A maternity wear company turns 20

How did a little maternity wear start-up from Victoria grow into an international business?

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Business View speaks to the women behind Australian fashion label Ripe Maternity about how they have endured, survived and kept on innovating after 20 years in the game.

When Lisa Balakas and Kate Beaconsfield launched their maternity wear fashion label, Ripe Maternity, the internet was in its infancy.

It was 1996, the world wide web was still a mystery to most, email accounts were only just emerging and mail-order catalogues were the platform of choice.

Ripe Maternity had just begun operating out of a physio clinic in Victoria with co-founders Balakas and Beaconsfield balancing the fledging business around their day jobs – and their growing families.

Fast forward 20 years and the company has grown into an established fashion brand available in more than 400 stores worldwide.

The business includes a thriving online store and branded retail stores and concessions across Australia, plus a global distribution strategy that sees products stores across the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Europe and New Zealand, among others. Ripe Maternity has also secured lucrative wholesale deals with major international players such as Amazon, ASOS, Destination Maternity and Mothercare UK.

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Last year alone, the business reported a three-fold increase in profitability, with sales growing at 20 per cent year on year.

So just how did Ripe Maternity grow from a start-up into an international retail business?

Co-founders Balakas and Beaconsfield are the first to admit it has been a journey not without its challenges. Having survived the digital revolution, the global financial crisis, and the unpredictable fluctuations in currencies, Ripe Maternity has proven that innovation and evolution are the keys to turning challenge into opportunity.

Harnessing the power of online

“When we first started we were hardly on a computer, emails were only just starting and we couldn’t envisage an online business because the internet didn’t exist, ” says Beaconsfield.

The online revolution was soon in full swing, however, and the popularity of online shopping was unavoidable, which presented Ripe Maternity with some early challenges.

“When we started looking at online, we weren’t sure that maternity wear would do well in the space.”

Balakas and Beaconsfield’s concerns were that the specialised fit of pregnancy wear would deter customers who would want to try on garments before purchasing. Their fears proved unfounded as the stretchy products were an online hit.

“We now feel that maternity wear lends itself really well to online shopping – arguably more than mainstream fashion – which has been great for us,” says Balakas.

Online is now Ripe Maternity’s largest growth area, with wholesale customers and direct online sales helping the channel to increase at a “much greater rate” than any other area of the business.

“Our largest customers, and the ones that are growing at the fastest rates, are the online players – like Amazon and ASOS,” Beaconsfield says.

Currently, 10 to 15 per cent of all Australian sales come from online, Beaconsfield says. However, the partners are looking to new markets to drive this growth further.

“The focus for growth is online, particularly online in North America. That’s where we are putting a lot of our energy at the moment,” says Balakas.

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The maternity wear market in the US is a $2 billion industry, according to IBISWorld. While Ripe Maternity has had a presence in the US since 2001, its new focus will be on building the US branded website.

“There’s no reason why the North American business can’t increase by more than five times over the next handful of years, given the size of the population. We’re just a tiny player, although we have reasonable brand recognition because we’ve been around for some time. Certainly, sales wise, there is a lot of blue sky there,” says Beaconsfield.

Riding the GFC wave

Blue sky thinking has played a significant role in the business’ ability to overcome obstacles. When the global financial crisis (GFC) hit in 2008 and 2009, Ripe Maternity, like most businesses, looked on some hard times.

Faced with falling sales, rising costs and fluctuating currencies, Beaconsfield and Balakas jumped on the front foot. Ripe Maternity shifted its manufacturing offshore to take advantage of cost efficient factories in China and India. The business began exploiting market fluctuations and boosting imports and exports in line with the rise, and fall, of the Australian dollar. They also moved to buy and sell in US dollars to further remove the risk of currency changes.

“The GFC was a very tough time for us. As an international business, our sales were impacted at every level,” says Beaconsfield. “We focused on markets that weren’t as affected by the GFC.”

“We have always prided ourselves on being nimble and flexible. When the exchange rates shifted, and the Aussie dollar changed dramatically overnight, we would move to sell more of our products offshore because it was better valued. Then when the exchange rates changed again, we focused on bringing our growth back home to Australia by boosting our local retail footprint.”

Balakas adds, “We’ve always been good at making changes and refocusing when we need to. We can be reactive and enthusiastic at responding to changes that we see happening.”

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Focusing on the core product

One area of Ripe Maternity that hasn’t changed is the core vision and focus of the business.

“The vision from the beginning was simple,” says Balakas. “We wanted to create something affordable and fashionable for pregnant women. We wanted to fill that gap, and to help meet the needs of the current lifestyle of pregnant women.”

While Ripe Maternity has developed a range of nursing wear, there are no plans to expand the product offering any further, with Beaconsfield and Balakas opting to focus on what they do best.

Beaconsfield agrees. “People tell us we should go into baby wear or larger women’s sizes, but we have stayed true to our vision, and we have not deviated from that.”

Adds Balakas, “We know our business very well and what feels right for us, and we have always followed that.”

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