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Childrensalon boss Michele Harriman Smith takes company from boutique shop in Tunbridge Wells to global luxury children's clothes retailer

By Chris Price

Less than a decade ago, Michele Harriman-Smith was crossing her fingers that her children’s clothes company would make its first £1 million of annual sales.

Today her business is unrecognisable.

It is the world’s largest online store for luxury childrenswear, achieving turnover of more than £80 million last year and the winner of a host of awards.

Childrensalon chief executive Michele Harriman-Smith

Childrensalon chief executive Michele Harriman-Smith

Mrs Harriman-Smith has transformed the company founded by her mother Sybil Harriman, who launched her boutique, The Children’s Salon, in Tunbridge Wells in 1952.

Its quaint town-centre shop remains but these days the company employs more than 300 people in a slick online and warehouse operation.

Selling 280 brands to more than 110 countries, revenues have been driven by demand from wealthy clients overseas, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East, where parents want to dress their sons and daughters in designers like Armani, Burberry, Gucci and Roberto Cavalli.

“It’s amazing to think that only 10 years ago, we had less than 10 people working out of our shop and a 2,000 sq ft warehouse on a rural estate,” said Mrs Harriman-Smith.

“Our ‘studio’ was an outbuilding in our garden.

“We were just beginning to label our shelves, count our stock and think about stock management systems.

"Often I am asked what is behind our success. There are many things, but what matters most to us is that when we started, we were having fun, and we are still having fun today..." - Michele Harriman-Smith

“Now our warehouse and stock system are systems we are truly proud of.

“Our bespoke studio equipment is years ahead of anything commercially available.

“We have a fantastic team in place of more than 300 people, been recognised for many awards and have had the privilege to help local charities that we truly believe in.”

The secret to Childrensalon’s success is not simply in catering for the world’s rich and famous.

The business became a living wage employer in 2015 and cemented its status with staff by winning the KEiBA Employer of the Year prize in 2017.

It picked up International Fashion Retailer of the Year at 2017 Drapers Awards and Mrs Harriman-Smith was named Business Woman of the Year at the 2017 UK Private Business Awards.

She said: “Often I am asked what is behind our success.

“There are many things, but what matters most to us is that when we started, we were having fun, and we are still having fun today.

“We remain passionate about keeping our customers happy.

“It’s a very simple statement, but the practice at Childrensalon involves going over and above what is expected every day – even putting a member of the team on a plane to deliver an important dress so that we keep our promise.”

Its latest accounts show pre-tax profits increased 33% to £14.2 million in 2016.

Customer usage of its main website grew 51% to 18.6 million sessions during the year.

It has managed the move towards mobile shopping too, with nearly 80% of its 7.2 million customer visits from mobile or tablet devices.

Mrs Harriman-Smith said: “Sales and profits are up but, more importantly, we have managed to grow whilst keeping our culture, serving our customers and developing our team.

“‘One team, one dream’ was a phrase we used at the very beginning and one we still look to embrace.

“We love welcoming visitors to our HQ and giving them the full tour.

“They are always greeted with smiles and never fail to comment on the wonderful atmosphere.”

How would you describe your style of management?
“My management style reflects my personality and values. People before profit is so important to me and I treat everyone who works at Childrensalon as a part of the family. It’s important to me that everyone treats each other with respect, feels they have a voice, has career progression and most importantly has a passion for the company and has fun working here. I think the company is so successful because we are able to achieve this and stay true to our values, which is so important.”

Where do you want Childrensalon to be in five years’ time?
“I hope we continue to have fun doing what we love – dressing children beautifully, learning from our current and new customers and providing them with the best user-journey, product assortment and customer service that the market has to offer. I would like us to continue to be the market-leaders in advancing new digital technology as well as continuing to be of the best places to work in the world.”

What are the biggest mistakes business owners make?
“I think the biggest mistake business owners make is growing too quickly and losing the most important part of their culture. We work very hard on this as over the past few years we have hired hundreds of people. It’s so important that everyone knows each other, and everyone has a voice. It is also very important that people we bring onboard have the same passion, love of the business and our values.”

CV 

Born: February, 1952, in Tunbridge Wells

School: Beechwood Sacred Heart School, Tunbridge Wells

Lives: Tunbridge Wells

Family: Five brothers and sisters, “a lovely husband, five adorable children and two grandchildren”.

First job: At J Walther Thomson in London

First wage: “I can’t remember”.

Salary now: Undisclosed.

Book: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Music: The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones

Film: Gandhi

Car: Mercedes

Gadget: “Anything technical”.

Last holiday: Highlands

Charity: Nourish Foodbank, The Women Shelter and The Bridge Trust

Typical day

Michele Harriman-Smith wakes up at about 5am and “loves reading customers’ emails” at the start of the day.

“It keeps me close to them and on top of any issues that may come up” she said.

She will also check the look and feel of the company’s website.

She then likes to walk her dogs or attend a yoga class before she comes into the office for the rest of the day.

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