Sarah Tremellen: Founder of Bravissimo
00:22 08 February 2010
Titter ye not! No jokes of the over-shoulder-boulder-holder variety, please. For, if you have 'quite a lot up top', buying a brassiere is a serious business. Sarah Tremellen is an expert on the intricacies of the double D cup and her services to busty ladies have been recognised at the highest level, for she is now Sarah Tremellen MBE. Tessa Jenkins reports.
Following her heart and daring to do things differently are the foundations of Sarah Tremellen's tremendous success. As the founder and chief executive of Bravissimo, the lingerie shops which specialise in bigger bust sizes, she's nurtured the small mail order company that began in her Twickenham sitting room 14 years ago into a multi-million pound business based in Leamington Spa.
Her achievements have not gone unnoticed and she was awarded an MBE for services to entrepreneurship in this year's New Year Honours List.
The first thing you notice on meeting Sarah is that she's more 'Yummy Mummy' than 'Boardroom Ball-Breaker'. Softly spoken, warm and witty, as well as perceptive and intelligent, it's also immediately apparent that she has a tremendous passion for her business and a real commitment to ensuring that despite its growth her business continues to be run along the principles she believes in.
"For me a lot of success in business is down to using common sense and following your heart as well. I know that sounds a bit cheesy maybe but I've done it because I've loved it," she says.
From the very start Bravissimo was about much more than just stacking the shelves with bras in big sizes.
"What we're about is customer service and making people feel fantastic, moving people away from thinking: 'Oh no, I've got big boobs what do you have in my size?' to 'Hooray I've got big boobs and I can wear anything!'."
A Cambridge graduate with a degree in Natural Sciences, Sarah had been freelancing as a researcher for the BBC, before an event in her own life provided the inspiration to start the business.
As a first time mum-to-be her blossoming bosom introduced her to the depressing realities of lingerie shopping faced by women who didn't match up to the 'industry standard' of an A, B or C cup.
"I'd always worn a 34C before and never thought too much about buying bras, then I became pregnant and I went up to DD within the week and couldn't believe how hard it was to find nice bras, then I went up to a G cup," she explains.
Having been used to taking her pick from row upon row of pretty lingerie it came as quite a shock to Sarah, but for her curvier friend Hannah Griffiths it was the norm.
"We said: 'Let's start a bra company'. We were pretty clueless with no experience of running a business but what we did have was experience as customers." Along with this came the conviction that women with bigger busts were being ignored by the bra industry.
Research soon showed that their personal impressions were correct. Most manufacturers were only producing one or two bras in a D cup and beyond, and the styles often bore more resemblance to a structural engineering product than to a feminine undergarment.
Shops compounded the problem by stocking 20 or 30 styles in an A, B or C cup, but just a couple in the bigger cup sizes which left curvy women in the frustrating and sometimes humiliating situation of having to ask the assistant: 'What have you got in my size?'."
Recognising that they wouldn't be able to change the attitudes of the bra industry overnight, they quickly realised that one way they could do to improve the lot of their prospective customers was to offer choice.
In 1995 with a loan of just 10,000, they launched a mail order service. Back filling incoming orders direct from the suppliers meant they could offer an unrivalled range of styles and sizes
"We thought if we could put everything that was made under one roof then at least people could look at them and say: 'What do I like best?'."
Their first mail shot, a magazine style catalogue, complete with fitting guide, featured a 'good luck message' from the comedienne Dawn French, and was sent to a mailing list of just 75 friends and family, producing a trickle of orders.
Three weeks later, serendipity stepped in. They got their big break when their story struck a chord with a journalist working on the Femail section of the Daily Mail. She was an E cup and had been struggling to find something to wear under her wedding dress; a double page spread on Bravissimo followed and the response was phenomenal.
"We had 1,300 calls in three days! We only had one phone line and every time we put it down it rang again. We kept saying to each other, 'we've got to make a plan', but there wasn't any time, we couldn't even get the phone off the hook because as every time we put it down it instantly ran again!"
There was clearly customer demand, but the manufacturers proved a harder nut to crack. "Initially when we were small they didn't take us very seriously, then when we reached a turnover of a million one of them said to me: 'Surely you've saturated the market now?' I said: 'No way'. Last year our turnover was 42 million and we're not there yet."
Listening to customers has helped to shape Bravissimo from the start. The first shop in Ealing was opened in response to requests from customers for somewhere they could be fitted and try the bras on.
When the shop doors opened the response was once again overwhelming, with customers arriving from all over the country and even abroad. A second branch in Manchester followed and there's now a network of 20 shops across the country including branches in Leamington Spa and Solihull.
Selling through shops presented a major new challenge. The traditional retail model is based on having all available stock on display, but with a size range that spans 28-40 in back size and D - K in cup size. To display every item out on the shop floor was out of the question
"Imagine a bra that comes in 70 sizes and four colour ways, it would be like a jumble sale, nobody would be able to find anything," says Sarah.
Unwilling to compromise on offering every customer real choice they threw conventional wisdom out of the window, and every shop maintains a huge stock room. "It's not an easy retail model because you need huge ancillary space that most shops don't have."
Despite the growth of the business, providing excellent service remains paramount, and central to this is the free personal fitting that's on offer in every store. At Bravissimo there's not a single tape measure in sight, the emphasis is on demonstrating what constitutes the perfect fit rather than labelling a customer as a particular size. Mail order and internet sales are still a huge part of the overall business, but unlike many organisations the customer service team have no scripts. "We want our people to be friendly and treat each customer as an individual, they are not under pressure to quickly turn over their calls, and have no sales targets. It's a customer service agenda here."
Every female member of staff, including Sarah herself, is a trained bra fitter and spends time on the shop floor, so the customer service team are also well equipped to offer knowledgeable advice over the phone.
The transient population in London meant that it was difficult to maintain an established customer service team needed to deliver top class service and this was one of the main reasons for relocating the company to Warwickshire in 2001.
"We wanted somewhere that was still near enough to get to London and back in a day if we needed to, so we started looking around. We really liked the offices in Leamington because we have predominantly female staff and the girls on the phone work until 8.30 at night, so we wanted it to have a safe feel, and also to be somewhere where they could go shopping in their lunch break. It might not sound like a normal business rationale but it was important to us.
"We took out an advert in the Coventry Evening Telegraph and had the most amazing response from such fantastic women. We took on 15 people to do customer services and since then we've never looked back. The staff have been incredible here."
Having bought Hannah out of the business two years after its launch, Bravissimo is still wholly owned by Sarah and her husband Mike.
"One of the really good things is that my husband and I own it, we haven't got venture capitalists or big investors so we haven't got anyone pushing us to make a profit. Obviously we want the business to be successful, but it's also part of my identity and I really, really mind that people have a good experience. That matters to me, I wouldn't feel happy having a successful business if people weren't happy with it. Because we own it we're able to focus on that and we're also able to focus long term without the pressure to deliver short term profits, we've been really lucky with that."