Escaping the 9 to 5 with Jennifer Brown

how to run a luxury leather business

This month’s interview is with Jennifer Brown, the founder of South American-inspired luxury goods brand Pampeano. Having studied physics at university, she started her career in finance at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, later completing an MA in real estate and working in residential fund management at Grosvenor. However, feeling that she “wasn’t a very good employee”, and having discovered a range of attractive products during a sabbatical in South America – products that she felt would do really well in Europe – Jenny made the rather “whimsical” decision in 2009 to start her own business importing high-quality leather goods. She soon discovered that she was much more motivated working for herself than for someone else!

A product business, of course, brings a different layer of complexity than a service-based business, which I would usually recommend as an ‘easier’ option for my clients who are keen to get out of their jobs and the 9-to-5 routine as soon as possible. However, there’s also something incredibly exciting about dealing with real, tangible items and, as Jenny explains, it’s not as complicated as you might think to import and sell goods – the information you need is there to be discovered.

Watch the full interview or read the transcript below for more on the challenges and successes of the last 12 years…

How to run a luxury leather business

With a corporate career having included Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Grosvenor, in 2009, Jennifer Brown was inspired by her time in South America to found a luxury leather goods business. Having been the MD of Pampeano, now distributed via more than 300 retailers worldwide, for eleven years, she has now been able to take a step back from the day-to-day running of the business to work around ten hours per week and manage this flexibly around family and other commitments.

Visit Jenny’s website and connect with her on LinkedIn.

1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?

Anna:               Okay. Hello everybody. And welcome to this month’s Fearless Fridays Career Transition interview. I’m here with Jenny Brown. And Jenny, why don’t we dive straight in. And if you could tell us, what were you doing before and what are you doing now?

Jenny:              Hi. Well, I left uni with a physics degree and went into banking for a few years, and then to a property company where I was working on the financial side for a few more years. So basically, 10 years working for other people. And then when my first child was imminent, I set up my own business importing leather goods from South America and selling them in the UK and Europe, initially. Well, maybe not initially. It didn’t work that quickly, but at least that was the plan.

Anna:               Yeah. Wow, amazing. It’s a quite an eclectic background already. So I guess, before getting to the business, talk us through the physics, banking, property route that you took? What was the plan there?

Jenny:              Well, I think physics because school, I was okay at it. I didn’t realise quite how difficult it would be at uni. Anyway, and then banking I kind of fell into because I work more with numbers, I can’t write an essay, for example. And did that but didn’t feel very happy doing it for various reasons, such as face time, as it was called in the early 2000s. People working [inaudible 00:01:33] in the morning to show their face as to [inaudible 00:01:36] a little bit arrogant and forthright in my early 20s and sort of the pay was amazing, but my arrogance meant that I sort of thought, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

So, I did a property conversion course. I did an MA in real estate and applied some of the banking actually. So portfolio theory to real estate for my thesis, and then did five years at a property company, which was really good, it was really great lifestyle. I had a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that, but I think probably I’m not a very good employee. I’m not massively motivated to work for someone else. And when I started my own thing, this sort of overwhelming motivation came along and I worked really hard for quite a long time and juggled that around children, very small children.

And yeah, so I’ve been doing my own business, it’s a product business, importing and selling and brand-building business of sort of really high quality items. I’ve been doing that for nearly 12 years now.

Anna:               Oh, amazing. So I imagine there’ll be some twists and turns in the business there too. So you mentioned, I guess, having your first child and you mentioned not really wanting to work with someone else, what were the other reasons and what was, I guess, the trigger point that really led you to go, “No. Okay. I’m going to start up on my own.”?

Jenny:              Well, I suppose it was quite a big one in the sense that actually work had given me a sabbatical and then I spent quite a lot of time in South America and I sort of loved the lifestyle and I loved the products that were available there, and friends who came over and said, “We’re in agreement that these things would do really well in Europe.” And I was a bit whimsical, I didn’t really think it through. I had absolutely no sense that the myriad of things I would need to get involved with, but it was kind of quite thrilling and very exciting that I might build this sort of amazing company that was going to be massive and conquer the world. Reality is slightly different certainly in the conquering the world sense, but I have really enjoyed doing it.

And I think I’ve had sort of quite a… At times it certainly hasn’t always been the case, but generally feel a lot more satisfaction through having my own business and being able to sort of be able to make choices and fall on my own sword rather than be bollocked by someone else when I mess up or not having someone else to answer to. If work doesn’t get done, that’s because I’ve chosen not to do it for whatever reasons. And that might just be because of children but it’s very, very different. And generally speaking, obviously the big one is not receiving a guaranteed salary, and so on the security. But other than that, I can’t say that they’re sort of massive… It’s all pretty much been upside.

Anna:               Amazing. Okay. Because I mean, I work with clients and I generally recommend and we generally focus on more service-based businesses in that, if you really want to escape the 9:00 to 5:00 quickly, it’s sort of an easier transition, I think, to package up your existing skills, to become a consultant, to provide a service, you can literally put up a website and you provide that. I always think of product businesses as incredibly exciting, and I can so see the appeal of having your own and getting involved in the design and having a physical product and so on, but I also imagine lots of complexities.

So, apart from letting go of the stable salary, what have been some of the challenges that you’ve come across, I guess, especially in the early setup, but also over the decade or so that you’ve been doing it?

2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?

Jenny:              Well, I mean, you’re absolutely right. I think it probably is a bit more exciting because it’s a sort of tangible product and you’ve got a sense, “Oh, this’ll work.” And then sometimes they don’t at all. But I suppose the complexities, there’s nothing individually complicated about it at all, but it’s probably so many different components that you just have to be quite organised and efficient and quick, especially when there’s two children who need you and so on.

So, complexities maybe around needing to know a bit about, well, employment law, for example, importing regulations, outgoing logistics, and so on. But actually, there is so much information. You definitely shouldn’t be put off by it because you find it, the minute you actually need to know something, you find it within hour, how to do it. And if it’s really complicated, okay, then you need to buy advice for it. For example, import-export. People think it’s really daunting, I mean, it just isn’t, you just ship boxes, or you get a shipper to do it for you. And we’ve got a really good relationship with someone. But I think, for example, that, people think, “Well, I buy something in South America and then I sell it through retailers in the UK, surely that’s really difficult.” Well, it’s not, you just do some digging and find the information really.

Anna:               And I think that was the case of everything. Again, even the type of business that I’m running, I had no idea how to launch a website, to podcast, the tax stuff. So as you say, the information’s out there, you just have to actively ask the question and find out and get the support you need.

3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?

Jenny:              Exactly. And there is so much for small businesses because the government’s very behind it and there’s UK trade advisors for… And actually, there’s a myriad of things so that’s kind of much easier. And in some respects, it’s quite good that lots of people don’t know that it’s more accessible so that the market isn’t flooded. But yeah, and it’s interesting because there’s always changing and evolving.

Employment law’s a difficult one, but again, there are resources to get help very cheaply. So, nothing has been too difficult. Well, having said that, Brexit was really difficult, rather the referendum, because we buy everything in dollars. And I think this was probably the hardest point in my business history, is suddenly the cost of all our goods went up 30% and I think in the year that basically the exchange rate tanked, we lost something like 40% of our profit just on exchange rate. And that really was such a downer. And it did put me into a downer, which I think has taken me quite a long time to get out of, in terms of just the business really sort of being a bit sort of strangled because the exchange rate still hasn’t [inaudible 00:08:45] back.

But it has grown enough that I’ve now got someone running the business, so I don’t do the day-to-day, so I can… So sort of jumping on from a really tough period, to now a really good period. I’m probably doing two hours on average a day and the rest I’m doing stuff to help… Some other interests or children or home, we’ve moved house, and so on. So, it’s a really amazing place to be now after 10 years, to be very independent. So yeah, it’s definitely been worth it, but there’ve been some tough times.

Anna:               [inaudible 00:09:30] and did you have any mentors, you said you found sort of help with the employment law and it wasn’t just a question of Googling and sort of looking for the information, or how did you get the support you’ve needed to answer all these questions?

Jenny:              Well, there’s a couple of things. So probably in the sort of first five years, there was a scheme that the government had put on where you were sort of given mentors. I can’t remember the name of it. It’s now stopped. And I had a couple of time with those people. And that just sort of gave me a bit of confidence with certain things, just to share it because, it’s a bit of a cliche, but people say it’s very lonely running your own business, you’ve got to shoulder the difficulties and maybe the employee difficulties or supplier, ultimately it falls on you. So that was really good. But I think what really helped is in 2014, I did the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, and that was a six month course just to sort of help you really look at your business differently and sort of different strands of the business.

So that was really good. And really since then, I’ve maybe just felt a bit more confident and been able to sort of make decisions. But I always share decision-making with my team and I’ll always ask what they think first. Not because I then take the credit for it, but you’re getting minds of others to then make the sort of final call on something. So, maybe because the team’s bigger, it’s sort of easier.

Anna:               And how big is the team?

Jenny:              So we’re only seven, but it’s still enough, that’s still seven heads with new product ideas. We ask everybody because the chap in the warehouse might have a really cool idea that is a bit left field and we [inaudible 00:11:08] or there’s the ladies that work, who are very much more design-y and they’ll have sort of lots and lots of good ideas. So yeah, it’s really fun that, and we’ll bounce ideas around for lots of different things.

Anna:               Amazing. What would you say now is then… As you said, you’ve come out of quite a difficult period, unfortunately, completely out of your control with the exchange rates and Brexit and so on, but what would you say is the best part now? How are you enjoying the fruits of your labour after all these years?

4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?

Jenny:              Well, I think what I’m really enjoying is because I’m not sort of… Again, another sort of business mantra cliche, is so I don’t work in the business, work on the business. So I do feel that’s kind of happening, but I’ve got a great guy who’s running it day to day. And it means that I’ll do my two hours, let’s say, of more administrative things, but then I might just be thinking, I’ve got time to sort of think, I might be doing the garden and I, “Oh, what if we did…” And come up with this sort of new thing and then we all decide whether we want to implement it or not. So that, I really enjoy actually, is being able to be a bit more creative and constantly not having to do so much of actually implementing.

Anna:               And I mean, managing alongside kids, I guess if you’re doing a couple of hours here and there, that’s much easier, I suppose, than having, let’s say a late to night in the banking office and so on.

Jenny:              Well, I think I’ve probably put in more hours in the first few years if I’m really honest, because I’d put the children to bed and then I’d start work. And I’d often be working into the small hours to get the bigger bits of work done, but that was contained and there, I’m well on the other side now and also, because I’m a single mom and always have been, I think, I needed someone at home, so maybe I wasn’t doing so much of sort of domestic life where now I am and it’s so much less frantic, [inaudible 00:13:12] now.

Anna:               And so, I guess 12 years might seem quite overwhelming for someone who’s just at the beginning of their journey. Do you mind sharing how long did it take you to sort of get it to a profitable level or where it was bringing in income? Did you have to plough through your savings in the early days? How were you managing the finances when you let go of the salary?

Jenny:              Sure. Well, I mean, you actually mentioned a really good point earlier on actually, so the difference with a product based business is you do need some capital at the beginning. So I’d sold a flat and used money from that to buy stock. I think it was about 15,000 pounds and then I needed to put in a bit more and I think it went up to about, we’re talking sort of 2009, 2010, it went up to about 30,000, I think I put in, by the time I paid to do a show and this that and the other. And it took till 2012 to become profitable from which [inaudible 00:14:05] draw a salary.

And so, we lived very modestly. So I suppose if you look at the opportunity costs, significantly more than 30,000 that I needed to invest at the beginning in actual sort of working capital or whatever. So yeah, I think you can still sell product but in a different way. There’s many other ways of doing it. I brought stuff in that was Pampeano stuff. One can be a lot more creative.

And also, in terms of, for example, you could do drop shipping. You only buy the goods if you’ve sold it. So you don’t necessarily to build up sort of a few hundred thousand pounds worth of stock. And when we started selling to retailers, then we started to need another sort of huge, massive load of stock. But in terms of sort of being able to not go for two and a half years really without pay, which is kind of staggering really. I mean, of course you could, if you’ve got a really great idea, go and get an investment and I just didn’t feel that I… I suppose, because I knew through modest living, we could probably manage. I didn’t want to give up my business at that point. I didn’t want to lose [inaudible 00:15:29] or more.

So I guess I was sort of very lucky in that sense, and I didn’t have a mortgage, so I think my circumstances were really lucky at the beginning to be [inaudible 00:15:45] to do that. And in some ways maybe it’s not… Well a business takes, I think, did they say, two years to sort of be… I mean, you know this far better [inaudible 00:15:58]. Is it two years to sort of say, “This might work.” And sort of on average five years to be profitable or something like that. So, I sort of had that in mind. I thought, “Well, I’ve [inaudible 00:16:08] to do that much sooner.” And as I say, yes, it was about two and a half years.

Anna:               Yeah. That’s amazing for such a business, as you said, with the investment and you keeping control of the business and so on. So, I think, obviously it can be faster when, when you’re doing something a bit sort of lower investment, lower capital required at the beginning, but I guess would you do anything differently? What words of wisdom might you give to someone who’s just at the beginning of that who is teetering on the edge of launching their own product business, whether import-export or drop shipping or whatever it might be, what words of wisdom would you share with them?

5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?

Jenny:              I think maybe one thing would be actually to take money if it’s available because clearly you can scale much faster. It took me a really long time through organic growth to get to, well, we’re only a million turnover, but it took a really long time. So if it’s available, I’d take that and maybe do it with someone who’s got complimenting skillsets. It’s tough on your own. I think that would have made a big difference if say I had joined forces with someone who was a real marketeer, for example. So yeah. So someone who compliments I think is a really good [inaudible 00:17:21].

Anna:               And what’s next for you? I mean, as you said, you’ve sort of taken a little bit of a step back, is the plan to take more of a step back and to work on another project? Or what are you thinking?

Jenny:              Well, yeah, I find the finance side quite interesting. So I’m doing some consultancy work, actually, sort of financial kind of pseudo FD, because I’m not qualified, work for other business. And I really enjoy that because I sort of got a bit of a commercial angle [inaudible 00:17:51] as well as sort of being very comfortable with, with forecasting. And so, I’m doing that. And I was also thinking about importing rugs actually. Because I really enjoy [crosstalk 00:18:03] the wheeler dealer and going to these amazing countries. And I don’t know, I think [inaudible 00:18:09] rugs might be my next thing.

Anna:               Exciting, so [inaudible 00:18:12] expanding to other products, but also I love that, that diversified model I think, is both having your own product business and also advising other businesses, I think is a great way to diversify your income stream and to use your experience. And if you enjoy it as well, that’s the [crosstalk 00:18:24].

Jenny:              It’s fascinating looking at other businesses. I do, I really do. I often look at sort of company reports and so on because I’m interested in it and I just sort of learn from it as well. [crosstalk 00:18:35].

Anna:               Yeah, absolutely, okay.

Jenny:              But it’s really interesting. I think small businesses too, is sort of, “Oh, did you know about this? Did you know about that? This bit of software will save you hours, and therefore costs. So much money it’ll save you.” And I really love that sort of thing. I love [crosstalk 00:18:49]-

Anna:               And you must have so many tidbits now from all the years from your experiences as well to be able to give people who lap up expertise when they’re starting out.

Jenny:              Well, you’d hope so, but people like me are quite stubborn, so whether they want to hear it or want to use what they hear, that’s obviously there provocative, but yeah, it’s really interesting.

Anna:               Okay. Amazing. And where can we find your beautiful products, if someone wants to look at them, maybe buy one of your belts or having a few range ?

Jenny:              Well, we’ve got about 300 stockers, so lots of shops, but we don’t have our own standalone. We sell online. And our website is pampeano.co.uk.

Anna:               Perfect, so I’ll link to that as well. Well, thanks so much, Jenny, really exciting to hear the sort of twists and turns, I guess, early on in your career as well as how you’ve, over quite a long period of time, but really stuck with it. And clearly your persistence and stubbornness, as you said, and your belief and everything has really paid off. So hopefully you get to now enjoy a bit more sort of calm time and politics. And [inaudible 00:19:45] settle and then exchange rates will bounce back hopefully and give you more success in the coming years.

Jenny:              Fantastic. Thanks very much, Anna.

Anna:               Thank you, Jenny.

Jenny:              Thanks again. Bye.

 

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