What makes a business successful?
Is it the ideas, the people, or something else?
Michelle Mone ought to know the answer.
The Scottish entrepreneur invented the Ultimo silicon-filled bra as an alternative to cosmetic surgery and now has a company worth around £45 million.
She will be giving the keynote address at next month’s FN50.
While her company does not have a huge fleet, she has plenty of business secrets to share and believes that business is the same whether it’s cars or bras.
“Business is like a big jigsaw,” she says. “You’ve got to get the pieces to fit perfectly – from packaging the product, to the delivery being on time, to marketing.
"Everything has got to be right at the right time.”
And with the current economic climate there’s never been a more important time to ‘get
What advice does she have for businesses feeling the effects of the credit crunch?
“Keep an eye on your competitors,” she says.
“And remember, every penny counts.”
As for her company, MJM International, Michelle says she is “keeping things tight, like everyone else”.
But in some respects, it’s business as usual for the bra tycoon who is opening 13 more Ultimo shops in Debenhams stores across the UK.
Next year, MJM will launch Miss Ultimo, a range for the younger end of the market designed by Michelle’s 16-year-old daughter Rebecca.
“We’re growing fast,” Michelle says. “We’re probably moving the fastest in the market.”
She believes the key to maintaining success is to keep evolving the brand and innovating.
She admits that in the past she didn’t move the brand on fast enough.
It was “a good lesson to learn”.
“I say, if you make a mistake, don’t make it twice. Learn from it.
Then it’s a worthwhile mistake.
“Now when we launch an innovation, the very next day I’m thinking about our next project.”
Michelle came up with the idea for Ultimo back in 1996 when she was wearing an uncomfortable cleavage enhancing bra at a dinner dance.
She set up MJM International with her husband Michael and nearly three years of research and development followed, until she had an Ultimo prototype.
She later went on to create the Ultimo backless body and the Ultimo Miracle body (a backless and frontless bra), and now has eight brands.
But how do you go from having an idea at a dinner dance to having eight brands?
Part of the answer must lie in Michelle’s determined personality and her upbringing.
She grew up in Glasgow’s East End and experienced family tragedy at a young age – her baby brother died of spina bifida when Michelle was 10.
A few years later, her father woke up one day to find himself paralysed from the waist down by a spinal disease.
To support her parents, Michelle left school at 15 with no qualifications to find work.
By 22 she was running Labatt’s Scottish sales and marketing team, having joined the beer company just two years before.
When Labatt’s UK arm was taken over by Whitbread, Michelle was made redundant, but she saw it as an opportunity to start her own business – something she’d dreamed about as a child.
While her friends had posters of Duran Duran on their walls, Michelle’s pin-up was Richard Branson.
Now 36, Michelle has the lifestyle she sought (complete with a Bentley GT and a BMW 7 Series) and a string of awards, including World Young Business Achiever in 2000.
She even shared the stage with Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton at the Leaders in London conference in 2005.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
A distributor made off with £175,000 in cash and stock six years ago, she has put her house on the line more than once, and she has been robbed at knifepoint.
Michelle certainly has a story to tell.
She says the best thing about running her own company is being the one in control.
“I know where I want to take the business,” she says. “And I think I’m a pretty good leader.”
But what’s the most difficult part?
“Time. More time would be ideal.
"Different department heads want your time, I have to travel a lot and the business is growing so fast as well, it’s difficult.
"I’d like to have two days rolled into one,” she says.
That’s something managing directors in the fleet industry can empathise with.