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Sock Business School

by Claire Martinsen on Fri 17th Jul 2020 07:28

All this coverage of Leicester in the news at the moment is bringing memories flooding back of my first job out of University – which was in Leicester and where I spent four lovely years. All those outlying areas of Leicester that they are mentioning on the news like Groby, Glenfield and Blaby I know well…………so when I hear the names on the news it feels so familiar.

I graduated from Strathclyde University and got a degree in business. I interviewed for several jobs, but when I went for the interviews I was just really struck by the people at Coats Viyella. So I joined the Coats Viyella graduate scheme, working for Byford Hosiery in Leicester. Byfords at that time was part of the contract clothing division of Coats Viyella Plc. It was a small-medium business based on Abbey Road in Leicester and made predominently own-label socks for the High Street.

It was an interesting time for a wet behind the ears graduate, moving to a strange city and all alone in the world. The MD was called Dave Powell and was a straight talking Leicester man who had a clear focus on getting results. His management team were entirely male, and in true Mad Men style any meetings were conducted in a fog of cigarette smoke (!!). I was the first woman to work there as a ‘Manager’ and definitely the first to be given a company car (which I was often reminded about….even though all the men had one who were doing the same role).

And because all the ‘important’ accounts like BhS, Woolworths, Sock Shop et al were being looked after by the experienced commercial managers, their graduate commercial trainee was given the ‘smaller’ accounts of Sainsburys and Tesco’s. And I was thown in the deep end…………..and to be fair loved it. I was made Sales Director two years later, at the age of 24.

And that was my true business education – learned from the world of Socks. Please don’t let me bore you about socks…..I could tell you the in’s and out’s even now! When I look back what I really learned was:

Roll your hand up where required.…there was an amazing team mentality at Byfords. If there was an issue on the packing line we would all help out – regardless of rank. If it needs doing – just do it.

Truly understanding the end to end business process …the entire production process took place on our small site on the corner of Abbey Lane and I really got to understand the nuts and bolts of business – from raws, labour, personnel, finance, logistics. It was a microcosm of everything and I soaked it all up. It’s stood me in really good stead ever since.

The importance of sales …I would get immediate ‘feedback’ from the knitters who ran the production lines if they didn’t think their type of ‘sock’ was being produced enough. If sales for example of a heavy weight knitted sock was low, this impacted their ability to earn overtime and therefore wages. There’s an absolute connection between how well a business does, and how many people they are able to employ.

Trust your people and they will succeed …the amount of responsibility I was given was terrifying when I look back. I learned mainly on the fly, and Dave Powell put an amazing trust in me. I like to think I repaid that trust! When in doubt always trust first – amazing things can happen.

Always go with your gut feel….I listened, I learned, I observed and over time started bringing in new ways of doing things. I didn’t have others to learn from and I didn’t have a blueprint of how things should be done. It was an early lesson in ‘if it feels right it probably is right’. And running Breckland Orchard that is a really important lesson to bring with me.

At the time it was a slightly left-field decision to join a small manufacturing company in Leicester, rather than one of the bigger more well known companies I had also been offered jobs with (gut feel you see!) but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I left Byfords to join Mars, and flew through the interview process….the feedback was that my overall business understanding was some of the best they’d seen. And Mars was an amazing place to learn too!

So thank you Leicester for being so welcoming to me all those years ago – and please stay safe!

Posted in: General Musings! Running a micro-business Starting out The Magic of Mars


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