Online retailer Mainmann Group collected the top accolade at the 2015 Jersey Business Awards for Enterprise. The company, which sells Melissa and Mel jelly shoes online throughout the world and through a number of retail outlets in Jersey, UK and Ireland, was also named Small and Medium Enterprise of the Year.
The company was established in 2011 by Alana Mann, who moved from being a sole trader with one website based in Jersey to become director and owner of a business employing eleven permanent employees and supporting a number of professional consultants.
The company secured exclusive distributor rights in the UK and Ireland for the products and has grown sales from zero to significant volumes in just three and a half years, with over 500 customers including some of the most recognisable names on the High Street including Harrods, Selfridges, Schuh and Mothercare.
Alana Mann explains her business success:
Describe your model for success
We have an internationally based workforce, using the latest technology and have created a solid foundation for expansion into other parts of Europe. From the beginning we focused on customer service and really understanding our marketplace. We have achieved this by testing our business model in Jersey, building on the principle of developing positive relationships with our customers and supplier.
We have our head office in Jersey, production is based in Brazil, sales and marketing is operated from London and our customer support function is in Corfu. To make this gel effectively we rely on a collaborative style of working to ensure that everyone in the business knows about and shares responsibility for the business. Organisation here is vital.
Our focus has been on becoming the leading European distributor for the award-winning Mel and Melissa brands. By aligning our local knowledge with the brand’s global image we have helped to position the Melissa product as a premium brand in our markets and protect that status through our policy of restricting sales in geographic areas.
By starting small, and going through the same motions that any major importer would – and all the way through to the commercial website side, we learned the process from square one, which at that time was fairly low risk. The thorough foundation provided by learning each step intricately has been invaluable as volumes increase.
Along with choosing the right product, we also had to ensure that the margins were workable – starting with the prices we could achieve from the factory gates. Margins achievable with any type of footwear are high, comparable only to sunglasses and higher end fashion. With dual sales channels, running the websites as a secondary outlet to the wholesale side of the business enables us to achieve astounding margins when selling through our own sites, whilst still giving great margins to our retail customers as priority.
By concentrating solely on Melissa and Mel shoes we have been able to say with absolute integrity that the products we distribute are manufactured to the highest possible technical and ethical standards, and this has enabled us to build solid foundations with our customer base. Our supplier, Grendene, is a well-founded world leader in manufacturing plastic shoes; simply the most established – with many factories, brands and over 30,000 employees. This level of reliability as a basis is essential.
What would you say is the most important focus of your business?
Customer service first and foremost. It is essential to have a regular two way dialogue with customers because how else are you going to understand the marketplace and be able to respond to changing customer demands? Asking a lot of questions and really listening to the answers gives insight where you need it most – however, you still never really know with 100% certainty. Learning which are the key questions to ask, and their timing, enables you to optimise your position. The relationships we have built mean we retain the customers we have worked so hard to win; we also have a high degree of repeat orders.
Because we are closely aligned with the product and our customers see us as business partners rather than just another supplier, and because we always deliver on time and stay close to every aspect of the factory-to-customer process we have founded our relationships on a position of trust.
We have built our model around making the customer experience as easy as possible: for example we hold our own stock in our warehouse allowing us to quickly respond to sales trends as they emerge, and we offer commercial terms processed through a reputable UK bank.
We use our websites, pop-up shops and presence at trade shows to really engage with our customers and get their feedback. What they tell us is an incredibly important aspect of defining our customer service. In short, our customers like the fact that we genuinely work alongside them and make it easy for them to deal with us.
How have you built and developed your team?
We have a small core team who have nearly all been with the business since the beginning. Mainmann Group is an open learning organisation with a flat structure, encouraging every member of the team to contribute to its success, and enabling them to maximise their existing skills, while having an opportunity to develop new ones.
As the business continues to grow, we will need to develop a more hierarchical structure and we will help members of our team progress into managerial roles, giving them full support and training to help them fulfil their ambitions, and backfilling junior positions with new members of staff. This organic approach to team development has been a signature of the business from the beginning and has helped us nurture a staff that is loyal and committed, and holds a pool of customer and product knowledge that is invaluable.
However, there is always room for an expert. The “can do” attitude we nurture within the team is great when approaching most tasks, but you often get a much faster, more efficient result overall when a specialist is brought in. Although the financial expense appears high, the savings – in time and elsewhere – can more than make up for it. The right specialist will enable your team with the skills to prepare for processes that need their specialist attention, thereby increasing their own efficiency.
What is your vision for the future?
Having built a solid customer base online and in the UK and Ireland, and proved our business model, we are currently developing a strategy to take the business into Benelux and Scandinavia. Over the next two years we expect to increase revenue by a third by investing in new markets, establishing joint venture retail presence and exploring complementary product lines.
We are designing what the business needs to look like to achieve our aspirations, which will include every area of our organisation from analysing our operational model, investing in truly integrated systems to creating a robust management structure.
How has Jersey’s business environment supported your success?
Jersey has been fundamental to the success of our business. Mainmann Group started here, we tested our business model in Jersey before we embarked on our successful expansion into new markets, and we continue to supply a number of high street outlets in St Helier.
There are levels of business skill and technical expertise existing in Jersey that you would expect to find in some of the largest cities in UK and Ireland. We support a number of third party suppliers in the Island, from marketing support and web design to HR advice and accountancy. We use local photographers and models for all of our product shoots, which are arranged at locations all around Jersey.
Despite being an internationally focused operation, the support we can call on in Jersey gives us the confidence to maintain our headquarters in the Island.