An uncompromising approach to business

 

Susie Hewson, winner of the 2014 First Woman in Manufacturing award, converted raw passion and anger into global business success. Find out how.

About the author

Susie Hewson

Inspired to action by the impact of traditional feminine hygiene products on the environment and on women’s health, former graphic designer Susie Hewson launched Natracare in 1989. Today, the company is a global success, providing a high quality, natural and organic alternative to conventional products.

Susie Hewson

Natracare at a glance

Natracare numbers graphic

Susie Hewson founded Natracare in 1989. The business was conceived out of anger at the conventional feminine hygiene industry's attitude to both the environmental impact of their products and the potential danger they posed to women's health, from irritation to the potentially fatal toxic shock syndrome.

Susie launched the business using her own money and a £90,000 overdraft facility from her local bank manager, secured against the value of the family's property. Today Natracare's annual turnover is in excess of £11m.

Steep learning curve

It hasn't been easy – real innovation rarely is, as Susie notes: "The solution to the problem with traditional products wasn't out there, so I needed to make one. That meant researching raw materials and contract manufacturers, creating a specification, building a marketing plan and developing a brand. And this was all pre-internet, so I spent a lot of time in the library with the Yellow Pages! On the plus side, it meant that I knew my product and my markets really well – something businesses today shouldn't overlook."

Raw passion had triggered Susie into action but, she admits, it was a steep learning curve: "I'm a good problem solver, but this was a whole different sphere. I had to understand medical device regulations, how to find a distributor, how to talk to a supermarket and how to export. Getting the first wholesaler to take the product and then Waitrose to list it was a major milestone. It confirmed I was doing the right thing, and was on the right path."

Managing challenges

Although even on that 'right path' it hasn't all been plain sailing, Susie attributes the lack of any major setbacks to her attitude and planning. "You can't think of blue skies and rosy sunsets every day in business. You have to have contingencies. You only have setbacks if you don't plan and prepare."

Part of that plan is enforcing a culture of sustainability and ethical responsibility. It's what you'd expect from an active member of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. "All the products I develop are ecologically designed and sourced from renewable, sustainable materials," Susie remarks. "All of the manufacturing is in Europe and governed by European regulations. "I've missed opportunities because I won't compromise my principles. A lot of manufacturers, for example, work in the Far East to reduce costs – but someone has to pay the price of poor labour."

Customer and employee wellbeing

This commitment to her principles is one of the foundations of a business that encourages its employees to hold meetings in the gardens of its Bristol HQ, and even to do a spot of weeding if the mood takes them. "Being in touch with the environment brings energy into your day," Susie explains. "I won't ask people to do things that I wouldn't do myself, so it's important to me to make sure that people are happy at work and have lots of space around them."

Global channels

It's a formula that clearly works. Today, Natracare products are sold in over 60 countries and average growth has been 17% a year over the past 15 years. The US is the firm's largest market, followed by Korea and then Western Europe.

"From day one, export was a core part of the business," says Susie. "Our first move was into the US. It took two years to set up a distribution company and invest in FDA medical device regulation – and it took seven years to make a profit. Building international business takes time and real effort, but now we're the first foreign tampon brand registered in Taiwan and the third biggest brand in Iceland."

A powerful role model

Despite winning the First Woman in Manufacturing Award in 20141, Susie admits that one of the greatest challenges has been simply being a woman in business. "Walking into a room full of men who immediately talk to you as if you're someone's secretary is tough, and has happened to me a lot," she says.

"When I started out, the only role model for women in business was Anita Roddick. She made me see that it was possible for a woman to be in business and be successful. Things are changing, but even now challenges remain. Women are very skill-rich but often comparatively time and resource poor – so finding a way to give them equal access to resources and opportunities is vital.

"It's just as important that women have confidence in their own abilities, and refuse to be bullied or dismissed out of hand."

Sharing experiences

It's not just women in business Susie feels affinity for. "Established businesses should be more involved in mentoring SMEs," she says. "There's no joy in saying 'well you're going to learn the hard way, like I did' – why make it miserable for someone else when you can help? There's been a huge amount of learning and long sleepless nights for me to get to this point and if I wrote about it, it would be like the Encyclopaedia Britannica! It's my duty to share that experience."

With ambitions to enter new markets, expand in existing ones and extend product lines, Susie remains committed to maintaining the culture of Natracare. "There are 45bn sanitary pads being disposed of every year and they're 90% plastic.2 That's a big environmental problem and it won't go away without action.

Some of the industry giants are now switching on to the environmental angle and they're trying to bolt that awareness on to existing processes. That's tough. I've never had to do that and I can't imagine being in a business where there's a conflict between an environmental and ethical position, and a business strategy.

"You can’t think of blue skies and rosy sunsets every day in business. You have to have contingencies."

Natracare is a 360° ethical, sustainable business and our ethical position extends within our business too. We have no management structures, we pay a living wage and bonuses are based on profit share."

In addition to her plans to expand the business, Susie has clear ambitions for what she wants Natracare to achieve as a sustainable concept.

"I'm ambitious for people to really understand the impact that consumers have," she says. "The choices they make can determine the future. My brand, Natracare's proposition and the philanthropic work we do with women around the world aims to help women understand that their consumer choices are very influential and that they have the power to create change."

Susie’s top tips for growing businesses:

  1. Stand back from your business (or invite a third party) to honestly assess what you're doing – you might be surprised.
  2. Balance the books. Business is like a controlled diet: calories in, calories out.
  3. Keep looking ahead. It's easy to get trapped in the 'now'.
  4. Don't shoot your mouth off. Make sure you can prove what you claim.
  5. Invest in innovation to differentiate your offering, and always aim to excel in your category.

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