Susana has worked in retail, the travel industry and management consultancy but her first love is the lingerie business. For her it is all about making women feel good about themselves by coming up with lingerie and swimwear solutions that both look good but are also comfortable and fit well.
She has 15 years’ experience in the lingerie business, having worked at Rigby & Peller, Eres, the luxury brand owned by Chanel and also running a business in Richmond. Her new venture, Maison SL in Notting Hill, London is a luxury multi-brand store catering for real women and stocking nearly two dozen brands including La Perla, Aubade, Stella McCartney and Andres Sarda.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I was born in Angola in Africa and grew up in Porto, where the Port wine comes from, after my parents returned to Portugal. So Porto is where I come from but I think of London as home.
I first came to London 21 years ago to learn English for a month – I was planning to become an academic, having completed seven years of university study and a doctorate in Medieval History, and I needed good English to do research. But I fell in love with the people and the place and never went back. Much though I still love Porto, London is very much home for me now and I still enjoy discovering new sides to it.
With an academic background in Psychology and then History, it was a challenge building a suitable career as I spoke very little English to begin with. But I am a quick learner and I had the advantage that I speak Spanish, Italian and French as well as Portuguese so I ended up using my language skills in my job hunt. I had to start off at the bottom, working as a hotel receptionist, but I love a challenge and making my way in a foreign country certainly provided that. It is a good training for being an entrepreneur.
Having my own lingerie business, Maison SL, is the perfect job for me. There’s all the excitement and challenge of running your own business combined with being involved in the fashion and lingerie world. It is very different from other fashion businesses.
Dresses are usually made in about six sizes but a bra can come in more than 50 different sizes so it is much more complicated ordering the right stock and controlling stock levels. Getting the stock right is critical to the business.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
At different times I had very clear ideas of what I wanted to be doing and how I would get there. Planning is good but it is also important to keep an open mind as new opportunities often come along which you had not thought about. That has certainly been my experience. I was very lucky at my school because from the age of 12 years old I was guided by my teachers to make choices that took into account my skills but also my passion for the subject. In those days I wanted either to be a writer/journalist or to work with disadvantaged children.
I eventually decided on the latter and I applied to study Psychology at university. As it turned out, after three years I changed my mind and switched to History to pursue a teaching and research career. Then going to the UK and deciding to stay there made me completely rethink my career options and for the past 20 years I have made a conscious decision to keep an open mind. I’ve learned that sometimes great opportunities are missed if you are too rigid in your planning.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
Well, not speaking the language was certainly a massive challenge when I came to London but if I am honest, at the time it didn’t feel like that because I saw it as an adventure. Later, in my thirties, I sometimes felt it was taking too much time to get where I wanted to be in my career and at times I questioned my decision to move to a new country. But for me the most important thing in overcoming career challenges is the ability to stay positive and never give up – staying power is critical. I have also very lucky with the people I worked with as they allowed me to develop my ideas and achieve my goals. I believe success in business is always a shared enterprise and my successes have been closely linked to the people I worked with.
On a typical workday, how does you start your day and how does it end?
I am not a morning person but once I am up I will make sure I feel good and comfortable with the way I look (easier some days than others!). After dealing with emails that need an immediate response, I tend to do a short review of the day before and then map out my day with my assistant, Laura. That usually involves distributing tasks, organising calls and preparing for suppliers, if we are looking to buy new collections, as well as setting up client appointments, requests and deliveries. I have lots of nervous energy and often work straight past lunch until I realise that it is mid-afternoon and I haven’t eaten anything – or someone reminds me to eat. By early evening I start to relax when I see the results of the day’s work and I usually end my working day thinking about what needs to be done tomorrow. After that I switch off. One thing I am good at is not taking work home with me.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you ever had a mentor or do you mentor anyone?
I have had two mentors who have had a big impact on my life and career. The first was my Spanish godmother, who I was very close to and spent a lot of time with during a period of family turmoil. She was a very disciplined person and taught me the importance of being very well-prepared for any challenges you face. The confidence that comes with knowing you have prepared well means you are much less likely to stress and I think it is because of her that I hate to put things off and always like to get the work done first and then relax afterwards.
My other great mentor was my first boss when I came to London. He is a very successful businessman but also a very kind and spiritual person.
He believed you should push yourself and have high aspirations – when he gave me a job as a new arrival in London he told me I had two weeks to learn enough English to do it properly. But above all he believed you should be doing something that you loved and ultimately that was the most important thing. We have kept in touch over the years and he always encouraged me in my plans to set up my own lingerie business. It was wonderful that he was there at the opening party for Maison SL.
With my own staff I have always felt that mentoring is an essential part of managing people as it helps not only to develop an individual’s skills but it also to build strong teams. It is amazing too how much you learn from talking to younger people about their careers. You can help them because of your experience and the fact that you’ve been through similar situations before to the ones they are now facing. But you also get the benefit of their ideas and fresh approach to work. The best thing about managing people is feeling you have been able to help someone in a small way fulfil their potential and seeing them discover more about their skills or abilities, moving into bigger roles, achieving their goals and developing as both professionals and as people.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
Getting to a position where people no longer talk about women in the workplace. Women have had to fight hard in many areas to achieve the positions they deserve but success for me will be when gender is no longer an issue and we just talk about people in the workplace rather than men or women.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Setting up Maison SL is definitely my biggest achievement to date. I have had my own business before and I have also worked for big brands like Rigby & Peller and Eres, turning round parts of the business or launching a new luxury store. But nothing beats the excitement of doing it all for yourself – developing the concept, launching the business and being totally responsible for its success. Maison SL is a luxury, multi-brand business catering for a wide range of clients. There are lots of things you have to sort out – finding the right premises, negotiating leases, managing the shop-fit, controlling the finances and so on. But our success depends ultimately on our skill at understanding what our clients want – curating the right collection of brands for them – and then providing an outstanding service. It is always a big challenge starting something new and nothing ever goes quite as you expect. But once you have experienced the excitement and fun of starting up your own business it is very hard to go back to working for other people!
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
Growing the business and opening new outlets will be one of our big challenges. But in this business you need to walk before you can run. Over-expansion is one of the things that invariably kills retailers.
More immediately we are working on launching online sales but I believe this will always be a small part of our business. Many traditional retailers are under huge pressure at the moment from the growth of online. The reason it is different for us is because buying lingerie and swimwear at this end of the market is so much about the experience. It can be very difficult and quite intimidating to find the right things to suit your body morphology and skin tones unless you have someone helping you who gets your expectations and concerns. I always tell my staff we are selling a service as much as a product.
Of course, there are always some customers who are happy to buy online and I expect some of our existing customers will use online at times for repeat orders. But in the luxury end of the market, most customers want to come to a store and talk to someone. It is interesting that a luxury brand like Chanel does not sell any fashion clothes items online. They use their website as a shop window.
The other disadvantage of online sales in the lingerie and swimwear business is that you get very high returns – typically about 50% which is much higher than in other businesses.
Further down the line our other big challenge – or rather aspiration – is to develop our own brand. I have always wanted to design my own range of lingerie and nightwear. Bras are incredibly complicated pieces of clothing – they can be made up of more than 50 different parts in the high-end brands – but I have a brilliant colleague who can make the patterns for me and we are thinking of manufacturing in Portugal. There is still a highly-skilled textile industry north of Porto, near where I come from, and the quality is superb. And from a business point of view, having your own brand as part of the multi-brand mix is very attractive because the margins are so much higher!
Do you have any advice for women in the workplace, that you wish someone had told you?
I wish someone had told me in my twenties that your forties is not old! We read masses of stuff in the newspapers about tech entrepreneurs fresh out of college making millions but the fact is that most successful entrepreneurs have not just left college and are not in their twenties. Having some experience of working for other people, of building teams and having real in-depth knowledge and understanding of your market makes you much more likely to succeed as an entrepreneur. The other advice I would give to women is make sure you prepare really well, be patient and never let anyone tell it is not possible.
Somebody once said that if things turn out really well, a man will assume it is due to his skill while a women will think she has been lucky. And if things go badly, a man will think he’s been unlucky while a woman will think it is her fault. Sometimes we just need to be a bit more confident in ourselves.