Q&A

The Australian - The Deal - - News - In­ter­view by: Lisa Allen

Lorna Jane Clark­son tells how she built a global ac­tivewear brand

“I am a con­trol freak! If you have a pri­vate com­pany you have a lot of lux­u­ries such as mak­ing your own de­ci­sions.” Lorna Jane Clark­son on the prospect of a public list­ing of her com­pany

She may have started out as a den­tal ther­a­pist with Queens­land Health in the 1980s, but Lorna Jane Clark­son has since gone on to win mul­ti­ple awards and cre­ate the global multi-mil­lion-dol­lar Lorna Jane fash­ion em­pire. Along the way she has rev­o­lu­tionised women's sports­wear, but the for­mer fit­ness in­struc­tor hap­pily ad­mits to a few mis­takes along the way.

How do you struc­ture your day?

I al­ways do the cre­ative things first. I be­lieve that in the morn­ing you are most cre­ative. That’s when I make sure I have the dis­ci­pline to do the cre­ative stuff such as de­sign­ing, writ­ing a book or writ­ing for the web­site and our mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. Re­port read­ing and at­tend­ing meet­ings are left for the af­ter­noon.

What do you fear?

Not hav­ing enough time to get done what I want to do. I want to make a dif­fer­ence. At 50 I know there is so much more I want to do. I want to in­spire women to have a more ac­tive life. I want to make sure I have an im­pact.

What are your per­sonal strengths?

Be­ing in busi­ness for 26 years, I am re­ally good at mak­ing fast de­ci­sions. I know my brand re­ally well and I know the cus­tomers be­cause I am a cus­tomer. I make de­ci­sions re­ally quickly, which I can also put down to the ne­ces­sity of time.

What would you tell other peo­ple start­ing out in busi­ness?

A lot of things: some peo­ple can be in busi­ness and be happy, but with a busi­ness like mine you should make sure you fully un­der­stand what you are get­ting into. You must be com­fort­able with change, you must want to grow, and you must learn to keep mov­ing. Make sure you re­ally love what you do, and make sure you are will­ing to keep mov­ing with the mar­ket­place.

What are the big chal­lenges for re­tail com­pa­nies given the power of the net?

With Lorna Jane we own our brand, our re­tail stores, and we own our web pres­ence. When you have a brand such as Lorna Jane that has an au­then­tic­ity you have the lux­ury not to be so wor­ried about the cheaper rip offs. You can­not pro­duce our prod­uct at a cheaper price with the same qual­ity – it’s ab­so­lutely im­pos­si­ble. To me, the net is just a dif­fer­ent way for my cus­tomers to shop. When she shops on the net she has to get amaz­ing ser­vice, and the ex­pe­ri­ence must al­most be the same as the friendly ser­vice she gets in store.

What sort of de­mand was there for ac­tive leisurewear when you started in 1989?

None. No­body be­lieved in my con­cept. At that point Nike didn't even own a con­cept store, no ac­tivewear brand did. There was no fo­cus on stylish ac­tivewear. Peo­ple ques­tioned whether I should leave my gov­ern­ment job to start this busi­ness.

What prob­lems did you en­counter when you first es­tab­lished the com­pany?

Back in the 1980s, I be­lieved there was a re­tail cat­e­gory for ac­tivewear, but peo­ple who were not hard-core sports peo­ple thought I was crazy. The bot­tom line was if the con­cept didn't work, it didn't work. I am pretty de­ter­mined – some would say pig-headed.

How do you cope with fi­nan­cial pres­sure?

I don't work well when I am un­der money pres­sure. I have seen too much hap­pen to oth­er­wise good busi­nesses un­der money pres­sure. In my book, you make money first and then you spend it.

What is one of your best selling lines?

Any­thing in LJ Ex­cel fab­ric. We de­vel­oped it 24 years ago and it's still the lead­ing tech­nol­ogy. It is flat­ter­ing and it has an eight-way stretch. We are also known for our tights. They are like shapewear built into ac­tivewear giv­ing women a great sil­hou­ette. My sports bra with re­mov­able pad­ding is also a best seller.

Did you ever think ac­tivewear would be­come such a global fash­ion phe­nom­e­non? Stella McCart­ney is now de­sign­ing ac­tivewear for Adi­das for in­stance?

Ab­so­lutely not. I never thought for one mo­ment my busi­ness would be a global busi­ness. I was meet­ing my needs by de­sign­ing fit­ness wear for my­self, and was re­ceiv­ing a great re­sponse from peo­ple in the fit­ness classes I used to teach. As my busi­ness started to grow I thought to my­self, “Oh, my god, you are on to some­thing”. In 1991, a Malaysian woman came into our first Lorna Jane con­cept store in Bris­bane and bought all the stock with a $25,000 cash cheque. She planned to on-sell it. For five min­utes we (hus­band Bill Clark­son, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Lorna Jane) jumped up and down and then we re­alised we had no stock left. It was a re­ally piv­otal mo­ment.

As a woman en­tre­pre­neur, was it dif­fi­cult deal­ing with banks or other in­sti­tu­tions when you started?

Very early on we sold our beau­ti­ful home in the Bris­bane sub­urb of Padding­ton for $450,000 to fi­nance the pur­chase of an old fac­tory build­ing in in­ner-city For­ti­tude Val­ley, just off the CBD. We needed a fac­tory for the busi­ness. We ren­o­vated the fac­tory and built a ware­house apart­ment and within two years the build­ing's value shot up to $4 mil­lion. That was our col­lat­eral. We never had any prob­lem with the bank. Hav­ing that build­ing was a re­ally good thing to do early on.

What busi­ness de­ci­sions do you re­gret?

In hind­sight, we prob­a­bly should have trade­marked our padded sports bras. But, on the other hand, more and more women are ben­e­fit­ing from them. I am one of those peo­ple who tend not to look back. How­ever, in hind­sight and given the fan­tas­tic suc­cess we have had in the United States, I would have gone there two years ear­lier. We talked about it for so long and now the mar­ket is crowded glob­ally. I would have liked us to have more of a stran­gle­hold in Amer­ica, but our busi­ness is

do­ing re­ally well there.

Would you ever list the com­pany on the

Aus­tralian Se­cu­ri­ties Ex­change?

A public list­ing? I am a con­trol freak! If you have a pri­vate com­pany you have a lot of lux­u­ries such as mak­ing your own de­ci­sions. I would never say never, but I can't see it hap­pen­ing. I don't think it's a regime my hus­band Bill and I would work well un­der.

What are your over­seas ex­pan­sion plans?

We have just opened our first store in Paris, and we are be­ing stocked by Nord­strom which has 117 stores in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. The Nord­strom deal will in­tro­duce us to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Apart from the US, we are also push­ing into Asia and fur­ther into Europe.

Now that other big name fash­ion brands are build­ing their ac­tivewear lines how do you cope with the in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion?

It's a bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness. The mar­ket is be­com­ing crowded, but we will be here while the mar­ket is crowded and while it is not crowded. Ac­tivewear is re­ally fash­ion­able. Many of the tra­di­tional fash­ion com­pa­nies are get­ting into ac­tivewear. But they are just there while it's re­ally fash­ion­able. I think ac­tivewear will be an im­por­tant part of the fe­male wardrobe. Once it cools off the big brands will re­place it (with some­thing else).

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