How to pull a company up by its bra straps

Fed up with breast-beating alpha males, Julia Reynolds left the safety of Tesco to head lingerie retailer Lauren Mills reports
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The Independent Online

Julia Reynolds becomes rather quiet: "I would love to be the chief executive of a public company. It would have been beyond my wildest dreams when I was sitting at my school in Essex."

But the dream may yet come true. For Reynolds has become head of, the online lingerie specialist retailer that sells sexy and not-so sexy underwear to more than a million people in the UK.

She has been at Figleaves for just two months but already she is bursting with plans to make it much bigger – to launch its own collection, to introduce new lifestyle brands and, eventually, maybe to float the company. But she has far to go: it lost £4.2m in the year to July 2006 and is forecast to break even this year on sales of £30m.

Reynolds gave up a great job at Tesco to strike out on her own, mainly, she says, because she was fed up with corporate males: "I had had my fair share of chest-beating alpha-males. I wanted to venture out and do my own thing."

At Britain's biggest retailer, she was the power behind the retailer's clothing revolution, launching the successful Florence & Fred brand from nothing to sales of £400m in four years. She also spearheaded the launch of its Value jeans in a move that was to shake up the denim market. Her track record is a great comfort. "Florence and Fred is even bigger now. I created it. That was my concept. It has given me the confidence to know it can be done – and that I can do it at Figleaves," she says, with such self-assurance that you want to believe her.

She learnt her trade as the right-hand woman of Tesco's clothing guru John Hoerner, the former boss of Arcadia, home of the Burton and Dorothy Perkins brands.

"He is a mentor and a good friend. He taught me how to build a brand," says Reynolds. She also spent about six months working with Terry Green, the former Debenhams boss who was brought in by Sir Terry Leahy to head Tesco's UK clothing business. While she enjoyed a good relationship with Green, the desire to break out on her own got the better of her. "He is very bright. But I did not want to work under the wings of somebody. I wanted to venture out and do my own thing."

And she has. As we chat in her office at Figleaves' dreary north London headquarters, it is clear that Reynolds, 45, knows just what she wants: doubling the size of Figleaves, making it a money-spinner within two years, is most definitely top of the list. One of her first moves may be to take the lingerie out of north Finchley to a more trendy rag-trade place in Clerkenwell.

She is well-turned-out and doesn't try to disguise her Essex roots, telling me in her broadest Ongar accent that she is working her way through all the 200 underwear brands currently being sold on the Figleaves site. There is not an M&S knicker in sight, she promises.

But slimming down the number of brands on offer is part of her mission, helped no doubt by what she discovers while trying out the 200 different labels, ranging from Calvin Klein to Rigby and Peller. "Less is more," she explains.

Figleaves was founded by Daniel Nabarro, now chairman, 10 years ago. It ventured into the US in 2002, and in 2005 private equity group Balderton Capital bought a stake of nearly 40 per cent in return for an undisclosed cash injection.

Reynolds may not like corporate men but she wants more men shopping with Figleaves; at the moment, only 20 per cent of the one million customers are male. That sounds a lot already but she reckons she can persuade men to buy because everyone these days "thinks more about what they have got on under their clothes".

Figleaves will also go for its own-brand collections.

A new childrenswear range is being developed and she's looking to have accessories such as sunglasses, beach bags, flip flops, towels and beachwear to add to sales from the already successful swimwear collections.

The launch of own-label lines means Figleaves will be looking for its own manufacturers and a crack buying team. Her big idea is to take the company into more lifestyle and fashion brands, and it may add its own homestyle ranges such as scented candles, throws, cushions and bedding.

"I want the brand to be all about indulgence, but not over-indulgence. About healthy living and feeling good about yourself," says Reynolds.

Her decision to leave Tesco coincided with a number of other high-profile exits from the supermarket group. Keith Down, commercial finance director, moved to pub chain JD Wetherspoon; John Browett, head of IT, defected to electronics retailer DSG International; Dido Harding, director of development programmes, moved to rival supermarket J Sainsbury; and Steve Robinson quit as chief executive of Tesco Direct for M and M Direct, the online sportswear retailer.

The apparent "brain drain" sparked rumours that Tesco was an unhappy ship. The supermarket insisted it was unconcerned by the departures. But what is undeniable is that opportunities for promotion, for talented senior executives, are limited at Tesco. It has a relatively young board and there is little movement at the top. So it is not surprising that ambitious executives, keen to run their own show, started to look elsewhere.

Reynolds started out as an assistant buyer at the Burton Group, working in Topshop and Principles. She went on to spend eight years at Mackays, the Scottish department store, eventually becoming head of buying. There was then a stint at Arcadia Group before joining Tesco in 1999.

Right now, Reynolds is just where she wants to be. If she pulls off the Figleaves, she may just get the company big enough to list in a few years' time.

"If I wasn't working, I would curl up and die. But I am not motivated by money – it's the liberty," she explains. "You see, I like to keep my feet on the ground and remember where I came from. I don't like pomp and ceremony."

Age: 45
Educated: Ongar Comprehensive, Essex
1984-88: Burton Group – assistant buyer for Topshop and Principles
1988-95: Mackays – head of buying
1996-98: Arcadia – senior buyer
1999-2008: Tesco – buying and merchandising director
Hobbies: skiing, walking and mountain biking