wasn’t a new concept, but consumer demand was moving up a notch back in 1996. Higher disposable incomes and demand for luxury replaced the view that safe M&S underwear would do. “The market was striving for newness and someone to bring a new concept and invention. We shook the industry up from the big boys who had had the market to themselves. We got lots of PR, invented products and took a market share,” says Mone.

The company initially acted as a UK distributor for ‘Monique Silicone Breast Enhancers’ to keep money rolling in while the company worked on its creation – the gel filled bra, which has a worldwide patent pending and already comes in 100 different styles. So while the business is seven years old, Ultimo’s products are only half that, yet are Debenhams number two brand against the likes of Gossard and Playtex. Ultimo is also the fastest growing intimate apparel brand in Europe.

She entered the market after a career with Labatts Brewers, where she was made head of the Canadian company’s Scottish sales force. Not knowing much about bras and only planning for a local business selling product in small boutiques helped, she says. “It’s the best way to go into a new industry. Sara Lee (the company behind the Wonderbra) can throw money to stop you, and not realising this meant I had no fear, although if I knew then what I know now about how stores work, how to influence buyers and other tricks, I might have thought twice.”

One rival tried to take her products off the shelves for six weeks and was taking the company to the High Court, claiming it passed off another brand. There was also a US distributor who ran off with £160,000 of stock and an Australian fraudster who signed a lease on a £1m building and left her in the lurch. She over-ordered stock and lost £500,000. And she was also car-jacked, losing every single prototype, which has made her ponder whether it was more than just coincidence.

Despite all that, Mone wouldn’t change her lot. “I wouldn’t turn back the clock for anything – even expensive mistakes that came close to closing the business. It’s all worthwhile learning. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a business – it feels like a war.”

New market: Spiralling consumer spending Company: MJM International and the Ultimo range Founded: 1996 Focus: Lingerie Owner-manager: Michelle Mone Key factors: Learning from mistakes; not knowing her market; taking time to develop and protect product; good PR Turnover: £10m

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