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Women in Business Q&A: Lesley Ferguson, Co-Founder & Joanna Ferguson, Company Manager, Lorfords Antiques Ltd

25/01/2016 15:02 GMT | Updated 25/01/2017 10:12 GMT

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Lorfords

Lesley Ferguson is Co-Founder and Buyer for Lorfords Antiques Ltd. She has an exceptional eye for commercial beauty that spans furniture and objects from the 17th to the 21st Century. Her easy and unfussy styling - the result of 20 years of being a beautiful homemaker - has enchanted and inspired visitors to Lorfords for over a decade.

Joanna Ferguson is Company Manager at Lorfords Antiques Ltd. After just three and a half years at Lorfords, Jo's position is testament to her un-erring ability to inspire those around her and create order in challenging situations. A trained interior designer and rising star in the Mid-Century market, Jo has drawn on the best of her brief corporate experience to bring structured and supported growth to one of the most rapidly growing companies in the sector.

How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?

Lesley: Of all my life's experiences, the most important and defining has been being a mother. Raising a family brings many rewards, but just as many lessons! Patience, the need to share responsibility and delegate, the value of nurturing people that are eager to learn, the importance of support and encouragement... Maybe most importantly, the lesson that when it comes to human relationship management, you really do get back what you put in. Being able, now, to watch one of my daughters thriving and challenging in my business has made me realise that whilst I don't consider myself a 'leader', I believe that the values and skills I bring to my work inspires and, I guess, leads others. Perhaps the parent in me is more aligned with the role of a coach than a leader...

Jo: I have grown up in a family of entrepreneurial women - my Granny was never scared to take a risk and push boundaries as an antique dealer and talented property renovator. I grew up watching her make her own money, on her own terms, doing the things she loved. Now in her 70's she remains a total powerhouse, bringing a vibrant energy to everything she does.

I also watched my Mum develop her business following my parents' divorce. There were some tough times for her financially and she had to take action; within 10 years she was the co-director of an antiques business with a turnover of over 1.5 million. This was following 20 years as a dedicated stay-at-home-mum. I am incredibly proud of her, and watching her tenacity and commitment inspires me to work hard and achieve the same.

I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated, but having these strong, independent female role models gave me a sense of who I wanted to be.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenures at Lorfords?

Lesley: At a basic level, my first job as a PA in London taught me that discipline and organisation are critical to success. Sadly that is not a lesson my partner (in business and life) has ever learned! So the patience I developed as a parent has definitely helped in dealing with him.

Jo: I have a psychology degree from Warwick University, and originally planned to become a child psychologist. I think the work experience I gained in this area (NHS, helpline & care home roles) made me a more considerate and patient person, and learning about the mind was truly fascinating.

I moved to London in my early 20s, where I took a position as a HR Analyst for a multinational car manufacturer. I knew very quickly the corporate lifestyle wasn't for me - it was a daily battle, as I didn't like who I had to be at work. Unlike friends who found it exciting, I found the whole process of working in a large company difficult; nothing about it suited my personality and I felt like I would have to change myself enormously to succeed.

A conversation with Toby (who co-owns Lorfords) at a friends wedding in the summer of 2012 prompted me to hand in my notice and join the team. Walking out of my formal office on the last day I felt nothing but relief. I really appreciate the benefits of working with my family as opposed to working in a large corporation; I have the flexibility to work to my strengths, and the fulfillment/challenge of working on something I truly care about. Now my values at work and home don't have to be at odds - I can be authentic at work, which has allowed me to achieve success that I never could have within a corporate environment.

What are the highlights and challenges working in the antiques industry?

Lesley: Antique furniture, ceramics, wonderful worn and faded textiles, all make my soul sing. Handling and enjoying such beauty and history on a daily basis is a great privilege that I will never take for granted. Add to that the thrill of the chase - winding my way along country roads in France with a pocket full of euros after a croissant and coffee - does it get any better? Then the elation at finding something wonderful... with a profit! Toby has always said it beats working for a living and, at those times, it really doesn't feel like work.

The market has changed enormously over the last decade, and its ever-changing nature and the influence of fashion on what and how we buy and sell is both a highlight and challenge. No two days are ever the same, there is always more to learn and you never know what tomorrow will bring.

Jo: The highlight is being surrounded by beauty every single day. I don't think you ever become blasé about the antiques - they are just too special. The challenge is actually parting myself from my stock - I deal in 20th century design pieces and I have been tempted to keep every single item I have bought!

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Lesley: Whilst there are many sociable moments, dealing in antiques can be quite a solitary and soul-searching path. Every day you are gambling on your taste. It feels great when all goes well, and less so when it doesn't - but it is always very personal. So self belief and passion are crucial - they push you to do more when times are good and support you when you feel more challenged.

Immerse yourself in what you do - learn, learn and then learn some more! Books, museums, National Trust houses and collections - live to learn.

Finally - be prepared to get addicted - there is nothing like it!

Jo: Firstly, get to know people in the trade - antique dealers are a fascinating bunch, mostly very friendly and happy to chat.

Secondly, get out there - go to fairs, auctions, warehouses etc. Just get hunting and learning, it is the best way to get started and quickly becomes addictive. Whenever I go on holiday in Europe my first instinct is to look for 20th century furniture. Recently I found a treasure trove whilst visiting the Christmas markets in Belgium - it is so exciting when you stumble across some really rare or unique pieces.

Finally, invest in good photography and a good website. With the ever-evolving nature of retail, being flexible and adapting to online marketplaces is essential to success. Though there are a multitude of extremely talented dealers you will be contending with, there are gaps in the industry for beautifully presented, professional looking websites where clients can buy with confidence. Combine a great eye with a professional, client-friendly and aesthetically beautiful website, and you are onto a winner.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your careers to date?

Lesley: I think it is almost impossible to give just one! Always think and dream big - then plan to how you are going to achieve your goals. Breaking long and complicated challenges and journeys into small steps allows for far greater success and satisfaction. Finally - I have two ways of saying the same thing, depending on the circumstances: enjoy the journey... and love what you do.

Jo: With enough belief and commitment - anything is possible!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Lesley: I feel very privileged to find that question has little meaning for me. My work is a very engaging and rewarding part of my life - being an antique dealer is very much a lifestyle choice as well as a career.

Jo: I don't view my work as a burden, and I think a 'work/life' balance assumes it is (who ever says they need to work more in order to improve their work-life balance?)

I think it is a shame if the stuff that really matters only happens in the 'life' part. Being in a flexible job where I am learning to love what I do, and can do the things that come naturally to me, is my priority. It's all life - no distinctions.

What are the secrets to a successful mother/daughter working relationship?

Lesley: Wow... please submit all suggestions to Lesley@lorfordsantiques.com!!

Most crucial is to have boundaried roles and responsibilities - we are always learning and developing, but being a team is about playing to our individual strengths. Clear definition helps us give our best and appreciate the input of the other most keenly. It can also be hard to leave the office at the office - as with any close personal relationship at work, it is very important to remember that we all need a break from it.

Jo is the jewel in our crown - we support, encourage and appreciate each other - and that only makes the business more rewarding.

Jo: It is undoubtedly hard to make a mother-daughter, professional relationship work. Never more so than at the beginning - it is tricky to develop a professional relationship with the person who gave birth to you!

For me, maintaining the relationship outside of work has always been a priority - I never wanted our jobs to jeopardise the close friendship we have. This is easier said than done, and there have been some rocky times in our business relationship, but over time you learn that being kind to each other is the most important thing, and family relationships must always come first.

I also remind myself how lucky I am to spend my working life with one of my most important people. So many people spend more time with work colleagues than their most important people - I am grateful to combine both.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?

Lesley: I have never really had a mentor - until very recently.

I believe that we only develop and grow as people when our status quo is challenged. And we are only truly challenged by inspiration and fear. I was very inspired by my mother - a wild ball of enormous energy and style that has never learned to slow down.

Then my partner, Toby, has challenged me with a fierce drive and vision that has inspired me - and frightened the life out of me with his unquenchable determination and belief in the three of us!

Recently, it has been the turn of our business coach, Shweta Jhajharia, to take the helm. She has crystallised my earlier learning - and it now feels as if I have a personal mentor as well as a business coach as ensuring the alignment between my life desires and business goals is now a part of every day life.

Jo: I haven't had a formal mentorship, but have learnt a lot from the following people over the past 3 years:

My Mum inspired my creative and entrepreneurial side. She has supported my 20th century furniture dealing, encouraged me to push boundaries with property renovation, and opened the door to a much more interesting and fulfilling career that I would have had otherwise. I have also learnt a lot about style from her - she has exceptional taste and a natural eye for beauty.

Toby has taught me to feel the fear and do it anyway. Life is too short to be sensible all the time - sometimes you just have to say yes and figure it our afterwards! Toby's dedication and commitment to the success of the business has been unwavering for 10 years, during some very tough financial times, but belief got him and the business to where it is now. That drive is inspiring to be around, and makes me excited for the future of Lorfords.

My fiancé Nick, whose calm nature counters my highly-strung tendencies! Nick didn't hesitate to support me when I halved my salary - and contributions to our mortgage - when I left my corporate job to train as an interior designer. He has also played a big part in setting up our 20th century dealing, around his own highly demanding job. His belief makes me believe in myself, and I feel very lucky to have him in my life.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Lesley: I have always admired Anita Roddick, for both her ethics as well as her business success. Long before the buzzword was out there, she was a great thought-leader - supplying product to a market she helped to create and define with her own political and ethical standpoint that others bought into.

And Coco Chanel - as I think any lover of design and style should!

Jo: I really admire Not On The High Street co-founders Holly Tucker & Sophie Cornish. Their commitment to supporting small British businesses whilst creating such a successful online marketplace is admirable. I keep a copy of both of their books ('Build a Business From Your Kitchen Table' and 'Shape Up Your Business') on my desk - no nonsense, straight-talking business advice. I just love the ethos of NOTHS, and what it has done for small businesses; it was such an inspired idea.

What do you want Lorfords to accomplish in the next year?

Lesley: The answer is either boring - or revealing - better just to say...Watch this space!

Jo: To exceed expectations!

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