Whether you’re just starting out or seeking to expand, business founder and retail expert Mary Portas reveals how to scale the peaks and avoid the pitfalls.
A sk most top entrepreneurs who their inspiration was when starting out and they’ll reel of a list of high flying role models. Not Mary Portas.
The self-styled Queen of Shops famously began her career as a window dresser at Harrods but she admits her journey to success was born purely out of necessity.
“I certainly wasn’t inspired,” she says. “I was going to become an actress, but the death of my parents derailed everything. I just kind of fell into it – working was basically about survival. I never thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be brilliant’.”
For someone who is enjoying such a long and varied successful career, including launching her own brand consultancy and creative communications agency, Portas struggles to identify any moment as her “big break”.
Her first opportunity to really scale the career ladder came when she moved from Harrods, where she became head of window dressing after just three years, to be the display manager at Topshop.
By the age of 30, she was creative director at Harvey Nichols. It was there that she earned a reputation for delivering groundbreaking marketing displays and learned all she needed to know to open her first creative agency, Yellowdoor.
“I have never been able to work on my own,” she says. “I’ve been lucky enough along the way to meet like-minded people. I like collaboration and I like trust at work.”
With a belief that work should not trample over everything else, the ? relaunched the agency, now known simply as Portas, positively encouraging her colleagues to make time for a balanced life. And yes, she walks the talk – working from home as often as she can.
“Businesses have to be kinder,” she says. “There’s a whole generation saying, ‘Hang on, I don’t want to work that way’.’ Millennials are unwilling to simply accept working punishing hours, which is a good thing.
“Tomorrow’s businesses will be built on collaboration and understanding, and people will bring their whole selves to work, and not aim for profit at all costs. That’s the future, I’m sure of it.”
Portas isn’t one to dwell on failure but admits that among her past mistakes was hiring the wrong staff.
“They were decent people but wrong for the job,” she says. “Obviously beyond can they do the job, you ask yourself is this someone you’d like to sit next to at a dinner party. Do they have a joy about them? If not, they might drag down the energy of a business.
“Failure can be painful, but I don’t let it enter my vocabulary,” she adds, acknowledging the launch of a clothing collection for 40-plus women for House of Fraser in 2011, which shut up shop four years later. “There have been times when I haven’t achieved but it’s really about learning and growing.”
Her proudest achievement to date, meanwhile, is the creation of Mary’s Living and Giving shops for Save The Children. Launched in 2009, they are now the most profitable charity shops in the UK, raising more than £13m to date.
Much has changed since Portas first walked through the doors of Harrods in the early 80s, but while she admits the access to online advice is a big leg up for those starting out, she also remains a great believer in face to face relationships.
“I learnt early on that you need open relationships where you’re not scared to call it out if something isn’t working,” she says. “The best business advice is candid and honest.”