Neil Thomas finds the entrepreneurial spirit in plentiful supply and business confidence high at one go-ahead Shropshire school
They are bright, attractive, buzzing with ideas and the driving force behind a string of profitable Shropshire businesses. Their company runs a successful retail chain, selling sports clothing and gear, jewellery and accessories, toiletries, books and stationery, as well as operating coffee and snack shops. They are currently overseeing construction of a brand new, purpose-built shopping mall.
Oh yes, and they’ve not yet left school.
The girls of Moreton Enterprises are tomorrow’s business high fliers in the making.
I managed to grab a boardroom appointment with managing director Amy Evans, environmental services director Lizzie Brazier, new product development director Hattie Griffith, and Grace Meehan, new product development manager.
We meet in an oak-pannelled lobby in front of a roaring log fire in the main reception of Moreton Hall, the all-girl independent school near Oswestry.
It is heady, high-powered stuff. Here, 16-year-old girls talk to me about £35,000 turnovers, profit margins and the need to raise £90,000 for phase two of the mall project.
“We made an £8,000 profit last year and we are looking to increase our turnover this year,” says Amy.
“We have 12 directors and the interview process is quite tough,” explains Hattie.
Lizzie heads up the team which ensures that Moreton Enterprises’ business model is ecologically ethical. “We are quite passionate about it,” she adds.
I’d first met the girls a few months earlier when they made pitches to some of the county’s most successful businesspeople. They spoke to an audience of well over 100 at the first Moreton Business Lunch. The aim was to get these movers and shakers involved in Moreton Enterprises as business mentors, offering advice and expertise. In what could easily have been a thoroughly intimidating environment, the girls were poised, self-assured and articulate. Of these hard-nosed businesspeople, 15 were so impressed they signed up.
Instilling confidence in a child, particularly a timid or shy one, can be one of a teacher’s greatest achievements. It is clearly an aspect of education taken very seriously at Moreton Hall, as demonstrated by Moreton Enterprises.
Business makes the world go round, and it needs dynamic, accomplished leaders. Moreton Hall is doing its best to equip and inspire its girls to help fill those roles in the decades to come, striving for top jobs that, despite great strides in recent years, are still filled largely by men.
To that end, it is open to every pupil to get involved in Moreton Enterprises, which, as well as the retail outlets, offers opportunities in its innovation group, marketing team and finance department.
The younger girls tend to man the shops for work experience. They are encouraged to rise through the ranks, assuming more responsibility as they get older and aiming for leading roles in the company by the time they enter the sixth form. The company currently ‘employs’ around 60.
A further initiative is to extend the business expertise down into Moreton First, the co-ed primary school.
“We are launching Mini Moreton Enterprises which will include two or three business projects per year for the children and will involve parents with a business background as mentors,” explains Moreton Hall marketing director Alexandra Hankinson.
“This is a great opportunity to open the children’s eyes to the world of business.”
Moreton Enterprises is now in its 25th year. It was the brainchild of the then head of business studies Mark Wright and former head of geography David Lloyd. It started with a small farm and travel agency, which saw the girls charter trains to offer a series of day trips for local people. That sprang from David Lloyd’s passionate interest in railways, which also led to the business girls of Moreton Hall hitting the national headlines in 1993.
The school had already involved itself in public campaigns to save threatened rail stations at Whittington, Weston Rhyn and Baschurch, with the girls themselves donating cash to the fighting fund from their travel business profits. Then, when nearby Gobowen rail station, on the Chester-to-Shrewsbury line, was threatened by cutbacks a group of sixth-formers came to the rescue, encouraged by then new head Jonathan Forster. The girls took over the running of the station’s booking office, public address system and information centre under Mr Lloyd’s supervision. They were based in the level-crossing keeper’s cottage and their work in restoring the station meant that in 1996 they were able to hand over a successful and viable operation to a private company.
It earned the girls and school wide acclaim and, if you’ll pardon the pun, gave them a platform from which to grow their enterprise culture to brilliant new heights.
For instance, surely no other students in the UK are having their own £100,000 retail village purpose-built? The girls at Moreton Enterprises are raising funding for the project themselves, with phase one due to be completed by April. The village will house Sports Active (a sports clothing and gear shop), Paperclip (a stationery store), a coffee shop, The Tuck Shop; Revive (selling jewellery and accessories), Essentials (toiletries) and Bookworm (books/magazines). It will bring together on one site already successful retail outlets which are dotted around the school in makeshift premises. Essentials, for instance, is in an outhouse next to the school laundry.
Barclays Bank, a substantial supporter of phase one, will have a branch on site. The girls are now seeking sponsors for phase two, for which they need to raise a further £90,000. They are once again looking to attract outside investment and another Business Lunch on March 5 gives these teenage entrepreneurs an ample opportunity to ‘sell’ the scheme.
Some of the girls of Moreton Enterprises have parents who run their own businesses and so have grown up in an entrepreneurial atmosphere.
Grace says: “My dad has run a few of his own businesses and is very hands-on, so I can always get a few tips.”
You might expect subjects like business studies and economics to feature highly on the girls’ curriculum but, in fact, they are studying a wide range of A-level subjects between them, including English, French, Latin and Geography.
Teachers Catherine Ashworth and Karen Booth, who both come from corporate backgrounds, are on hand to advise, guide and inspire the girls but also encourage them to think for themselves. They are keen to emphasise that it is the teenagers who drive Moreton Enterprises forward.
“It was the girls’ idea to start up these shops,” stresses 38-year-old head of business studies Catherine, whose insights are born of practical experience. She worked at toy firm Lego’s head office for two years before deciding to teach, and joined the pupils’ campaign to save Gobowen – even sitting a British Rail exam on timetabling and ticket sales.
She says: “Business in theory and business in practice are very different. This gives the girls the basic understanding of financial skills that everyone needs in life. We have taken business out of the classroom and we do it for real. It also gives pupils a valuable lesson in juggling. The lower sixth lead busy lives with their AS-levels, their Gold Duke of Edinburgh Awards, and their sport, that finding time for the shops as well teaches them vital skills like time management and delegation.”
Involvement in Moreton Enterprises looks good on your CV too. Many Old Moretonians have utilised the business flair first identified at the school in the wider world.
“We have had lots of success stories, with girls going on to executive jobs quite quickly after university,” says Catherine. “The students gain real experience in managing money, stock to people. They also have to get through an interview process.”
Karen Booth adds: “The skills the students learn stand them in good stead for university and their careers. Through Moreton Enterprises they are given real power within the school to make decisions about the businesses. It is a wonderful experience for them.”
Although Moreton Enterprises is an initiative driven by the girls, it relies totally on support from the whole school community to survive, says head Jonathan Forster.
“Moreton Enterprises embodies the ethos of the school. We encourage students to take risks in life and to ‘have a go’, even if the outcome is not certain.
“In all aspects of their education the emphasis is on learning from practical experience, and that includes being allowed to learn from mistakes. Moreton Enterprises has given our students that opportunity for the past 25 years.”