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Herald Scotland Interview
Herald Scotland Interview

Retailing duo built gem of a firm with a sparkling future

IN this week's SME Focus we hear how two high-flying veterans of the big retail world developed their own business from very modest beginnings.

CHAIN REACTION: Ann Atri (left) and Marie McAleer quit high-flying posts in retail companies to take the brave step and establish their own fashion jewellery business Rosa Red at Kirkintilloch. Picture: Martin Shields

Name: Marie McAleer.

Age: 46.

What is your business called?

Rosa Red Ltd.

Where is it based?

Kirkintilloch, Glasgow.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

Affordable fashion jewellery, principally as a wholesaler.

To whom does it sell?

Jewellers, boutiques, gift and fashion shops across the UK and also from consumer shows such as Girls Day Out and Homes & Interiors Scotland.

How many employees?

Three in the office plus three sales agents.

When was it formed?

2006

Why did you take the plunge?

I was tired of making sales and profits for other people. My business partner Ann Atri and I were weary of travelling all over the UK and the world and craved a work/life balance that we felt we could achieve by working for ourselves using all of our retail and business expertise.

We met at Texstyle World when I was made buying director by the new management appointed by the bank in 2002 and Ann was Merchandising Controller.

This was a frustrating time, as product sales were buoyant but the business had large inherited debt, which played a big part in its falling into administration in December 2002.

We both moved to Klick Photopoint, but quickly realised that we had a brighter, more manageable future working together than working for others so decided to go it alone.

We wanted to create a business that didn't involve having a huge stockholding to satisfy size requirements, so we thought of fashion jewellery as this was one-size-fits-all.

We looked at the fashion jewellery sector and felt that it was very much focused on young people and there appeared to be no real co-ordinated collections for women 'of a certain age' who wanted good-quality, fashionable pieces that were different from the high street.

Our collections include three or four matching pieces of each design so that the wearer can mix and match as they please. We have created a brand that we feel is easily recognisable in both the product, packaging and point of sale.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

Ann and I worked in head-office retail for over 60 years between us.

I worked as buyer/buying director while Ann worked as merchandiser/merchandise controller at high street chains such as Littlewoods, River Island, M&Co and Texstyle World.

I started my career as a trainee buyer at Littlewoods stores almost 20 years ago and was gift buyer then senior buyer on soft furnishings.

The job of buyer involves sourcing products from all over the world and I travelled extensively in the Far East and in Europe looking for the best factories to collaborate with. I re-located back to Glasgow in the late nineties before a few years later becoming buying director at Texstyle World which involved me creating and implementing the buying strategy for 85 stores and £80 million turnover.

Ann was managing the merchandising team to ensure we had the right product in the right place at the right time in the right quantities.

We took all of our skills and transferred them to Rosa Red. We often joke that we run the business as if we were running a 1000-store operation but we cannot ignore our instincts, skill and experience.

We think we are highly professional and we never want to lose that.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

Initially our only costs were for stock. We wanted to keep costs at an absolute minimum so we worked from our own front rooms and our families worked for nothing packing stock. Ann's uncle made our display equipment and my brother printed our business cards and letter heads.

We received a start-up grant from East Dunbartonshire Council to help fund our website, but this was the only grant available to retail businesses. We found it almost impossible to get any funding for retail. We initially used our own savings to pay for stock, as the orders were small so that we could test the market.

What was your biggest break?

We were doing a retail show at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow and we were approached by the owner of a gift shop asking if we would supply her with our designs. We had not thought of ourselves as suppliers at this point – we had always been retailers – so this was a major shift change.

We then decided to do our first trade show and it just took off from there. We now supply almost 300 shops and we have our own office and warehouse. We would love to supply 1,000 shops and this is what motivates us every day. I do not think the business would have gone in the direction it has had it not been for that first customer.

What was your worst moment?

I was violently ill on a buying trip to China two years ago. We were visiting several factories in a short period of time and there was a real fear that we would not have a collection to launch in the following season.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Creating designs in conjunction with the factories and producing desirable collections each season. The biggest thrill is when sales come through each time a collection is launched.

We love being in control of our own destinies. When we make a decision now we simply have a chat and then action it. In our corporate days it would have to go to three levels of a committee and take weeks to be agreed. We get results much quicker now.

What do you least enjoy?

Worrying that the new collection will not be well received. There is a lot of competition and the economic situation means it is very tough out there.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

In the big picture, we want to sit in any restaurant, any shop, any location in the UK – or even the world ! – and see many women wearing a piece of Rosa Red jewellery. Today our most pressing objective is to expand Rosa Red more fully into England, as the bulk of our business is in Scotland.

What are your top priorities?

Our current priorities are: creating commercial designs; maintaining excellent quality; having 100% stock availability; despatching orders within 24 hours; building the Rosa Red brand.

Our long-term priorities are: creating a retail website to run alongside our trade site; recruiting more sales agents; creating partnerships with young Scottish designers; creating partnerships with some high-profile stockists.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

Help with funding trade shows at home and abroad, reduce corporation tax rate for small businesses and increase the VAT threshold.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

That the work/ life balance is a myth!

How do you relax?

That's nigh on impossible as when shopping I am always looking at the competition and at other shoppers, and when watching television I look at what every female character / presenter is wearing so that I can keep up to date with the latest trends. I'm an 'on the go 24/7' person!