A childhood trip to see Sleeping Beauty convinced Anne Walker she wanted to work in ballet. But she didn't daydream about being a dancer she wanted to be a dance teacher. As soon as she could, she left school to join dance college.
One year later she started teaching and hired out her local church hall. "I was only 17 and probably looked younger so it was a massive challenge to convince the children and the parents." But her after-school classes went well and by the age of 21 she felt ready to rent her own premises.
As the school grew, she began organising shows. "They were a way for the kids to show what they had learned and the parents liked them too." Walker made costumes and sourced leotards and shoes for her students. But "the leotards were terrible. They were designed for the classic stereotype of a ballerina and didn't fit most of the girls I taught." Worse, they were made from nylon, so they "looked lumpy and were uncomfortable".
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Then one day Walker came across "this wonderful material called Lycra that came in bright colours and was a much better fit". Using a friend's sewing machine, she started turning out leotards for her students. As demand grew, she bought an old industrial sewing machine to make them more quickly.
The school was now growing rapidly. A "keep-fit craze" hit Britain in the early 1980s, so Walker also started offering classes for adults. By 1981, she had hired two extra teachers. By 1985, Walker and her new husband decided it was time to focus on her products. "I was now selling to dance teachers around the country and I felt I could do it anywhere." So she handed over the dance school to a friend and set up shop in Devon.
With some help from her husband, Walker rented a small unit in an industrial park. "My husband went to the library and looked through the Yellow Pages to look for customers while I would load the car up with products and go on the road to sell." A breakthrough came in 1989 when Harrods and John Lewis agreed to stock some leotards. Great Universal Catalogue, "which was massive at the time", then featured her products. By 1990, sales had hit £0.5m.
Bit by bit, Walker added to the products she sold. "I knew from experience that it is very frustrating having to travel to one shop for leotards and another for shoes. I decided to try and offer as much stuff as I could." The strategy worked and, by 1993, sales had doubled to £1m.
A few years later, Walker invested "a bit of money and a lot of time" in a new website. But it wasn't a success. "That generation of dance teachers preferred to phone up and speak to us about the show they were putting on." Nonetheless, the business grew rapidly, helped by Britain's leading position in dance. "Lots of dance students come here to train. They get used to our products and then look us up when they go back to their home country."
Walker's firm now offers more than 9,000 products to clients in 47 countries. Sales reached £8m in 2011 but the 57-year-old is confident they will continue to grow. "We have recently been selected as the supplier to American Ballet Theatre", which should "propel sales in the US".
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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