When Tracy Mort decided to apply her years of expertise in the beauty industry to launching her own company, it coincided with the catastrophic economic downturn of 2007. Eight years later, however, Grace Cole Ltd has been given one of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise, 2015.
Success has been achieved not only via a deep knowledge of the market, but also by calculated risk-taking that ran completely against industry trends. Tracy Mort had experience in buying, sourcing, marketing and product development – just about the only thing she couldn’t do was to manufacture the product herself.
“When I first started the business, I automatically bought from China,” says Mrs Mort, now managing director of Grace Cole Ltd. “I had been a buyer in the trade and had always sourced products there. Most of what we produced at the time were large gift sets for Christmas, where the production can be laborious – so that was another reason to produce in China.”
It became clear to Mrs Mort that the only place not in recession was China, and handing over the company’s hard-earned cash was doing little to help manufacturing in the UK. “I thought there had to be a way I could retain the business within the UK,” she says. “British manufacturing was in decline, so surely the margins had to be lower. Everyone told me I was crazy to try – with such affordable products and only a slight margin, there really wasn’t anywhere to go.”
Another reason for manufacturing in the UK came with the reaction to the provenance of the products, particularly at international trade shows. “When I was naming the company,” Tracy Mort recalls, “I wanted something that sounded quint-essentially English but also worked well with the industry. That’s how Grace Cole became the name.
“But at trade shows, the potential clients who were initially delighted to see pro-ducts from the UK were clearly disappointed that they weren’t manufactured here. We told them, quite sheepishly, that they were designed in the UK, but it didn’t matter – they would leave the stand. I learned very quickly that British manufacturing is held in high regard across the world.”
Tracy Mort also found that being a gifting company meant it was difficult to control year-round cashflow. There was a massive spike at Christmas, but it was clear that Grace Cole had to introduce some daily care products that would be available all year and also improve its visibility as a brand.
“I got together with my design team and my sales team and we put together a range of products,” she says. “We drove down the price as far as we possibly could while still manufacturing here in the UK, and we have never looked back. Now more than half of our products are made here.
“It allows us to support small businesses and to choose them for their manufacturing abilities. No matter how advanced techno-logy gets, there’s nothing like being able to jump in the car and going to talk to someone face-to-face.”
The Grace Cole range includes body care products – from shower gels to body creams, from hand lotions to lip balms. Apart from the Grace Cole England range, brands include Boutique, Fruit Works, and Tea Tree & Witch Hazel, as well as the Miss Cole and Fresh Linen gift ranges – all of them carrying the Against Animal Testing badge.
“We charged a little bit more than we would have done, but not that much more,” Mrs Mort says. “In our markets outside of the UK there was really no resistance to it. It seemed there was an expectation that a premium product would cost a little bit more. There was more resistance to it in the UK, actually.”
Now Grace Cole is in 80 countries, and the combination of manufacturing at home and having such widespread success abroad has been instrumental in achieving one of the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise. Tracy Mort is not yet satisfied, however, as it is her ambition to see Grace Cole in every country in the world.
“I do like a challenge,” she says. “There are some legislative barriers to getting into some countries at the moment, but when that changes, we’ll be in there.”