Business with family values set in stone

Business with family values set in stone

Tough business lessons from their father – one of Yorkshire’s most prolific entrepreneurs – have paid off for Alex Leslie and Fay Briddon through their retail firm Direct2Mum. Andrew Mernin talks baby products, sibling rivalry and stepping out of the shadows at their new HQ

An astonishing surprise awaited the brother and sister team behind retailer Direct2Mum when they expanded into their new home earlier this year. Rapid growth in their baby products firm led siblings Alex Leslie and Fay Briddon to move it from a 13,000 sq ft site into a neighbouring 105,000 sq ft premises on the same South Yorkshire business park.

The move came amidst an accelerated recruitment drive which has seen the company’s team grow from 11 at the start of the year to 50 now. With no staff available to help them on the day the new reception flooring arrived, they set about tearing up and replacing the old dirty matting themselves.

And were struck dumb when they found two sets of children’s handprints in the concrete below. Not just any handprints, however, but their own. “Dad forgot he’d done that,” says Fay. “It was a real surprise when we found them.”

‘Dad’ is Graham Leslie, the entrepreneur who founded and, in 2008, sold Yorkshire based pharmaceutical empire Galpharm International for US$88m. Besides creating the UK’s biggest supplier of non-prescriptive medicine, her father was also behind the world’s first green-field 25,000 seat stadium for football and rugby – now home to Huddersfield Giants rugby league team and Huddersfield town AFC, of which Leslie senior was at one time chairman.

The building Alex and Fay recently moved into at Dodworth Business Park was formerly home to Galpharm and then its subsequent parent Perrigo Group. The Leslie family had not set foot on the site for several years until baby products firm Direct2Mum’s arrival in spring this year.

Fay, 26, says: “We now have a picture on the wall of Alex and I as kids helping to move rocks and boulders when they were building the site. We also did up dad’s old office and it was quite emotional for him to come back for the first time in six years. We pretty much used to spend our summer holidays in the warehouse.”

Direct2Mum was launched by Alex, Fay and their father, the chairman, in 2010. This year it is expected that the firm and its retail-facing division, Babyway, will see turnover double to £6m, with a target of hitting £20m within five years. Until this year it has thrived as an online retailer, taking advantage of increasing numbers of customers being pushed online by the reduction of stores in chains such as Mothercare. At the same time, the size of the baby products market in general has inflated in terms of sales volume and the range of available products. But having made its mark online, the company opened its first bricks and mortar store in June and is planning to roll out several more across the UK by 2019.

The opening of the 3,000 sq ft shop close to its headquarters followed this year’s acquisition of nursery stockist Bambino Direct for an undisclosed six-figure sum. That deal increased its product portfolio to more than 10,000 across 80 big name labels like Silver Cross, Maclaren and Mamas and Papas.

Direct2mum02Alex, 28, who’s MD of the firm, with Fay listed as the brand director, says: “We don’t have any high street ambitions just yet. The problem there is that a lot of the products are quite bulky and getting them to your car can be tricky. So our future growth lies in out-of-town sites. Having a store is really important because I would never expect anyone to spend the amount of money that some pushchairs can range to without first testing them and making sure they’re right for their daily lives. That’s why we’ve installed a test track in the store,” he adds. Direct2Mum started when Babyway – then a subsidiary of the Leslie family empire – was let down on an order.

Babyway supplies baby and toddler products to retailers and had ordered £100,000 worth of pushchairs for a major customer. A last minute cancellation from the client left the Yorkshire business with truckloads of unreturnable and unwanted stock. Quick thinking Alex, then working at Babyway, managed to make a healthy margin selling them through Amazon. Enter Fay and her dad to draw up a brand and plan of market attack. Then came a string of positive milestones (including an order from no less than 10 Downing Street) which resulted in Direct2Mum evolving from a side-line business to an entity twice the size of the company it was spun out of.

Alex says: “We sold the pushchairs and realised we’d made a retailer’s margin on something we expected to make a wholesaler’s margin on. So the natural progression for us as entrepreneurs was to see the opportunity and pursue it. We put all our products online and it went really well.” The fact that the UK economy was still relatively sluggish when the business launched in 2010 didn’t seem to matter, says Fay.

“We initially started selling Babyway products which are good quality but also relatively affordable, so we came into the market at just the right time. If we’d started with all the branded, big-ticket items we do now I don’t think it would have done as well.

“But also, parents with first borns will do whatever they can to get the best for their baby and I’m not sure the nursery industry felt the recession as much as other retail sectors.”

As Alex and Fay recall their story, the shadow of their father looms large. But any suggestion that business success was served up on a plate for them belies the lengths they have been to to prove themselves worthy of working with their dad. His journey from the Teesside dole queue to the entrepreneurial elite was measured out in years of hard graft.

And he has done everything in his power to instil that in his children. After leaving school Alex was sent to work at Galpharm for a wafer thin pay packet – minus board and lodgings – sweeping the warehouse. He did that for some time, until he eventually got his big promotion, onto the pill packing line. Here he spent his days putting tablets into packets. He wanted to work in sales, but with no such vacancies available at Galpharm he was seconded to another firm where he proved himself to be among their top performing salesmen.

He returned to Galpharm to work on supply chains and then on to sales for BabyWay. He says: “At Galpharm I was always told by members of my family to be whiter than white because you are susceptible to preconceptions about your capabilities or perhaps that you will behave in a certain way because you know you won’t get fired. But actually the reality was that I would probably have been more readily fired than someone not in the family.

“There are preconceptions about family businesses that employ sons and daughters. Those that do it successfully are the ones that make their kids work even harder to earn their place in the business. I was always treated very fairly by people at Galpharm, however.”

Fay’s career meandered accidentally into the family business. After a stint as a primary school teaching assistant she enrolled on an equine business management degree to forge a path working with her “first love” of horses. Part of the course required work experience within a business and Leslie HQ was an easy fix. But her role doing office admin quickly escalated as Direct2Mum swept her into entrepreneurialism. Processing orders turned into management of customer service teams which eventually paved the way for her key role driving the growth of the business.

Direct2mum03“It was important to work our way up rather than being handed a role,” she says. Even today Alex and Fay say their father remains as tough a taskmaster as ever. And their business is significantly stronger for it. Fay adds: “Dad never wants us to just settle with where we’re at. He wants us to always be striving to reach more.”

And being from pedigree entrepreneurial stock, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this striving for achievement extends beyond their retail business. Both Alex and Fay have interests in the property and construction sectors, while Fay also owns a sandwich shop run by her husband, a former military man decorated for his bravery in Afghanistan. Their main focus, however, is their retail business.

As well as the challenge of passing on the baton of leadership to a younger generation, however, sibling conflict is also a common cause of crisis in family businesses.    

“Obviously we’re allowed to say things to each other that other people in the business aren’t and perhaps we can be a little but crueller to each other,” says Alex. “But I think we’ve developed the knack of being different people when we’re in the building. After work we can go for a beer together and it’s like we’ve not seen each other all day, although we’ve been sat opposite each other at work.

With sales soaring and plans in the pipeline to grow their business across the UK and overseas, Fay, her brother and dad seem to have found the perfect formula for a thriving family firm.