With 40 shops nationwide and a recent launch in the US, Sweaty Betty is one of the UK’s most successful and well-loved brands. Founder and CEO Tamara Hill-Norton has built the company from opening one tiny Notting Hill shop in 1998 to a global brand with a turnover of £31m. Here she tells us why flexible working and listening to the needs of your employees is vital to running a successful business.
Why did you decide to set up Sweaty Betty?
I’ve always had an active lifestyle. As a family we did lots of watersports and skiing, so it's in my blood.
Then I moved to London from university and wanted to continue this way of life, but I realised there wasn't much catering to women.
It’s a very bleak landscape for women's activewear (there was nothing on the high street, apart from a little patronising women's section at the back of men's sports shops). And there were hardly any independent fitness studios, it was mainly masculine gym chains - full of men grunting over weights.
I wanted to reach out to women who had an active lifestyle. Whether yoga, skiing, swimming or running, I wanted to provide products that could be part of every woman’s wardrobe.
How did you start the business?
I had just been made redundant from my first real job. I took the opportunity to evolve the concept I had long been contemplating: As a sport enthusiast, I felt there was a gap in the fashion sportswear market on the high street - and I wanted to fill it.
I started to work on a business plan with help from my husband Simon, now CEO of Sweaty Betty. He'd been to business school and had worked as a management consultant - and pulled together the numbers. I researched products and eventually found a site for our first shop, in Notting Hill.
The company was initially financed by friends, family and the bank. The Weston family, major shareholders in companies such as Associated British Food and department store Fortnum & Mason and therefore with significant experience in retail, also have a stake in the business.
By 2009 I decided to shift the direction and model of the business. Initially growing by selling other brands, I decided that despite the manufacturing risk, own label was demonstrably more profitable. As time has gone by, so this model has proved increasingly successful and Sweaty Betty now stocks everything from yoga wear to ski wear sporting their logo.
What are your brand philosophies and how do they work in practice?
Our purpose is simple: ‘To inspire women to find empowerment through fitness’.
In 2014 we launched our values – 4 key statement that sums Sweaty Betty’s team. These values underpin everything that we do globally, how we behave and how we make decisions.
We bring out the best in each other – We support, motivate & encourage each other to succeed and are honest and open in our communication.
We push boundaries – We exceed expectations, push past our comfort zones & embrace change.
We have a positive attitude – We have a positive and optimistic approach to everything and we celebrate achievements.
We love what we do – We inspire people with passion and enthusiasm whilst always having fun.
We also believe in this equation: Healthy & Fit = Happy!
And we like to do things differently - we are a pioneering company, which aims to make a lasting contribution. We will do this by challenging conventional wisdom ‘style + performance’ ‘sweaty + betty’ ‘feminine + sporty’
Does Sweaty Betty offer flexible working/part-time roles and job shares?
We have loads of part-time and flexible roles in our boutiques, which obviously is the bigger proportion of our workforce.
At the office, we do have some part-time staff and we do operate flexible working hours, we haven’t any job shares but we would do it if it fitted the needs of the people involved and the business.
We strongly believe that happy employees make a better and more balanced workplace. So we try to make our employees the happiest as possible.
How does it work in practice?
We trust our employees, we give them flexible working hours, let’s say if some people rather leave earlier in the afternoon due to a long commute they can start earlier in the morning and that’s absolutely fine. Our working hours are not cut in stone.
We encourage them to take the time to exercise so we’re fine with people leaving earlier to attend their spin class. We also often see lunch breaks turn into group runs or yoga sessions.
Would you say that flexible working and listening to the needs of your employees is key to a successful business? Why and how?
It definitively does, it’s important that employees feel trusted and that they can still have time for hobbies and time – a balanced work and personal life is key to a healthy living.
What would you say to an employer who is considering offering flexible working or part-time roles?
I would say that it’s worth it, I understand the apprehension of it but you’ll see the positive effects of this rather quickly.
How many mothers do you have working for you and do you think they are attracted to working with you because of your flexible working practices?
Nearly all of our employees are women so we have a lot of mothers indeed, just this year we’ve already seen the birth of 4 babies in our head office. I think they are attracted to the lifestyle and that their office hours can fit their childcare hours.
Our philosophy is to empower women and working after becoming a mother is a key moment in a woman's life. Being a woman myself and knowing how difficult it can be for working mums I find it very important to support them.
You’re a wife and mother of three children (and a beloved dog!) – how do you manage to juggle all of this and run a successful business?
Whether it’s at home or at work it’s all about being part of great team and supporting each other. I also believe that having a positive attitude helps you deal with anything.
Can you describe your typical working day?
I leave the house at around 8:30 am and cycle to work along the river. We live in Acton and the office is in Putney Bridge, so it's a good five-mile bike ride.
Monday is a very typical day, as I'm in the office. I spend the day catching up with various teams on everything from new product launches and weekly trade, to my blog and new catalogues.
At 6 pm the team goes for a run led by one of our ambassadors, ultra marathon runner Annie Fouldes, and then we have a body conditioning class.
When I get home I flop down on the sofa. We usually try to have supper as a family and then I'll catch up with some emails before bed.
What has been the most challenging part of setting up your business?
The beginning was stressful, I lost a lot of weight. I opened the first shop in November and my only staff member decided to quit, so I was left to run the entire store on my own over Christmas.
I was working seven days per week and put myself under enormous pressure to deal with any problems on my own, without help. I was very proud and passionate, the business was my baby and I wanted to do everything independently.
In hindsight, it was a great experience being on the shop floor: I learned a lot about the customer. But it was hard.
After about a year I took up yoga and started running to keep me fit. At the time, I exercised at weekends, because during the week all I could think about was work. But now I exercise throughout the week and have learnt to switch off.
Did you ever lack confidence? If so, how did you overcome this?
I was being put under pressure to launch our own label as we weren't profitable enough selling other brands, but I didn't have the confidence or knowledge to know how to do this on my own. So, I started working with a talented consultant who was used to dealing with small growing businesses like ours and was able to set me on the right road and give me the confidence to carry on.
Any advice for newly back-to-work mothers?
Organisation is key, I would also recommend trying to find time for some personal time. Exercising and practising yoga really helped me deal with stress and my workload.
Any advice for mothers who are thinking about setting up in business?
I would say to them, that everything is possible with the right mindset and a bit of organisation.
I always say that it’s really important to keep doing what you’re passionate about, the happier you feel, and the better mother you will be.
What are your plans for the future?
This year our main focus is our growth in the US market. We aim to open 5 new stores and open our first stores on the west coast. We are not going to change our concept; we’re still chasing the same customer. We know our customer really well and want to be able to follow her wherever she is.
In terms of the UK, we have a plan to open more stores over the next three to five years, but a bit more gradually. We’ll probably see 50 to 60 stores maximum in the UK.