JoJo Maman Bébé founder on ‘putting people and the planet above profit’

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Laura Jojo Maman Bebe

JoJo Maman Bébé was a B Corporation before B Corps even existed. Established 27 years ago by Laura Tenison, the retailer of French-influenced children’s clothing and accessories has always worn the founder’s philosophy on its stripy Breton sleeve. The Newport-based firm’s stated mission, for instance, is to “be the leading global mother-and-baby brand, offering high-quality products at reasonable prices and putting people and the planet above profit”.

Today the CEO has come from south Wales to the firm’s marketing office in London for her interview with Director. While Ruby Tuesday, her Staffordshire bull terrier, wanders in and out of the room, Tenison recalls: “Twenty years ago we were the biggest children’s manufacturer using clothing made from recycled plastics, although we didn’t broadcast the fact. We did it because it was the right thing to do. The production cost of recycled fibre was twice as much [as that of normal fibre]. That’s putting the environment above profit.”

The company’s dedication to its mission also means that it recruits ex-offenders and people with Down syndrome; works with hundreds of ethical suppliers and factories to foster long-term relationships; and supports  numerous charities. These include a development NGO in northern Mozambique called the Nema Foundation, for which it looks after much of the fundraising, accounting and admin work in the UK.

“I’ve always had a strict sense of ethics and a real social conscience. The world has come around to my way of thinking,” says Tenison, who was appointed an MBE for services to business in 2003. “I’d like to think I was an amazing visionary, but I’m not sure that I was.” She decided to seek B Corp status for JoJo, as it’s known, to ensure that her beliefs endure in the organisation.

“A lot of founders start off with an ethos similar to mine, but it gets diluted,” Tenison explains. “I thought that so much could be lost from JoJo if I were to go under a bus, for instance. It may have been down to turning 50 and feeling a greater sense of my own mortality, but I thought: ‘If I’m not here to curate this ethos and infuse the next line of directors, managers and employees, who else is going to do it?’”

An A-grade B Corp

She spent several evenings putting the business through the B impact assessment to gauge JoJo’s suitability for certification. Unsurprisingly, given its modus operandi, it scored highly.

Tenison then took her plan to the board, which has “quite often” outvoted her on big decisions, she notes, tongue only slightly in cheek. Even though most of her fellow directors had never heard of B Corps, they bought into the idea.

“When it comes down to pursuing the vision that I set out for the company all those years ago, our board members do subscribe to it,” she says. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.” The big challenge was to win over the company’s long-time minority investor, largely because a key part of becoming a B Corp necessitated a change of legal status for the business.

“I was able to persuade our investor that this was a sound financial decision, helped by statistics showing that B Corps have outperformed their markets over the past few years and the fact that ethical investment funds will consider B Corps,” Tenison says.

It also helped that business was doing well. Since 1993 it has grown from sending out 24-page mail-order catalogues to become a global multi-channel retailer. In the year to June 2019 its sales revenue grew 17.6 per cent year on year to £67.6 million, while its pre-tax profit was up 10 per cent to £4.3 million.

Room for improvement

The certification process took about six months, although Tenison notes that most companies don’t pass the B impact assessment first time, as JoJo did. The business still had to make a number of changes to secure B Corp status. For instance, it started looking at ways to improve the second-tier supply chain, such as moving production to BCI-standard (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton.

She is certain that the 360-degree view taken by the certification process means that it provides “a fair representation” of a business. “Yes, you get judged and it’s extremely stringent, but it is an independent process.”

Tenison believes that the material benefits of becoming a B Corp include having “a recognised stamp of authenticity on the ethical principles of the business”. It has also helped with one of these big challenges for any enterprise: recruitment. “When people apply for jobs, they will more often say: ‘I went for this role because I want to work for a B Corp.’ So, in a society where people like to have things neatly packaged up, being a B Corp just makes us a little bit more marketable.”

The leadership team has benefited from the whole process too. “It has been enlightening and helped us all to learn and grow as a business,” she says. “It’s very healthy for my board to accept that we can improve how we run our company.” 

Director April/May coverThe full article can be read in the April / May 2020 issue of Director magazine

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Marc Smith

Marc Smith

Marc Smith is the editor of Director magazine

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