ANNE WALKER is the founder of the British-made dancewear brand 1st Position and CEO of International Dance Supplies, based in Newton Abbot, which exports all over the world.
Q What is your background?
A I was born in Crosby in Liverpool. As a young girl, I went to my first ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty at Liverpool's Royal Court Theatre, and decided there and then that I wanted a career in dance.
I was 17 when I set up my own dance school and two years later I had my own premises.
Q How did you come to found the company?
A I founded the company in 1978 while running my dance school. We held numerous exams and shows every year — and it soon became obvious that there was a real lack of good quality, well-fitting leotards and costumes available. So I decided to make my own.
It all began with a £50 loan from my mother, to buy an old over-locking machine. I then sourced a roll of nylon-based stretch fabric — which was very difficult to get hold of at the time — and created our first-ever 1st Position leotard.
Soon we were supplying leotards to all our pupils and, not long after, to all the schools in the area. A few years later, I made the decision to stop teaching and focus on the dancewear business full-time.
It was in 1985 that my husband and I moved to South Devon, and I brought the business with me. As well as producing our British-made 1st Position brand, we soon began to supply a wider range of dancewear and accessories, and IDS was established.
QWhat major challenges are you facing?
A Making enough. Our 1st Position range is made with Italian fabric and sewn here in the UK, and is really popular, especially abroad.
Last year, we saw our US sales alone grow by 20 per cent and we are keen to expand globally and capitalise on the demand for our high quality, Made in Britain dancewear range.
We have potential to more than double the amount we produce, but it's extremely difficult to find more manufacturers to work with as the skills just aren't available anymore.
The challenge now is to find new manufacturers to work with and help our existing makers to expand, train and employ more skilled staff.
QWhat have you achieved at IDS?
A With no formal business qualifications, I've steadily built IDS up to be the UK's largest wholesale dancewear supplier, and we employ 45 people in Newton Abbot. We're one of the first non-American suppliers to ever crack the US market, where we sell to 49 states and supply the American Ballet Theatre's training programme.
I've also built up a brilliant team who always go the extra mile. One of our staff even got on a plane to Greece to hand deliver an order to a customer, which was in danger of arriving late due to postal strikes. Now that's dedication!
QWhat's next for IDS?
A We're always looking at new markets where there's an opportunity to expand our presence. Also, we're continuously developing our 1st Position range — all of which we design in-house in Devon.
Q Who has been your most significant mentor?
A There have been a number of people along the way, whose support and advice has made a big difference to where the business is today. My mother is one of these people, whose belief in me and £50 loan all those years ago meant that I was able to buy our very first over-locking machine to make the first leotard.
And more recently, Jeremy Ellison — director here at IDS — has challenged us to think differently about how we do business.
QHow would you describe your management style?
A I believe that strong leadership is an important part of building a successful business, so I've always tried to lead by example. I've also worked to make IDS a supportive workplace, and we place a big emphasis on training and helping our staff develop.
QHow do you keep enthused and keep things fresh?
A Over the years, we've developed some really fun aspects of the business, such as our Dance School of the Year Awards, and our International Dance Teachers Conference which takes place at the Royal Ballet School and brings together some of the world's most famous dance teachers.
Although these events have a serious purpose, in that they are a great way to connect with our customers, they also give the team the chance to get creative and do something a bit different.
Q What awards have you (or the company) won?
A We've won an amazing 11 awards across a number of sectors, which is a real testament to the team's hard work. Most recently, in June 2014, we won an ECMOD Direct Commerce Award, which is presented to only the very best companies in the mail order and e-commerce industry.
My personal achievements include being awarded an MBE in 2010 for my contribution to business — a very special award and a real honour.
I have also been presented with a prestigious Stevie Award in the USA, for Best Entrepreneur in the EMEA category as well as the Hera Award at the 2011 Natwest Everywoman Awards for Entrepreneurship, and won the First Woman Award presented by the CBI.
QWhat other organisations are you involved with?
A I'm involved with The University of Exeter's mentoring programme, giving support and advice to young people looking to enter the business world.
I had big dreams for IDS, so I encourage my mentees to aim high and reach for the stars, which is one of my favourite quotes: "If you reach for the stars, you'll get the stars — if you reach for the heavens, you get the stars thrown in."
I am also a trustee of the Dance Teachers' Benevolent Fund which provides assistance to dance teachers experiencing hardship, as well as patron of Devon Rape Crisis.