Thea Green, the founder of nail bar chain Nails Inc, knows the meaning of hard graft.
Not only has she changed the face of the nail industry and the high street by bringing affordable and quick nail jobs to Britain, she's using all her expertise to inspire teenagers to think about what they'd like to do when they are older.
From one shop in 1999, Nails Inc now has around 10,000 customer a week and 60 nationwide shops. Not bad for someone who started out at the age of 24, when we were still angsty about not being at university drinking cut-price Sambucas.
She has three children and lives with her husband in Fulham - how does she manage it all?
What were you doing before Nails Inc?
Before Nails Inc, I was working at Tatler as their fashion editor. I studied at the London College of Fashion – journalism and fashion and worked my way up. I had an American boss and I was going back and forth with her. What I saw, while I was in New York was that women were getting their nails done regularly, and it wasn’t time-consuming or expensive.
I loved the idea and I wanted to bring it back to the UK. At the time, there were no nail bars here – you either had suburban, local salons – usually a hairdressers where you could also get your nails done – or the high-end ladies-who-lunch spas.
There wasn’t anything on the high street offering that as an option. I also wanted to offer a bit more of a fashion-forward experience and the research I did at the time showed that you’d get nice professional manicures but the colours were really quite boring.
We wanted your nails to be a fashion accessory so we always did those products that reflected what was going on in high fashion. It allows you to be brave with your nails even if you work in a corporate company and wear a grey suit.
That’s a massive task though. How did you raise the money?
We raised finance from private individuals – some came from retail background, and some had experience with consumer products. It was also the dot.com year – 1999 and you could raise a lot of money then, especially if it was to do with fashion.
On the other hand, we wanted to survive that era so we wanted that service element. What a lot of retailers liked was that if they had a Nails Inc bar in their department store, they would be attracting customers who wanted to get their nails done, but then would also probably shop in the rest of the store and spend money.
Why has Nails inc survived during the recession when so many businesses didn’t?
In bad economic times women have always gravitated towards fashion. The nail polish business is also huge – customers come in and buy two or three colours. It’s a lot easier to change your nail colour than it is to buy a new pair of shoes or a dress.
You can translate trends so much quicker - we did leather polish, feather polish, fashionable colours - neons or brights.
Have you found things difficult in business because you’re a woman?
Not really - I work in a very female-forward business. We employ a huge amount of women – if they weren’t here they’d be running their own businesses. The mums are the best multi-taskers I know – they are incredibly diligent.
What are your thoughts about there only being one female CEO in the FTSE-100?
A lot of them are running private companies because from a lifestyle perspective, it’s probably more forgiving. That doesn’t mean you don’t work as hard – in fact you probably work harder but you can do your work at 11pm because you needed to leave early to see your daughter’s play.
In the private world you’re used to having your own diary – you’re used to putting in more but finding that balance in different ways. Some work flat-out and turn their Blackberry off at the weekends or others carve up time during the week so they can spend time with their kids but probably are working seven days a week.
How do you manage it?
For me, it’s regularly having a conversation with yourself about what’s important every day.
At work, it’s making sure you aren’t involved in every email, every meeting. Delegate and have people around you that can run projects from start to finish. At home, you need to have an understanding husband and good childcare.
Also, it’s about the little things. I’ve changed my strategy in recent months – I mainly only go to things my kids care about and I’ve started to ask my kids what they want from me. My kids might care more about me seeing an art project they spent hours on rather than watching a football match they think they might lose, so we’ll work it out.
For most people it’s a constant juggling act. I think: right, what are the most important things to do today? And you have to be focused on that.
I don’t work much from home – I feel that when I do, I feel like I do everything badly. Your kids know you’re vacant when you’re working at home so you aren’t spending time with them and you aren’t in the office either.
What do you do to make your employees happy?
Culturally as a company, the office are all good friends and colleagues. We fund and pay for lots of fun things – there’s an Ocado order that goes out and you can ask for whatever you want on it. We do Pizza Fridays every so often and you have the highlight product free every month and free manicures, of course!
Another thing we started doing recently was a creative brainstorm where people from all levels of the company – might be the head of marketing or someone who works in the stock room – talk about what else we could be doing in the company. If you don’t contribute, you don’t get asked to the next one, so it means everyone in that room is paying attention and something to say.
You’re a Barclays LifeSkills ambassador – what does that involve?
We employ a lot of young people – one of the joys is taking someone who didn’t have the best start in life and setting them on a different path. You’re judged on whether or not you’re personable and creative, and if you do a good job with your customers, it doesn’t matter how many GCSEs you’ve got. Our interview process is an actual demo. They go and they talk to customers and then we look at their manicure service. They just need to have got a lot of personality.
What would you be doing if you weren’t at work right now?
I like hanging out with my kids and if I wasn’t doing that, then it’d be exercise. I love it – especially the crazy army training and reformer pilates.