Michelle Mone OBE is the owner of MJM International and creator of Ultimo, the UK's leading designer lingerie brand. She is also listed as one of the top 3 female entrepreneurs in the UK and in recent years has become a TV personality and speaker, sharing her expertise at events for business owners globally. How did Mone's entrepreneurial journey begin?
In October 1996, at a dinner dance, Michelle was wearing an uncomfortable bra and decided she would invent her own in its place that would be comfortable, cleavage enhancing and improved in appearance. MJM International was born, and I speak to the lady behind the brand and her huge success.
We meet for the interview at a trendy restaurant in London - it's a beautiful day and I am greeted on the patio by Michelle, unbelievably glamourous despite arriving straight from a hectic press day at Boots launching her latest product, UTan, the first self-tanning range with body sculpting technology. Not only was Ultimo revolutionising the lingerie industry, it was now taking on cosmetics, with every product going through several rounds of testing ['Every product has to be the best, I don't accept second best' - Michelle] and perfecting before it reaches the high street. "We have new products launching all the time and we have 13 inventions in total. The gel filled bra that we invented 12 years ago as an alternative to plastic surgery was what made us, because Julia Roberts wore it in Erin Brokovich. Then we have the 24 hour bra that you can't feel that you're wearing, and now UTan. I think next year we will expand further with a full on cosmetics range".
Listening to Michelle's latest ventures and her achievements so far leads inevitably to my first question on where it all began. Michelle grew up in the East end of Glasgow, left school at 15 and supported her mother and family when her father was confined to a wheelchair. I'd also read that she opted for posters of Richard Branson on her wall whilst her friends opted for boybands. How did Michelle describe her childhood and her early determination to succeed? "I had an incredible upbringing. I got a job from the age of 10 delivering newspapers and by 11 I had about 17 teenagers working for me. I've just always worked my days." Following a stint selling papers, Michelle worked in a sweet shop and then began distributing Avon books, using her Mother's signature so that she'd be hired despite her age. I then asked Michelle what role her parents play now that she is at the pinnacle of her career. "They are normal, working class people. I know that I mix with celebrities and I'm sort of one myself but if I ever got too big for my boots they would slap me down and tell me off. If I told my Dad I was sitting with Tina Turner he'd probably say 'And? Why didn't you phone your Mum this morning?' For them it's about family and the celebrity world doesn't matter."
By 20, Michelle married her then husband, Michael, and two years later she had given birth to her second child and was made redundant from Beer Company Labatt’s, having headed up the sales and marketing team. It seems this was the motivation she needed to launch MJM International and Mone used her redundancy pay off to begin the patent for her first bra. How did she take a vision and turn it into her first prototype? "You have to do your research and find out if you have a viable product. See if you can meet a manufacturer too, because there will be issues in terms of shipping and some factories are too large for a new product. Go smaller, work out the volume and do as much homework as possible." How did Michelle manage it all at such a young age? "You just have to be incredibly organised, but I'm not super woman and I do get things wrong." Not only had Michelle juggled being a wife, mother and company owner, Ultimo suffered an enormous setback in 2002 when a married couple, distributors for MJM, fled with £1.6million, with Michelle still suing the pair 10 years later. "We were introduced to these distributors and they were serial fraudsters and had done this sort of thing before. They distributed the bras for about 6 months and they were very good, then one day we were chasing our money and their address had changed. They then started their own business selling all of our stock."
"It was a terrible time in my life and I had three young children at that point, but you either give up or you fight."
Michelle's drive, tenacity and strength are admirable, and are clear in everything she does and in the way she handles every setback that comes her way. Recently, Michelle divorced her husband and business partner and despite him playing a big role in the growth of MJM, Michelle tells me she is continuing alone and she's not going anywhere. Were there other individuals she was able to look to for inspiration? "Bill Clinton. Oh my god, I have never met anyone who lights up a room and has that much power over people. I met him at a speaking event and he was incredibly down to earth and genuinely cares about people. He inspired me." On a more lighthearted note, I ask Michelle who she is outside of being an incredibly hardworking businesswoman, as well as how she unwinds from it all. "People think I like fancy restaurants but my idea of a good night is watching the football and having a beer. I'm such a bloke - I'm into cars, football, beers, bras! That's my idea of a good time!"
I then put forward to Michelle my belief that MJM International's strongest attribute is her ability to leverage MJM's press position through PR campaigns, and that businesses can learn from her perserverance in boosting the brand through celebrity endorsements and clever marketing. How could SME's make the best use of PR in the early stages of their businesses? "If you can't afford a PR company then remember that there is nobody more passionate about your business than you. Write a press release, send it out to everyone and hope for the best. Hire a PR company if you have the money, but you have to get across to whoever is representing you that real passion for the business." With a £50 million fortune and a lasting impression on women the world over, would she ever slow down? "No way. I still haven't achieved everything that I set out to do and I still don't think I've made it yet."
On that note, Michelle and I part ways - Michelle gets back to work on the next leg of her press junket and I head off, inspired, humbled and proud to have met a woman who is relentless, is never thrown off track and who, in my eyes, is exactly what this country needs in terms of a shining example of a leading, ambitious, positive female entrepreneur who we can all learn a lesson from.