Business Essentials: 'My business is my baby - but my young son needs me too'

How does a single parent expand her fast-growing company while managing family life?
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The Independent Online

Running your own company as a single mother is no mean feat, as Theresa Chambers knows all too well. "I'd like some advice on how to juggle family life with a fast-growing business," she says.

When Ms Chambers launched her bridal business, which makes and provides bridalwear, from her home in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1998, she was still married and knew she wanted a child. "The idea was to grow a company with the child as an investment for the future. So I decided I wouldn't take any wages from the business to start with," she says. "But when my husband walked out, that all changed and I needed to earn a living from the company to help support me and our son, Harri."

She set up The Bridal Chambers in the town centre and, as a result of investing a lot of time and effort, the business developed rapidly. "Because I was taking wages from it sooner than I'd planned, it did suffer," she admits. "Nevertheless, eight years later I'm still here and the business is still growing."

Her dilemma now lies in how to continue this expansion while being a full-time mum. "My company is very important to me and I want to keep it going to support my seven-year-old son and me. On the other hand, being a hands-on mother is also of paramount importance."

The bulk of Ms Chambers' profits come from customised bridalwear, which she designs and makes herself. "I also deal with one retail company from the States," she says. "Primarily that is for bridesmaid dresses - people don't necessarily want to pay to have their dresses made if they're having three, four or more bridesmaids. But customers do buy bridal gowns from this range too."

In addition, the Bridal Chambers stocks accessories, and Ms Chambers hand-makes veils.

The shop opening hours are Tuesday to Friday from 9.30am to 2.30pm and Saturday from 9.30am to 5.30pm. "Saturdays are the busiest by far," she says. "Throughout the week, most customers book an appointment, but on Saturdays, when I tend to be fully booked with appointments, people pop in too."

Ms Chambers takes work, such as the accounts and beading, home with her to do when Harri has gone to bed. "For the last three weeks I've had two big jobs on at the same time, so I've been beading both in the shop between customers, then at home every night too." She recognises there are times when you have to take work home. "But it would be nice to avoid this as much as possible."

A local fashion week was a particular drain on her time. "I organised it, so it's my responsibility," she says. "But it spiralled out of all my expectations and I didn't get any of my own work done the month leading up to it."

At one time, Ms Chambers took someone on so that she could keep the shop open for longer hours and have more time to herself, but it didn't increase sales. In fact, because the member of staff's forte was in alterations to the retail range, she was more a drain on the business than a money-making asset.

www.thebridalchambers.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Carol Savage, Managing Director, Flexecutive

"Ms Chambers is currently letting her situation get in the way of solutions. She needs to rethink her needs and those of the business in a positive light.

"First, write a business plan to understand where the business is going, where growth is going to come from, and what people - and funds - are required to meet her goals (business expansion and more time for her family). If any activity doesn't fit the strategy, ditch it. Events like fashion shows may be more time consuming than profit generating.

"Ms Chambers also needs to approach work/life requirements in a positive way. She should write school sports days, plays and visits to relatives into her work diary - oh, and make sure she takes proper holidays!"

Stephen Pegge, Head of Communications, Lloyds TSB Business

"The key is effective time management. Proven business techniques such as outsourcing can be employed at home as well as in the workplace. For example, paying someone to do the cleaning, laundry and gardening could help Ms Chambers to spend more of her valuable home time with Harri. Similarly, setting up direct debits to take care of regular bills means one less task to worry about.

"Rather than investing in more shop staff, build a support network of family and friends who can help deal with unforeseen situations like visits to the doctor. Equally, design shop opening hours to suit your own schedule, taking into account busy periods, the school run, etc.

"The recent fashion week is clearly a big commitment but has real potential to take the business to the next level. Get trading partners more involved in sharing the organising work, then promptly follow up new business leads."

Rebecca Clake, Organisation and Resourcing Adviser, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

"If Ms Chambers is concerned about employing staff on a permanent basis, it might be worth taking someone on a temporary contract. Whether permanent or temporary, it is important to decide what the role is and then recruit a person with the appropriate skills and experience.

"Ms Chambers needs to identify the priorities and those parts of the job she is comfortable delegating, and decide whether someone is needed to take over or help with the design side, making the bridalwear or manning the shop. She should then write a clear, defined job description that includes any expectations, such as sales targets.

"Another option would be to use freelancers or individuals who have the skills to make the veils or do the more basic design work, which should allow her more free time to spend with her son. Forging links with local colleges and universities that offer courses in fashion, design and dressmaking may also help attract individuals looking for work experience, part-time or freelance work."

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