Natural-born entrepreneur: changing the world, the organic way
Susie Hewson, Natracare’s founder and CEO was on a mission to change the world for the better…along the way, she launched a global business.
A TV exposé of the pulping industry was the launchpad for Natracare. “It turned out that factories around the world making paper, toilet roll and sanitary products were using a chlorine-based method to bleach their materials. And that produces dioxin, something that’s incredibly bad for people and for the environment,” says Susie Hewson.
“That was back in 1989. I decided then and there to try to change things. After all these products get used by billions of women around the world. If manufacturers started using safe, chlorine-free methods instead, it would make a huge difference to women’s health – and to the world we live in.”
Susie tried to get the big brands to change their ways. But as a lone voice, she was fighting a losing battle. So, with no real business background, the Bristol-based mother of two set out to make a safe alternative herself.
“As a committed environmentalist, I was really angry about the whole situation.” she says. “Talk about a steep learning curve: I’d worked as a graphic designer and a teacher, but that was it. If I had to write a book about the lessons I’ve learned along the way, it’d be the Encyclopaedia Britannica!”
Learning the ropes, using Bristol Library as a core research resource, she began the journey to Natracare. One early obstacle was overcoming the image of feminine hygiene products. Another was being a woman entrepreneur, particularly where funding was concerned.
“I wrote a business plan, put copies in six sealed envelopes and took them to six different banks. When I heard nothing, I paid each of them another visit. They were very different times. Back then, if I was with my husband, people spoke to him, not me (something that still happens sometimes, even today!). But in the end, one bank was willing to offer me an overdraft. It was amazing that they had faith in what I was doing and we were off.”
Another challenge was identifying contract manufacturers willing to give machine time to a completely unknown client. “I’d done my research and identified the raw materials, as well as the Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) bleaching methods needed to produce organic cotton tampons and pads. But finding factories to make them was really hard. Finally, someone recommended a friend’s factory in Wales. The owner came to see me and that was the start of a 20-plus year relationship with them and my other long-term manufactures.”
The mantra that’s underpinned Susie’s business from the outset? By making a choice, people can make a difference. And it’s a mantra that’s resonated worldwide for the past 28 years. “For me, Natracare’s my brand, my baby. For the distributors, it’s their brand. And for consumers, it’s definitely theirs.”
It’s this chain of ownership, running right through the brand, that’s been central to growing the business, Susie explains: “I didn’t go out into the market looking for distributors. In most cases, they came to me. And that really picked up speed with the advent of home computers and the internet back in the late 90’s.”
So, what advice would Susie give to women looking to start out as entrepreneurs? “Planning is essential. Make sure you do your research thoroughly. Know your market and be as well prepared as possible. Unless you’re solving a problem that needs to be solved, you’ll find it hard going. Crucially too, be pragmatic and have a contingency for when things go wrong.”
“But above all else,” Susie sums up “stay true to the objectives you’ve set yourself and, as a woman, trust your instincts.”
Natracare were finalists in the 2017 West of England Business of the Year Awards. In this short video, Susie and the Natracre team share more about the business.