Sweaty Betty: Tamara Hill-Norton

The founder of Sweaty Betty on how Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant helped to boost trade


I’d always wanted to start my own business. Well, it was either that or journalism to be honest. So, I was faced with two paths. I’d gone for a job as a graduate to get a journalism post and it was all quite glittering and well-paid, but I continued to have this burning desire to set up my own company.

I then got offered a job as a buyer for the lingerie suppliers Knickerbox, which was much lower paid, but the right route to take if that was the industry I wanted to get into. I started off by buying sportswear and swimwear for them, and it was then that my business idea really developed into sportswear fashion.

As a sport enthusiast, I had always been passionate about sportswear. However, while I was researching the high street, I began to feel there was a gap in the market. In most of the large stores I visited, there would be a small women’s area at the back and only some young guy to ask for advice. Of course, on things like buying a sports bra, he didn’t have a clue.

I thought I’d love to set up a female-friendly and fashion-focused sports boutique, with really knowledgeable staff. I had wanted to do a mail order catalogue for underwear, but we decided to open a store to see if it would work. We opened our first shop in Notting Hill in 1998, which was a bit of a dodgy area at the time. It was quite a difficult environment to start off in and we had to convince people we were a nice boutique. But we got a bit of a break as the film Notting Hill had just come out, and the area began to be seen as up-and-coming. Then the Evening Standard featured us in a top shop column, which really put us on the map.

For about six months I worked on creating a decent business plan. My husband Simon helped as he’d been to business school. I knew a bit about the products, but had no other knowledge whatsoever. Simon did the numbers for the business plan, although he was working with a management consultant at the time, so I pretty much set it up on my own.

Our main investor, a fellow retailer, gave us two challenges: to convince a landlord to take on a lease, which was tricky, and get the big brands to supply us. Nike and Adidas don’t usually supply start-ups, and I’d put a fashion slant on sportswear, which they weren’t sure about. In the end, I convinced Nike that Adidas was coming in, and did the same with Adidas.

We have been steadily growing at around 10% a year, although we grew 20% for this cumulative year. We’re excited about the 2012 Olympics and designing with that in mind, wanting really to represent Britain as one of the only British sportswear brands. We have 25 branches now and although we are opening more stores (one a quarter), we’re doing it slowly, while the online market is our big driver today.

Sweaty Betty has won several awards including the Sports Retailer of the Year award in 2001 and Entrepreneur of the Year 2003. The business has a projected turnover of £15m this year, and £23m in 2012 as it looks expands its online trading opportunities.

Tamara Hill-Norton was speaking to Kate Walters.

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