Interviews with Working Mothers
Rachel Elnaugh - founder of Red Letter Days
In 1989 Rachel Elnaugh didn't just set up a business, she set up an industry -
and she loves it.
You know how it is - your day runs away with you, then your week does, and you
still haven't bought that birthday present. You don't want to get another book
from Smiths at the station; you want it to look like some thought has gone into
Rachel Elnaugh found herself wanting to create an innovative present for her
father back in the late 80's and decided to package the surprise with curry
powder, mustard and a cricket ball. It was all the clues her father needed to
realise he was off to see England's cricket team play India at Lord's.
This was the incentive to create well packaged, unusual presents that you can
buy off the shelf and she set about establishing Red Letter Days, now a familiar
high street name and a company with an annual turnover of £17.5 million. You
would think she wouldn't have time to do much else, but she has.
Driving a Ferrari can be such a stress reliever - even if it is just for the
Despite having a high pressure, demanding job as founder and joint managing
director of Red Letter Days, she has three children - Mark aged 7 years, Paul
aged 4 years and Eddie, just 3 months, and is a single mother to boot with a
partner in the Midlands.
"I actually went back to work after 6 days with Eddie. I took a maternity nurse
into work with me and she would bring him to me between meetings for a feed. It
was tiring, but it worked. My marriage didn't really work out so I am bringing
the boys up myself."
This seems to be typical of the quietly spoken Rachel, reflecting in her private
life the determination in business to do things her way and move things on. But
that is where the similarity ends. Spending most of the week in London from
Monday to Thursday, she makes sure that when she is at home, that's where she
"My home life is totally different to work. We live up in Sandhurst where the
kids are at school and most of the people who know me there can't believe I'm
this successful businesswoman. I'm more likely to turn up to things in a track
suit than stilettos."
But it hasn't been plain sailing. While building a major business and taking on
the traditionally male dominated business world, Rachel has found she hasn't
spent as much time with her children as she would have liked.
"I had a childminder for the first two children and she was excellent. She's
actually now Godmother to one of my kids. But they did call her mummy by mistake
once or twice and that was gutting. It made me feel terrible. In some ways she's
a better mother than me as she really experienced the children."
The business was set up, as many businesses are, from home and she freely admits
that as a single young woman in her early twenties with no entrepreneurial track
record, she wasn't an instant success on the fundraising front. "I found I had
to negotiate extremely hard to be taken seriously by both suppliers and banks.
Everyone was reluctant to support a small home grown company by a young woman
with no track record."
But she persevered and managed to find funding, using her savings and help from
friends and family to set up shop in a new, unproven industry.
You can visit the Red Letter Days website at www.redletterdays.co.uk
"I always knew that I wanted to go into business. I grew up over my Dad's shop
so was introduced to running a business from the start. I didn't want to open a
shop though, I wanted to start a business and see where it would go. I never
dreamed it would be this successful and I've learnt so much along the way."
Certainly, Rachel does seem to be unaffected by the success of the business. She
talks of critical phases and growth in the same breath as admitting she
'wouldn't rule out another one or two babies' as she had such a fun time growing
up with her four brothers. "They're a bit like a pension fund aren't they,
something you can rely on being there when you're old."
Being a female boss means things are different in the office and work life
balance issues aren't really issues at all, more a fact of life. Babies,
children, even pets are totally acceptable in the office, something which she
did not witness too often when she started out her career at Andersons in the
"Some men think having babies in the office is unprofessional - that's old
school. Men and women have different approaches to it and sometimes having a
male hierarchy means you end up having to act like a male. This can mean totally
denying yourself contact with your home life. I've seen some men even use the
office as an excuse not to go home until after the children are in bed because
they can't come to terms with family life and that's sad. "
Rachel tries to involve her children as much as possible in her business so they
can understand her better. When they go out shopping, the boys will notice Red
Letter Day displays in department stores and point them out to her so they can
go and check them out. She's lucky (and knows it) that her business is as
exciting as it is. She took the boys to the launch of the hot air balloon days
and they helped fill the balloons; they've been closer to a Ferrari than I'll
ever get and they've been filmed for television in a helicopter and what's more,
says Rachel, they don't seem to have been affected by any of it.
"I could have devoted more time to being a mother, but hopefully in twenty years
time when their trust fund is substantial, they won't mind. They're great boys,
very independent and sociable, partly because they've had to be and partly
because they just are great boys."