Margaret Porritt, Founder of Feathers, has had the same vision for her business for over 40 years: to add value to women’s lives and make them feel good about themselves. After a prestigious start to her her career at age 17 in London, working for Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker, Margaret moved back to Melbourne and apprenticed as a milliner with her parents.
It was not until age 32 that Margaret began to build the retail institution that Feathers has become today. Margaret’s enduring retail success in the fickle world of women’s fashion is a tale of fortitude, entrepreneurial achievement, excellent leadership and an intuitive ability to sense and adapt rapidly to changing market conditions.
Over 45 years’ ago you decided to buy a shop called The Orange Poodle. Tell us how you became a business owner and how you managed those first few years.
Well I didn’t start off as a business owner…
I was a family woman. I was married at 20 and had three boys by the age of 26. However after 12 years of marriage I went through a divorce, which during the 70’s was not the done thing. I worked at the Orange Poodle in the west end of Melbourne for a few years. On receiving a small divorce settlement I used it as a deposit to buy The Orange Poodle and paid off the good will over the following two years.
Retail is in my blood. I grew up with a mother who had three millinery shops and was always out with her buying and creating. After purchasing the store, within three months I had opened a second store. As soon as my sons became teenagers I opened more stores. At one stage I rented 12 stores in 4 different locations.
What are some of the key differences in the retail industry from 1972 compared to now, and what has stayed the same?
The Internet and all the advances in technology would have to be the biggest change. When I first started out there was no such thing as online shopping, social media, electronic emails. It was all about bricks and mortar, customer service, laughs, chats and a good time. Now people are time poor. We are busy and because of this a lot of people turn to online shopping. Manufacturing has changed, offshore production has increased.
Another major disruption would have to be fast fashion which has hit worldwide. More shopping centres and large retail chains with high end internationals have changed the game. Genuine customer service remains the same. Customers still crave the whole retail experience when they walk into a retail store.
You’ve said that many of your team have been with you for over 25 years. How have you developed and nurtured this loyalty?
Feathers is more than a business. It’s a family. I have ‘girls’ still working for me after 25 years and was family friendly in the 70’s before the phrase was even coined. I know better than most how important family is and work life balance is paramount. My staff appreciate it, and it makes them happy knowing that they have flexibility. I have a genuine friendship with a lot of my staff members. They also have a passion and love for the Feathers product which contributes greatly to their loyalty. For me going to work is fun, and I think my staff share that mentality. If you love what you are doing it is not a chore or a burden.
Feathers has a flat management style and everyone is encouraged to have a voice. When staff stop telling you what they think is when you need to start worrying.
When you were over 55 and a size 14, you stared in your own marketing campaign saying, “I couldn’t find them, so now I design them.” I love that you used personal branding before the term was ushered. Tell us about the strategy and its impact.
I had carried Australian designers for 25 years. In the late 80’s early 90’s, there was a major shift and all my suppliers went vertical. I then decided to do my own range “Feathers by Margaret Porritt”. The dilemma was informing my customer of the change. It was a bold move but we decided to use me as the face of the brand, and it went off like a rocket. My face appeared on billboards all over Melbourne and people still to this day come up to me and tell me how much they loved my billboards!
One of Margaret’s Billboards
What strategies worked to steer Feathers through recessions?
My instinct, because I also work on the floor closely with my team. I’m amongst it and can see and feel what is happening. When things are tough, I tighten ship. I make sure I am debt free and continue riding the wave.
What’s been your greatest challenge?
Raising my boys to be good men and starting my business. Coming to work is not work for me, I love it so much. My biggest challenge was being a stay at home mum. Send me to work and I am happy. I am also very active and like to walk, ski, gym. I’ve finally learnt the importance of making an appointment with myself. On weekends, I check out of Melbourne and go to the coast. If I don’t leave the city the wheels are still in motion and I can’t switch off.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my team and what we have achieved together. I am also very humbled with all the awards I have received. During my career I have won numerous awards including the Victorian Telstra Business Women’s Award, Rag Trader’s Retailer of the Year and induction into the Business Women’s Hall of Fame. I was recognised as the Metropolitan Fair Trader of the Year for excellence in customer service. The awards made me realise that my ideals around empowering my team and my leadership skills were working and even further worth celebrating!
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Change, adapt and focus on your core business, whatever that is. For me, I never deviated from my core customer. Stay focused and resilient and never forget your passion and love for what you do.
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