“Real life experience of the world of work should never be underestimated.” Jacqueline Gold knows what she’s talking about. Now the CEO of Ann Summers, and frequently cited as ‘the woman who brought sex to the British high street’ she started out in a position familiar to many of us — on work experience at the company, owned at the time by her father and uncle.
Despite going into the family business, it wasn’t a case of having everything handed to her on a plate. She famously started out on lower wages than the tea lady, and worked her way gradually up through the ranks. “Studying for degrees and qualifications is absolutely worthwhile and I would never discourage someone from going down that route. What I would encourage is for them to back this up with practical experience that will bring their CV alive and supplement their studies.”
Seeing the potential to change the male-dominated company into a more female-friendly one, Jacqueline made her first pitch to the board at the age of 21, despite having had no formal business training. The idea in question was the Ann Summers Party Plan. Inspired by the Tupperware parties of the 60s, she seized on the concept of allowing women to buy lingerie in a comfortable environment as part of a girls’ night in; the first step towards creating the Ann Summers brand as we know it today.
Having been told it wouldn’t work because women weren’t interested in sex, trials and test runs proved precisely the opposite. Today, 4,000 Ann Summers parties take place every week, and 30 years after their launch, the brand is thriving, with 144 stores across the UK and Ireland, and an annual turnover topping £150 million.
Jacqueline tells me there was some real opposition from some landlords who tried to prevent Ann Summers from opening the first high street stores. In cities like Dublin she was warned to expect a strong negative backlash, and on one occasion received a bullet in the post. “We were willing to take risks, take a few extra security precautions, and stay true to the fun and boundary-pushing ethos that Ann Summers has. We realised early on that causing controversy and testing the limits would ultimately play a big part in our success.” Jacqueline believes resolutely in focusing instead on customer opinion. “I made sure I was always open to feedback, good or bad. As the brand has developed we have been very fortunate in that our customers have never stopped talking to us.”
Her reaction to the Fifty Shades phenomenon provides one example. “As a business you can never plan for these things, but what you can do is respond and respond quickly.” The success of the trilogy could not have been predicted, but Jacqueline quickly noted her customers were reading the books, and knew there was only one place they’d come to recreate the experience they had enjoyed so much on paper. “We were able to buy in high volumes the products that feature in the book so new and existing customers could come to us for the Fifty Shades experience; we have never sold quite so many jiggle balls!”
Although mentions of the shop still elicit a snigger from most of my male friends, Ann Summers is more than a place to buy jiggle balls. The ethos is one of female empowerment. Jacqueline divides her customers into three profiles: nervous, curious, and experienced, and aims to provide all three groups with a comfortable shopping environment and experience. Their annual sex census, in collaboration with couples’ counselling company Relate, receives thousands of responses each year, allowing Jacqueline to shape the company to cater to her customers’ needs. “After all, if you’re not running your business for your customers, then you have to ask yourself who you are running it for.”
An appearance on Channel 4’s Undercover Boss showed the staff feel equally at home; the majority of employees were satisfied with their work. According to Jacqueline, there’s no secret formula for motivating a workforce — “it’s about employing staff that are passionate about the business and have a courage and drive that makes them want to succeed. We employ around 10,000 people, yet have managed to retain the feeling of working within a family business, which I believe makes people feel more connected to the brand.”
The Ann Summers spirit of female empowerment in the bedroom translates equally well to the boardroom, and Jacqueline works hard to encourage other women in business. “As women we tend to be reluctant to shout about our successes and will sit back rather than make noise about what we have done. Thirty years ago I was alone as a woman in business; I’m pleased that today I am not alone, but there are still nowhere near as many female business leaders as there should be.” She hopes that younger generations will be inspired by what has been achieved so far, and continue the shift towards equal gender representation in top managerial positions.
Jacqueline seems to exude confidence, and has topped countless lists of the country’s wealthiest, most powerful and most inspirational women. But is there anything people would be surprised to learn about her? “I get a lot of people telling me that when they meet me they are surprised by how softly spoken I am. People seem to have this vision that I will be loud and in your face.”
In fact, she seems remarkably grounded, and spending time with her husband and four-year-old daughter is her favourite way to relax after work. As a wife, mother and businesswoman, she seems to prove that women today can have it all. Jacqueline cites Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, as one of her own female role models, “because of her huge achievements as a businesswoman, and also because of her strong ethical values and staying true to these.”
Jacqueline runs a Twitter campaign called #WOW (Women on Wednesday) which aims to give women in business a voice. Each Wednesday, female business owners tweet a short overview of their business. She re-tweets her three favourites to her 35,000 followers. Her advice for any would-be entrepreneurs is simple, “Be confident in your idea, but make sure you do your research before pushing forward. I see many entrepreneurs that believe they have the idea for the next big thing, but they haven’t done any market research or customer insight work. You have to take a step back and listen to feedback, and if the feedback isn’t what you want to hear then don’t ignore it: listen to it and re-shape your idea. Above all, stay passionate and show courage in everything you do.”
If anyone can be described as passionate and courageous about their brand, it’s Jacqueline — and she doesn’t show signs of slowing down.