PERSONAL TRAGEDY was the making of Tracy Mort. On the brink of redundancy she learnt that her brother had cancer. Two days later, he was dead.
“Losing him made me stop and think about life and my future,” said Mort. “I had to do something with that grief.”
One month later, in January 2007, the beauty company where Mort worked as a buyer went into administration. Elizabeth French had been bought by the Disperse Group three years earlier.
“The whole thing was poorly managed,” she said. “Every brand Disperse bought went under. I was left to watch this catastrophe.”
Mort wasted no time in co-founding a new company, called Grace Cole, where she was determined that things would be done differently. “I didn’t know how to run a business but I knew that if I had the right product at the right price, it would work,” she said. “I was sick of being told things that made no sense to me.”
Grace Cole’s body, bath and cosmetic products and gifts are sold in stores such as Boots, Debenhams and Harrods. Seven years on, the company has annual sales of £10.3m and hopes to reach £12.5m in 2014-15. It is based in Cheadle, south of Manchester, and has 24 employees.
Mort’s co-founder was David Gerrard, previously her boss at Elizabeth French, who took an 80% share. The plan was for her to be the creative director and buyer, with Gerrard as managing director, but three weeks in he had to stand down for personal reasons.
“I couldn’t quite believe this was happening — I was almost back to square one,” said Mort. She had no choice but to take charge. “I’d never been a managing director before, and I was petrified.”
Gerrard recovered but did not return to a hands-on role with Grace Cole, although he kept his stake. Mort bought 35% of the business from him last April, taking her stake to 55%. She said: “David has been a great sounding board but in the end I have run it the way I want to.”
This included steering Grace Cole through the recession. “Companies were going under around me.” The crisis also forced her to consider her business strategy. “I had to question why I was purchasing from China when the UK economy was in turmoil and needed help.”
In 2008 she moved 5% of manufacturing to this country. Today, half of Grace Cole products are made here. The range is exported to 70 countries. “Those first few years were the most traumatic of my life but channelling my grief and facing all those difficulties has brought this company forward,” said Mort, 39.
She grew up on a council estate in Bolton, Greater Manchester, with her older brother and mother, who held several jobs cooking and running slimming classes to make ends meet. “Mum always said, ‘Never end up like me. Not knowing where the next penny is coming from is a horrific way to live.’ It gave me the drive and determination never to rely on anybody else financially.”
Mort left Sharples High School in Bolton at 16 to join a taster scheme with Greater Manchester police. “All I wanted to be was a policewoman; I had my whole life mapped out.” After 18 months, she was disappointed. “It was an administration role, not an insight into the police force. I felt lost.”
She decided to go elsewhere until her 21st birthday, when she could join as an officer. To fill the time she took a job with a building contractor, where she met her husband, Steven. She then took a job at an estate agent, but found it “tremendously boring waiting for the phone to ring”.
The dream of becoming a policewoman ended with the birth of her daughter in 2000. “Steven thought it was too dangerous a career and I gave in,” she said. “If there was something I wanted so badly now, I wouldn’t, but it was the right decision in the end.”
That decision led her to try her hand as a buyer for USI, a trading company. “As soon as I started buying I knew this was what I wanted to do. It was so varied and exciting, I didn’t have time to get bored.”
She found her niche in health and beauty and in 2004 successfully applied for the job of head buyer at Elizabeth French. When it came to developing a brand for her own business, she took inspiration from that company.
“With a name, buyers feel they’re dealing with a person rather than a company,” Mort said. “I wanted a nice English lady’s name to appeal to our export market, so I made one up.”
She has added an online store and plans to expand into make-up. “I don’t want to diversify too much, only products that complement what we do already.”
Mort lives in Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester, with her husband and daughter, Georgia. She was appointed an MBE in January last year for services to the economy and won the 2013 NatWest Everywoman award.
Her advice to entrepreneurs is to keep focused: “No matter how many times people knock you back, if you’re confident you have the right product, price and market, never give up.”