Every day I speak to senior executives working in consumer industries who have amazing stories to tell. Occasionally I will also meet someone who, more than most, has played a pivotal role in the history of British retail, helping to make it the incredible sector it is today.
Nayna McIntosh is among those people. A key moment in her career dates back to the late 1980s – a time shortly after The MBS Group was founded – when serial entrepreneur and founder of Next, George Davies, was planning his next groundbreaking retail concept. He took a small group of Next executives with him including Nayna, who at the time was the retailer’s sales manager, and the brand they created was George at Asda.
By working closely with Asda’s inspirational management of Archie Norman and Allan Leighton, the own-label clothing range became a phenomenal success story that transformed not just Asda but the wider supermarket sector. When Walmart acquired Asda in 1999, the George brand was generating turnover of £2bn.
From here George took his team – again including Nayna – and set up the Per Una brand for M&S in 2001. Again the success of the brand was critical in boosting M&S during a period when the company was really struggling for the first time in its history.
George could never have achieved any of this without the team of stars he assembled for each venture. Most of them stayed with him and those who didn’t remained in their roles and did great things in the respective brands. His brilliance rubbed off on all who worked for him.
I had known about Nayna in the early 90s but was aware that the chances of placing her were slim as she was one of ‘George’s gang’ and they were impossible to move. I first met her in early 2000 and have been hugely impressed ever since.
Having begun her career as an assistant store manager at M&S, she moved to Next where she met George. After setting up Per Una, she stayed at M&S, working for Stuart Rose as director of store marketing. Not content with all of her illustrious achievements to date, Nayna left the role to launch her own business, Hope Fashion, in 2015.
It has been great to see the success of the business in its early days. Nayna wanted to make women feel good about themselves and so her brand caters to customers of all shapes and sizes – and in particular to women over the age of 40 who have become dissatisfied with the options available on the high street and feel disillusioned with the images presented to them in glossy magazines. Nayna’s aim is to empower women and help to make them feel more confident.
The business to date has been funded by a small group of investors including Stuart Rose. It has also completed a round of crowdfunding but remains on the lookout for potential new investors, especially those who would bring a complementary skill set to the business.
Hope has got off to a great start – as you would expect it has a great selling website, thanks in part to its highly engaged customer base and strong word of mouth on social media.
But Hope is also starting to expand into physical shops too, having recently agreed a deal with department store group Fenwick that will see its garments stocked in its Newcastle and York outlets from next month. Hope also recently went on sale in its first US department store (a family-owned business in the Midwest) as it looks to meet the growing international demand for its clothing.
I am always interested when people who have had long and very successful careers in the corporate world decide to become startup founders later in life. Nayna tells me that reaching 50 years old was a big turning point for her, and that starting Hope was as much about making a lifestyle change as a career move.
“Getting to 50 was for me a real milestone in my life – and one that probably coincided with a period in my career where I just wasn’t finding it as satisfying as I always had done in the past,” she says.
“Perhaps that’s why I acknowledged something that had been in the back of my mind for a long time, which was ‘would you ever consider setting up your own business and working for yourself?’ Sometimes when you’re in a job, doing the long hours and the big commute, you don’t really give yourself the head space to think about those things.”
Nayna’s life has been transformed since she made the switch. Her office is now her home in Oxfordshire where Hope’s six-strong staff convene to work in a specially created workspace. The business is planning to move to a permanent office early next year – but this will be just five miles away and still in a quiet, rural location.
It means that Nayna has been able to spend much more time with her family while simultaneously building a brand that she is hugely passionate about.
One of the things I love about Hope is its approach to sizing. Rather than break down sizes according to a precise series of numbers, the majority of Hope’s collection comes in just three sizes: freesize, dual slim and dual curvy. This decision to focus on body shape rather than specific sizes means that clothes are designed to enhance and complement a customer’s figure regardless of their height and proportions.
“It might sound like a small point but when you take the number out of the equation, it all starts to get less emotional,” notes Nayna. “Whether we like it or not, we all have a number in our head that we think we are, and there’s pressure with that, whereas if we say to customers you’re a dual slim or a dual curvy, they feel really positive about that.”
Hope has a commitment to manufacturing the product from either the UK or Italy, as well as using ‘real women’ as models in its marketing campaigns.
“Getting to 50 was for me a real milestone in my life – and one that probably coincided with a period in my career where I just wasn’t finding it as satisfying as I always had done in the past” – Nayna McIntosh, founder and CEO, Hope Fashion
This has helped Hope to build a close relationship with its customers, particularly as the company continually seeks to gauge feedback from women – even bringing in customers to test and try on items at the garment design stage. Hope also uses content such as blogs and videos to speak to its customers directly.
Nayna herself is at the heart of this content strategy. The name ‘Hope’ is her mother’s given name, while the logo was designed by her father-in-law, who had his own graphic design business for 40 years. A wonderful video on the Hope website also provides an insight into Nayna’s Jamaican heritage and explains how the business is truly a family affair.
“Ironically I never set the business up to have me as the face of it, or to be at the centre of it, but in today’s world people want to know about the founder and your motivations and inspirations,” she says. “People are interested in the story behind the brand.”
Leaving the corporate world to go it alone can be risky but Nayna is proof that with the right passion and vision, it is possible to take that leap at any stage of a career.
“My advice to anyone who’s considering doing this is be sure that you have a commercially viable project; and secondly be sure that you absolutely believe in it – because you’re going to spend a lot of time talking about it to potential investors and to customers,” she says.
“If the answer to both of those questions is yes then just go for it, none of this is a dress rehearsal, after all.”