Tracey Mathers was born into a retail empire, but when she decided to leave the family business, she had to find her own voice and make a name for herself. Here’s how she learned to walk a mile in her own shoes.
As the granddaughter of the founder of Mathers Shoes, Tracey Mathers was born with retail running through her veins. But when she decided to start a retail empire of her own, she had to define herself outside of the family business.
Speaking at the Brisbane Business Hub’s latest ‘On The Couch’ event, she explained how she established herself as a force to be reckoned with in business – and why once she made a name for herself, she wasn’t going to let anyone else take it away from her.
Finding her voice
Tracey started her retail career in the family business, but in 1991, at just 24 years of age, she decided to strike out on her own and open the first Tracey Mathers Shoe Studio in Brisbane’s Tattersall’s Arcade. Despite her family name, she faced the same struggles as many first-time business owners.
“I had to learn to use my voice a little bit more, because instead of being told how things would run, I was actually in charge,” she said. “I had to learn to step up to the plate. A lot of my staff were much older than I was, and I initially felt bad about telling them what to do. And it was funny, because I didn’t have that problem when I was working at Mathers and supervising 15 stores. That was fine. But when it was my own business and I had to create the whole culture, that tripped me up at first.
“It was all about communication. I sat down with my staff and had a great conversation with them, and they made it clear that they were happy to follow my lead and do whatever I needed them to do. I developed a managerial style that enabled me to get the best out of them without micro-managing them, and in the end, a lot of those staff that were with me when I started the business at 24 years of age were still with me when I sold the business 25 years later.”
While she remains “incredibly proud” of her family’s heritage, she quickly realised that she couldn’t be seen to be relying on that legacy.
“The first time I had to get a loan, my father kindly came with me to meet with the bank manager,” she said. “He did a lot of the talking and I sat there and observed. Six months later, I had to go back to the bank for another loan because I had a big expansion planned.
“I remember turning up at the bank manager’s office – he was one of those guys with the little glasses on the end of his nose, and he’d peer over them at you. I had spent a lot of time putting my business plan together, and I was really proud of it. I thought the bank manager was going to love it; that he’d be as excited about it as I was.
“Now, in hindsight, maybe my pink folders might have put him off, but he just gave me nothing. I gave him the big sell and got nothing in return. I started to think, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing here?’ I lost my voice. I didn’t know what to say or do. And he actually looked at me and said something along the lines of, ‘I love it when girls play shop’.
“That crushed me. I sat there thinking, ‘I’m trying to create my own little empire here, and you’re not taking me seriously’. So I went home and I did what I normally would – I unpacked it with my parents. I went to my safe place. My father sat there and listened to it all, and eventually he said to me, ‘Are you done?’
“I told him I was, and he said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you don’t find your voice and stand up for yourself, and prove to people that you are where you need to be and you belong there, then you are never going to grow and expand.’
“I was very close to my dad. We had an amazing relationship. I was his girl. And he rang me one day and said, ‘Listen, I want you to come here at 12 o’clock, I’ve got some stuff I want to go through with you’. I walked in and the bank manager was sitting in his office.
“He absolutely tore into him. He told this bank manager exactly what he thought. He was obviously sticking up for me… and I was so embarrassed. I was mortified. And that bank manager looked at me like I was nothing. He looked at me as if to say, ‘You have got to be kidding me. You need your father to stick up for you? This is just pathetic.’
“I understood what my father was trying to do, and he understood later, with hindsight, that it was not the best thing for me. But that was a major turning point for me, because I walked out of that office that day and I thought, ‘No one is ever going to have to stick up for me again. I am going to find my voice, and I will make sure that I make things happen in my business. I am not going to be a silent little girl. I am going to be a strong woman.’
“It was like I was reborn that day. From then on, I took that mindset into meeting with manufacturers, and into getting deals on leases, and so on. Because that was the day I realised I had to stand up for myself.”
Tracey’s fearless approach served her well throughout the decades she spent running Tracey Mathers Shoe Studio – and helped her get through some uncomfortable moments.
“There was an Italian brand we bought a lot of stock from that made absolutely beautiful shoes,” she said. “We had been buying from them for several years. We spent a lot of money with them. We went to see them one day, and I went through their new range and made my selections. Then the owner’s wife, who had recently come into the business with no experience, walked into the room in her beautiful fur. She looked at my choices and she said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no. Your choices are all wrong. You must choose other things.’
“I stood up, I packed my bag, and I said, ‘Thank you very much, it’s been beautiful doing business with you’, and I left. This was a massive risk, because this was a brand that represented about 35 percent of our sales, but I walked out of the room. They let me get as far as the car park. Then a PA came running down and said, ‘Please, please, come back, we will work with you’.
“The owner’s wife never turned up in the room ever again, and we continued to have a great relationship with that brand. But that was one of those moments where you have to make a choice. If you’re going to allow yourself to be walked over in business, it’s not going to work out for you.”
The next chapter
By 2016, Tracey had well and truly made a name for herself – but ironically, when she ultimately decided to sell her eponymous business, it wasn’t her name that her buyers wanted.
“I actually wasn’t going to sell my business, because I didn’t want to let my name go,” she said. “I wanted to keep the rights to it, in case I wanted to do something else down the track and use my name again. But I had decided I wanted a change and I wanted to do something different, and as stores came to the end of their leases, I started to close them down. By the time I closed a third store, some of my suppliers came to me and said, ‘What are you doing? What’s the plan? Because if you’re selling, we’re interested.’
“The first thing I said to them was, ‘You can’t have my name’. And they said, ‘We don’t actually want your name, sorry’. It turned out what they actually wanted was my database, because I had an amazing database. It was constantly updated, it was very well ordered, it had all the details anyone could have wanted. And so one of my big tips is that if you’re ever looking to sell a retail business, you need to have a great database that someone will want to buy from you.
“I’ve actually advised quite a few businesses that have gotten to the stage where they want to sell, and often the first thing I see when I walk in is that it’s just a mess. The accounts aren’t up to date, and they’ve got no firm policies and procedures in place, because it’s all in their head, not down on paper.
“They’re basically trying to sell something that somebody’s going to have to come in and wing, and it just doesn’t work like that – you have to have something to hand over, something the buyer can follow until they get into their own groove and figure out what they’re doing.”
Today, having sold all of her stores, Tracey is using her wealth of knowledge and years of experience in both the retail and the corporate world as a professional advisor, speaker and mentor.
“I’ve always had great mentors around me, but I didn’t necessarily realise it at the time,” she said. “In the early days, I didn’t even know what a mentor was. It wasn’t a buzzword like it is now, it wasn’t something that was talked about. But I had people around me that I learned from like Stefan [Ackerie] and Sarina Russo, and it was only later on that I realised how powerful it was to have those amazing people in my life.”
Tracey told the Brisbane Business Hub crowd that if she could mentor her younger self, there are things she would tell herself to do differently.
“The biggest thing for me is self-belief,” she said. “I went through those stages when I lacked confidence, and I allowed people to walk all over me. When I talk about being a strong woman, I’m not talking about roaring and throwing your weight around, I’m talking about being able to communicate what you want and get a fair deal.
“If I walked in to see that same bank manager today and had that same experience, I would know exactly how to handle it. I would say to him, ‘I think I deserve a little bit more respect than that, so can you tell me what the issue is here?’ I’d ask direct questions, and I wouldn’t even have to think about it.
“That comes from experience. That comes from having lived through those situations. And that’s what I’m excited about passing onto people now.”
To request a free mentoring session with one of the Brisbane Business Hub’s business experts and industry thought leaders who are available to help you build your business across every industry and sector, visit businessinbrisbane.com.au/mentoring.