Jane Field left a successful career in London to set up her online gift business, Jonny’s Sister, nine years ago. Selling personalised gifts and home accessories almost exclusively made in England, the company now has an impressive annual turnover of over £0.5m. Working with a dedicated core team of ten, as well as various freelance trades people, Jane owes a lot of the business’s success to the Apprenticeship model.
A number of professional and personal factors informed Jane’s decision to recruit apprentices. Because Jonny’s Sister is run from the grounds of her home, inviting young people to become part of the team was a natural step for the entrepreneur:
“I’m an empty-nester and I missed having the kids around! I love mentoring and encouraging young people so bringing apprentices into the business seemed a natural progression! I get a real buzz out of teaching and watching someone grow.”
“These youngsters approach things from a different angle and they bring a huge energy to the business. They don’t seem to carry the baggage that the more experienced employees do and they’re just so fresh with their infectious enthusiasm.”
During her career, mentoring had always appealed to Jane and having apprentices around provides a chance to nurture and guide, as she explains:
“I’m a bit of a frustrated mentor! It was something that, at one point, I considered doing professionally. Previously, I was with an American company for ten years and worked my way up to Head of Sales. We were lucky enough to have a mentor who came in each week and gave us each a 40 minute session. They then trained us up to mentor our own teams.”
However, the apprentices at Jonny’s Sister have done far more than provide a focus for Jane’s mentoring ambitions. They’ve all brought real value and talent to the business and one of them, Shannon, has recently been appointed Office Manager aged just 19. Arriving at Jonny’s Sister aged 17, Shannon has come a long way from the shy person with little confidence who was not even keen to answer the phone when she first arrived.
“But, over time, things changed. By continually encouraging her to work outside of her comfort zone, she responded and just got better and better. I don’t think I would recognise her as being the same person now!”
Shannon’s transformation was so complete in fact, that Jane decided to put her faith in the former apprentice’s competence and efficiency by making her office manager before she was out of her teens:
“I am trying to pull away and work on the business more than in the business. We needed an office manager and I just thought, ‘why recruit someone new and override somebody who’d probably do a great job?’ Yes, Shannon’s half their age, yes she’s got half their experience but give me a reason why not. And she’s just risen to it – absolutely risen to it.”
A certain amount of Jonny’s Sister’s trade comes via the popular retail website Not On The High Street. Jane is so sure of Shannon’s abilities that she sent her to represent Jonny’s Sister in London when this top group of retailers convened at the annual meeting.
Although Shannon has remained with Jonny’s Sister and is forging the beginning of an exciting career, Jane works to the principle that if she can no longer develop an apprentice’s potential they should look for new opportunities. The business’s very first apprentice was Hannah, who started out as a packer having left school with no A Levels. Recognising Hannah’s potential for greater things, Jane encouraged the school leaver:
“Hannah had dropped out of school and I just thought ‘this girl’s worth a lot more than just packing’ so I said to her that she ought to consider getting a qualification. So she became our first apprentice. We actually approached the college in a rather back to front way by taking the apprentice with us and then asking them to register her!”
Having attained her qualification and worked for Jonny’s Sister for some time, Hannah transformed her options and now works for beauty brand Lancôme in a management position. She is the only one of Jane’s apprentices to have left Jonny’s Sister, where there are currently three ‘active’ Apprenticeships underway.
Jane, who describes herself as ‘absolutely passionate about Apprenticeships’, is adamant that employers should not view the low salary Apprenticeships demand as an incentive, however attractive it may appear. Instead, she says, they should invest time and training in apprentices to both benefit the individual and to promote their own business’s success:
“If you get an apprentice when they’re 16 they can be very inexperienced in general. You can’t just leave them alone – you’ve got to show them and you’ve got to want to show them. If you’re passionate about what you do and you can share that with an apprentice, then take one on. But you have to invest in them – not money-wise but time and effort-wise. They’re there to learn, not just to work for you. You must teach and nurture them and that’s when they’ll add real value to your business.”