In 2009, Lara Morgan struck a bet that continues to pay dividends to this day. After 17 years spent relentlessly building up her business from scratch to the point where she could sell it for £20m, Morgan suddenly realised that her life was at a crossroads.
“I experienced that misery of going from top dog to being nobody. You are no longer welcome in your own company, which has become your family,” she recalls. “I decided to focus on the things I was passionate about. Without any doubt I believe I’m where I am today because I had a sporting upbringing. But I also had a clear idea that sport was something I’d missed out on in my adult life. So I had a bet with Martyn Dawes, the founder of Coffee Nation. We both said we would compete in the London Triathlon.” And since the event she has embarked on a new adventure in business.
Morgan had previously been owner of Pacific Direct, which continues to supply luxury toiletries to hotels globally. Her own personal world tour began in Germany where her parents served in the army. Raised in Hong Kong, Morgan was the leading junior golfer in Asia. She later went to school in Scotland and represented the country at netball.
Morgan’s life was turned upside down when her father went bankrupt. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in her career. She initially took to a job in sales to keep a roof over her head. By 1990 she was selling ad space for Yellow Pages in Bahrain but was forced to flee the country at the start of the First Gulf War.
The next leg on her extraordinary adventure took Morgan to her grandmother’s house in Bedford at the height of the early Nineties recession. She began to sell sewing kits and shower caps, produced at a factory in the Far East owned by friends of her father, and went in at the deep end by pitching her products to The Dorchester. “My grandmother, aka my 93-year-old strategic adviser, said, ‘darling, if you go to those nice hotels at least you’ll get a fresh orange juice and decent coffee. You will be treated appropriately.’ I left with an order for 10,000 pre-threaded sewing kits.”
By the time Morgan sold the business in 2008, Pacific Direct was distributing products in 110 countries. Then she struck that bet to compete in a triathlon. “I thought I was a decent swimmer. Then I turned up at the London Triathlon in 2010 and nearly died in the Thames. I had no idea where I’d finished, I could barely walk by the end. Then I got a text to tell me I’d finished third. I decided that I was going to spend a year having a go at this.”
Morgan’s spirit of adventure led her to Beijing for the 2011 Triathlon World Championships. She covered the same course that was used at the Olympics in 2008 and finished 10th in the 40-44 age category – a remarkable performance for a novice.
“When I was training for the World Championships I was fitting it in with board meetings, product development and setting up new companies as a small-business owner. I would be at the pool for 5am so I didn’t disrupt the kids and did my session before they went to school. Nowadays, my routine begins with an early session in the pool. I will do weights at lunchtime, sit on a turbo in the winter and be out on the bike in summer. I could be swimming at a pool near Oxford Circus, or running around Hyde Park. Alternatively, I have the joy of coming home and being able to cycle around the Chalke Valley in Wiltshire.” She uses that time for clearing her mind and sharpening her leadership skills.
Morgan now invests in businesses that reflect her own lifestyle and interests. “When I took up triathlon I enjoyed conversations about products based around the stuff that I liked doing. Around that time I started developing Activebod – a range of pre- and post-exercise toiletries.”
She teamed up with the Women’s Sport Trust, with 10 per cent of net profits from Activbod sales being used by the charity for projects to bring parity to women’s sport. Morgan has invested in dryrobe, a changing robe worn by top triathletes, as well as KitBrix – kit bags that can be zipped together – which has been a huge success in the US. She has also backed Gate8 – cabin-sized luggage for business travellers. “I met Alistair Callender (founder of Gate8) at a business show. I gave him a list of 32 things that needed to be done and he did 31 because he didn’t agree with the other one. And I thought that was great.”
Morgan believes you have to be fit for business. “The importance of being well for my children and always alert allows me to work hard in a focused way. I’m saddened when I see somebody in a meeting who is not looking after his or her health. Why wouldn’t you look after your most valuable asset, your engine?”
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