I’m lucky enough to have worked with Juliette Hogan on her eponymous fashion brand since 2014. I asked her to join me on a chat with some of my Business Changing clients to share her journey, her lessons in business and how she’s created a business so successful that it took out Supreme Winner at the 2022 Westpac Business Awards — here are the notes from that talk and I’ve summarised the key four take-outs right at the end…
Give us a brief rundown on the size of the business in terms of staff numbers, but also your management structure.
There’s 40 of us in the company, 20 across the retail team. We’ve got five stores: three in Auckland, one in Christchurch, one in Wellington. Twenty of us are in the head office, which runs to ecommerce, digital marketing, design, finance, production, sampling, logistics, QC, that side of things. There’s four of us in the leadership team: myself, a GM who has been with us for three and a half years, a head of finance, and head of marketing and digital.
Fashion and retail are notoriously hard industries to win in. What would you say has been your key factors for your success in these industries?
I think one of our key factors to success has been that I was completely naive when I started. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know that fashion was notoriously hard. I don’t know if I would start again if I knew how challenging it would be.
I absolutely love what I do and I think it’s such a privilege to have something that you enjoyed doing when you were a child. I started sewing when I was twelve years old and just absolutely loved it — I got into this business because I like making clothes. For me, that literally is the root of everything. And it has turned into this really amazing, successful business that I’m incredibly proud of. But I wouldn’t be where I am today at all without the people around me supporting me and helping grow that.
What do you see your competitors doing that you personally think perhaps holds them back from reaching their ultimate success?
I don’t want to be critical of people that are my competitors because I think it’s a challenging industry and we’re all doing the absolute best that we can be doing. But when I look at other brands out there that are of a similar age, stage or who I looked up to in my younger years, pretty much every brand is a husband and wife team or a couple or partners, which I used to be really envious of. I am the sole owner of this business, with a 95% shareholding (my GM has 5%).
Because it had always been just me, I had to be really open to having outside expertise come in. Whereas I wonder — and like I say, I don’t know — if you are running a company or a fashion brand with someone else, there is the expectation that you know everything between you both and you have got each other to bounce ideas off and so you don’t look externally as much as you could. So something I thought was a hindrance for me in the past (heading this business alone), I now look at it being a real positive.
It was pretty hard in those early years to shoulder the entire responsibility and make decisions myself. While I would have loved to have been able to share that load with somebody, I also think it wouldn’t have made me to look externally for help as much as I have. For the first eight or nine years, I was adamant that I knew most about what I was doing; I didn’t want people to try and tell me what to do.
And then you get to a stage where you realize you only know what you know and that I needed other people to support me with this journey;
that I want to learn and I want to be the best that I can be for my team and for myself.
In the last few years you’ve had some really great growth. What do you think supercharged that?
It took us nine years to have a $1m turnover, which was a massive achievement for me. But I think about what we have achieved in the last nine years of business and it has been pretty supercharged and we have grown a lot. What has determined that? I’m a driven person and I’m pretty competitive with myself — not necessarily with others — but I really want to see us as a business becoming better every year. I want to be an A+ business. I want to feel really confident in everything that we are doing, to drive forward.
Definitely what has enabled that growth in recent years is the people I surround myself with and being really business focused. I think the first years of business are about learning about who you are and how to actually just do business, and then I think you spend time learning about how to lead a team, how to get the most from your team, and how to then grow for the team’s sake.
Is there much you would have done differently earlier in business, knowing what you know now?
Not really. I mean, I wish I’d run more, I wish I had invested in shares earlier, but as a whole, I think everything that we have gone through as a business has made us who we are.
Failing isn’t failing — it’s an opportunity to learn.
I’m really appreciative of the fact that we explored the Australian market early on in the piece. I didn’t have the time and resource to really dive into it so I pulled back and concentrated on the New Zealand market so we could have a really great business here. I have no regrets about that decision at all. I think if you keep looking back and regretting decisions, it would be a really challenging place to be mentally.
How do you balance being creative with being commercially successful?
I find it hard. I have a design assistant, so that’s really advantageous for me in terms of the creative side of things. I find the creative aspect of my role is the one that gets squeezed the most because I’m in control of it — if other things come up that I need to deal with, I’ll always design later and then end up designing in a really short period, which is kind of ridiculous because we’re a design-led company and I probably should spend more time on that. There’s so much required from me in terms of running the business; thinking about strategy and where we’re going, but actually the operational side of the business as well. That’s something I really want to step further away from in the coming years: spend far less time being involved with the day-to-day running of the business and instead be able to think about big picture and strategy and concentrate on design.
I’ll always have some time for design because it’s what my passion is and what I love. And if I wasn’t contributing to design then I would just be running a business and that’s not really what I set out to do in life. But it is always a bit of a pressure situation to figure out where I should be spending my time.
What have you personally struggled with as a business owner?
The high expectations I have of myself, the company and those people around us. It can be a positive, but also a real negative. I have struggled with my self-confidence and knowing if I’m strong enough to lead a team or in a business of this size and bigger. And I know that I do, because I’ve got the business to where it is today and it is doing really well, but I’m always trying to ensure that I’m the best that I can be for my team and I want to be able to grow and develop them.
I’ve never had another job — this is all I’ve done — so what I know is what I know and I feel anxious that that limits my ability to be able to understand what people need or how to manage people. That’s why my advisors and mentors are so incredibly important to me, because they are my education around what being a business leader is or being a business person is about. So that’s what I struggle a lot with: self confidence, and being able to get the best out of my team.
When our GM started, she started as a business manager. We were looking for a different skill set and the person we were interviewing was next level capable and I felt really anxious about my ability to be able to manage her in the company, but also be able to grow her in the company. That’s when I actually started the advisory board, which Zac sits on, to be able to ensure that they could challenge her in ways that I wasn’t going to be able to.
The other thing I find incredibly challenging and struggle with at the moment is guilt. I’ve got two small children (six and three) and I love working and I love being a mum. How do I fit it all in? With eating well, exercising, filling my bucket, doing the best thing for myself and for the business and for my family… that’s something I really struggle with on a daily basis.
Thanks for being vulnerable about bringing on someone brilliant, someone next level. The best business owners, ideally, always surround themselves with the best people but it’s quite a challenge when someone is really good and maybe even better than you in areas.
Absolutely. And Kristy my GM is far superior to me in certain areas of the business and we wouldn’t be where we are today without her support and her knowledge coming in and contributing to what we’re working on. But it is hard when you’re like, ‘Should I be making the decisions? Should she be making the decisions? Let’s work on them together. Who knows best?’ I’ve come to the realization that I need people around me who can provide me the information to help me make those decisions.
Do you have personal KPIs?
My role is ever-changing in the business, and I think as more people come on board, I’m constantly revaluating my role in the company. It will always be design-oriented, 100%, but I also ask myself what I can be doing to contribute to the success of Juliette Hogan going forward… So my KPIs are bringing our purpose, vision, and mission to life to the team. It’s about leading the team. It’s about ensuring that we’re developing the team in the right way so they can go forward and be really successful.
And I also believe it’s my role in the company — because of the doors this name opens — to be able to connect with people outside of the business and network and talk to people about what we want from the company, what we need, or how we look to go forward and grow, and where we need support in the company. And that’s my role, to be able to be connected with people, through people.
Obviously your name is the brand, which must have its pros and its cons. What are they?
It is quite interesting having a name attached to a brand. I wouldn’t have the ability to talk to a whole lot of people about if I didn’t have this platform or this brand or this following. I’m a very shy person, I don’t particularly like meeting people or talking to people, but it is definitely part of what I have to be doing as a brand so therefore, how can I use that platform for good and how can I make some really positive change to our community and our teams?
There are some real downsides to being the name of my brand. I take everything really personally. If someone has a shitty experience with Juliette Hogan, it’s not the business they think badly of, it’s me, which can be really challenging. Luckily we don’t really have that many shitty experiences.
On a real basic level, I feel like I have to wear nice clothes the whole time. It can be really exhausting in the weekends to put my best foot forward. I was in Bunnings a year or so ago wearing a Slayer t-shirt and gumboots and I came across one of our top customers in a beautiful silk dress… We both had a good laugh but I do feel like I need to be putting my best foot forward all the time.
What advice do you have for other business owners around putting themselves out there as the face of their business to get more brand exposure and PR?
It is such a positive being able to share who you are to your community. That connection and building trust is what business is about these days. It definitely became apparent to us during the last couple of years with COVID — us being able to talk to our community, telling them how we were faring, what we were feeling, what our plan was and being completely transparent with them has enabled us to have a far greater connection to our customers. They’re more loyal to us because they get to see what is happening behind closed doors.
I think that’s the way forward with business: there are expectations for people to understand more about business than just what the product is.
People want to know the values, they want to understand the story behind the brand, the why behind the product, what you are doing yourself personally or as a business to ensure that you are doing everything you can to be looking after your people, your planet, and the processes that you’re working on.
You’ve got a great team and you’ve had the same management team now for 3.5 years. How have you created such a tight team?
My leadership team are everything to me, and especially over the last three years with everything that has gone on. I would be a shell of a person if they weren’t here supporting and leading the company in the way they have. We’re quite different — we’ve got very different ways of approaching things and personalities which can be really interesting when it comes to decision-making. But I also know that any decision we approach as a business, we’re getting all the information brought to the table in the first place, we’re seeing everything from a different angle before we jump in and make a decision so we’re getting the right outcome.
I constantly think about how I can keep them engaged and grow them so that they enjoy working here. I think it’s also learning not to micromanage them — stepping back and letting people breathe and learn and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes, even though you know what they’re doing could be done in a different way. The best way to learn about something is when you do it and it doesn’t work and then you try, then you try again. I find it really challenging not to step in and assist somebody with what they’re doing but to ensure my leadership team stay around for a long time, I’ve got to allow them to breathe and grow and develop and get as much out of this company as they can.
I 100% wouldn’t be here and enjoying the business as much as I do if they weren’t here for the ride.
What sort of traits or qualities do you look for in your management team?
To me, it’s about living our values. So there’s integrity, kindness, respect, but there’s also not being afraid to fight for yourself. If you believe in something or believe in the way that the business is doing something, you have to stand up and fight for it. There’s also initiative; I love initiative. Come to me with solutions, not problems. I’m not very good with passive people. That just doesn’t float my boat, doesn’t inspire me, doesn’t drive me to want to develop them. But if people show up, learn and have the right attitude, then 100% we’ll take them into the fold and we’ll grow them and develop them so that they can be sitting at the management table going forward.
One of the things I think about with all recruitment is whether I would feel comfortable sitting next to them for two hours at a team dinner or Christmas party.
With the retail team, I used to think about whether whoever we were interviewing would be able to hold down a conversation with my mum and dad. And if they couldn’t, we wouldn’t employ them.
Obviously, Covid was challenging for all businesses, and especially retail with bricks and mortar. Yet your business ended that stressful time by winning the Westpac Business Excellence Awards, out of 1200 companies. What do you think made yours an award-winning business?
I’ve worked with Zac for a number of years. We’re really good at planning, we’re really good at talking about strategy, and I am good at thinking about worst-case scenarios. They’re always percolating in the back of my mind, so that nothing surprises me, but was completely surprised by COVID, as I’m sure everybody was. It was terrifying.
First and foremost, it was looking after our team and reassuring them they still had a job, but then it was, how are we going to communicate with our community? What are we going to do? How can we behave? What problems can we solve for our customers that will still allow them to be loyal to us and hopefully then purchase with us? And we came up with some really great initiatives to enable that.
Because we had so much product that we needed to move, we decided to do a treat yourself-and-treat-your-friend to try and move product, but also talk to a new customer base. So people who shopped with us over a four-week period, whatever they spent with us, we’d give them exactly the same amount back but for them to gift to somebody else in their life. So if you spent $500 with us, we would give you $500 for you to give to your mom, your sister, your neighbour, your friend… It cost us a huge amount, right? But it enabled us to move stock at a time when the stock was relevant to the season. We never would have done things like that if it had been business as usual.
Were there any other lessons you’ve taken from COVID that will set you in good stead going forward?
Being transparent with our community, being open and honest, connecting with people. That is 100% the biggest thing that you can be doing as a brand: connecting with your community, understanding your customers. Like data. We were interested in data before the lockdowns, but we are all about data now. And the more data and knowledge that we have about how our customers interact with us and shop with us, the better we can make decisions going forward.
That’s been a real positive of the last couple of years, understanding the importance of investing in data.
During that first lockdown, I listened to a podcast series called the Innovators’ Podcast. It gave me so many great take-homes to be able to talk about with the team. It’s about retail, specifically fashion retail, and shares amazing advice. It really allowed me to think about what was possible. Until then, it had been a long time since I had listened to something or read something. I’m not very good at reading business books. When I read, that’s when I give my brain a break so I read fiction and nonfiction. But when I had the space in lockdown to read business books and listen to podcasts, I realised that learning from other people definitely allows you to think about working on the business and be creative in terms of the way that you approach things so I’m working on ensuring that I have more time to do this on a weekly basis going forward.
What’s the long-term goal you have for Juliette Hogan, the business?
Our purpose is to have a positive impact on meaningful design. We want to grow, but the reasons we want to grow have changed somewhat from what they were ten years ago. The reason we want to grow now is so Juliette Hogan can have a legacy, so we can leave a lasting impression both on our community and our industry. I’m now one of the more mature designers in the industry and I want to set it up for success going forward for our younger generation of designers coming through.
I know we can grow the company so we can do some cool things going forward. Like, I’d love to buy other manufacturing companies in New Zealand, whether or not that’d be cutting, CMT production, what have you, and set them up in a way that we can offer apprenticeships right across the industry for the younger generation coming through so they can experience what it’s like working in a brand, so they can experience what it’s like working in a CMT or a cutting factory. I want them to know that there is so much more to this industry than just being a designer and there are so many key roles that make this industry what it is.
The basis of everything that we do will be continue to be making beautiful clothes for our customers.
Speaking of those goals, what do you think the major challenges will be in getting there?
Next year is going to be challenging. The challenges are going to be time, resource and profit to enable what we need to grow so that we can make some of these cool things happen. But I’m confident it will happen. I won’t let it not happen.
How do you manage your stress?
I know when I’m getting stressed because my tolerance levels for people is absolutely zero. My poor husband, he gets the majority of it because I try and hold my shit together at work. But I know that when I’m feeling that way I have to eat better, I have to walk every morning, I need to spend time with people outside of business and outside of my family that make me feel good about myself. I have to do things that fill my bucket. If I’m not great, then that’s not good for the company and I’m really conscious that when I’m not feeling great, that it has an impact on every area of my life.
I hate feeling really anxious and stressed. I’m really good at talking to people about it. But it’s challenging, right? And having children is challenging, and there’s not much quiet time in my head. For the first time ever, I’ve committed to taking a month off over Christmas, and I’m super excited about that. And I know I’ll be a better person for it when I come back next year.
If you weren’t in fashion, what would you possibly be tempted to try your hand at?
I think if you had asked me about ten years ago — when I had energy — I would say civil engineering or logistics. I love bridges and would love to work in a design field that was right or wrong, like will this bridge work or will it fail? Fashion is ambiguous — is this a pretty dress?
If you ask me now what I’d do if it wasn’t fashion… I’ve learned so much over the last 18 years and I would love to use that for the good of helping others. Governance would be pretty cool, working for charities, being able to share what I have learned over the years to make somebody else’s road a little more easy.
The top four take-outs from Juliette Hogan:
- Be really focused on improving business
- Be really focused on improving yourself
- Get the best team around you and include outsiders/experts
- There are expectations for people to understand more about business than just what the product is — show them behind the scenes.