Meet ‘The Uniform Lady’
Designs To You’s CEO and Creative Director Maria Grossi was recently featured in ANZ Bank’s Women in Leadership series.
The series includes interviews with various women in leadership roles and discusses how they overcame challenges and what advice they would give other women.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview in which Maria shares how she built a successful uniform business from very humble beginnings. For the full article click here.
The Uniform Lady
Hailing from a hard-working migrant Italian family, growing up Maria was an extremely timid and shy young woman. Through her passion for people and drive for success she has been able to overcome her insecurities, and now shines with confidence both personally and professionally.
Since her last year of VCE, Maria’s passion for fashion and textiles has been at the forefront of her mind. Maria’s mum worked as a seamstress all her life and was a source of inspiration as well as a humble mentor. Still to this day at the age of 80, she calls on her mum for garment construction advice.
At 15 years old, Maria held a part-time job at Target which soon became a full-time job after leaving school. Although she went on to work in various administrative positions her passion was always fashion and she longed to be in a role where she could utilise the knowledge passed on from her mum and make people look great and feel confident in the clothes they wore.
After getting married and the arrival of her daughters, Maria re-entered the workforce and managed to secure a part-time position in fashion retail, before embarking on a full-time career with a uniform provider as a Sales Representative for men’s workwear.
She went on to fulfil further short course studies in production and product design to better understand construction, fit and fabrics suitable for the uniform industry.
In 1999, she decided to take things one step further and fulfil a lifelong dream of starting her own business and being her own boss – Designs To You was born out of the family’s rumpus room.
What is your job title and can you give a little insight into what a day in the life of Maria Grossi looks like?
“My official job title is CEO and Creative Director, however, most people in the industry simply know me as The Uniform Lady. It is a title I gained early on in my career when I would travel door-to-door, business-to-business physically fitting out teams of 50-100 people, all on my own in my 4-inch heels.
Being a business owner, mother, wife and daughter means that no day is ever the same and there are always many new things to process. However, one thing that never changes is my morning espresso, I simply cannot start the day without it!
In my capacity as CEO I’m responsible for the business strategy and goals, but it’s not unusual for me to take an occasional customer phone enquiry if our customer support team is flat out. I always appreciate direct feedback from the people who wear our uniforms every day.
Most days I am dressed in one of my favourite colourful blouses, power pants and heels for meetings with existing or potential clients. I very much enjoy interacting with our clients and being involved in the process of creating new uniform collections.
Other days you will find me in leggings and sneakers rolling my sleeves up working on new styles, fabrics and designs with our production team, or on occasion helping in the warehouse with one of our many yearly uniform rollouts.
No matter what I have going on each day, it’s always crucial for me to wake up early and take time to assess what needs to get done that day, that week, that month or our overall goals for the year and devote my time to the areas where I will bring the most value to.
These days, I also work alongside my youngest daughter Danielle who has been working in the business for more than 10 years, starting from the ground up, and shows equally as much tenacity, passion and drive for the success of our business and industry.”
DEBUNK: It is often assumed women lack the confidence to lead. As the Founder, CEO and Creative Director of Designs To You, what are your thoughts on this?
“In my opinion, this is a thing of the past. Both women and men can become successful leaders regardless of their gender, but girls and women often grow up with a different set of expectations to men. It’s not necessarily lack of confidence that causes less women to become successful leaders, but rather a lack of support, network, empowerment, knowledge, education, perceptions and other similar factors that can hold women back from becoming leaders.
For me personally, I was lucky to have a very supportive husband and family who encouraged me to follow my dreams. Many women have to juggle raising a family and their careers in a way others may not.
As a wife, mother, carer for my parents and a female leader of a successful business for more than 22 years, I had to learn how to multi-task (very well!), and sometimes there are sacrifices I have to make. As for my confidence, it grew with the business. Every bit of success and every achievement proved I was capable and worthy.
In 1999, when I left behind a successful career to start my own business, a male colleague told me “I was tied behind the kitchen sink”. This is just one example that comes to mind of a woman being greatly underestimated for her tenacity, strength, drive and passion.
As female leaders, it doesn’t mean we cannot be great wives or mothers too, but in my opinion, it proves the opposite; women have even greater capacity to confidently do anything they put their minds to.
It is also important to acknowledge that behind every great leader there’s a great team both on a personal and professional front. In my view the most important characteristic of a successful leader is to always have a clear vision of your goals, be confident and courageous and lead with integrity, honesty and humility.
Never be afraid to hire a team that may be more professionally experienced than you and take pride in the accomplishments of those that help you, and you in turn can help them along the way.
A great leader, regardless of gender will always remain humble and true to themselves.”
Having gone from a start-up business in 1999, to a major Australian uniform supplier, how important is the role of scalability and what are some of the challenges and learnings of managing growth?
“Scalability is a crucial aspect for the growth of any business because it provides the tools for adapting to changing conditions and demands. The strategy for growth and scalability depends on the goals, vision and growth stage of the business. Every business is different and sometimes it can be difficult to estimate future requirements, but that’s where a good business plan can be helpful.
The growth of Designs To You happened quite organically. We simply grew as more customers came on board, usually through word-of-mouth recommendation and we had to scale our systems, production, supply chain and team to meet the growing demand. Because each customer has unique requirements our strategy was to provide flexible solutions through adaptable systems.
The ability to remain agile has been particularly important over the past two years with Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
As a Melbourne-based business, we experienced the longest lockdowns and harshest restrictions in Australia. We had to quickly adapt to most of our staff working from home, supply chain challenges and changes in order volume.
For me, it was very important to keep all our staff in secure employment while managing the various challenges and I’m proud to say we have succeeded. I am very grateful to my team for their support and commitment over this difficult time.
Since completing the ANZ Business Growth Program this year (2021), Designs To You has now entered a new growth stage and we are focused on scalability yet again. Having created our business plans for the next few years we have identified systems and people as the key areas where we need to grow.
The system upgrade in particular will help improve efficiency, reduce order processing times and provide better process transparency. This is especially important as customer expectations have been steadily increasing over the past few years.
When it comes to people, I believe they are the key to our success. Finding the right people is very important for business growth because they can really grow with the business, contribute to its success and reduce the need to hire again. Recruitment is a time-consuming and costly process so from our experience it pays to take time to hire the right person rather than compromise.”
One piece of advice you would give to other women looking to lead?
“My advice to other women is to believe in yourself, your abilities and your dreams. Follow your own path with confidence and courage and lead with integrity, honesty and humility. Being true to who you really are makes you shine and can create wonderful opportunities.
Sometimes things can get a bit hectic so it’s important to take time to step away from any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable and devise strategies to combat this in the future.
The first few years of business were tough and challenging – lots of very late nights and early mornings. It was by sheer determination, passion and a drive to prove myself that I overcame any challenges that stood in my way. I met some amazing people, some of whom still remain friends, that saw my potential and provided me with opportunities.”
Designs To You have introduced the Sustainable Uniforms range recently, what have you learnt in this space and how important are sustainable practices for your business?
“At Designs To You, we believe we have a responsibility to play our part in the shift to a more sustainable world and we are committed to leading the change. Many of our customers share our values and there is definitely growing interest in sustainable uniform solutions.
For this reason, we have made the pledge that by the end of 2023, our entire core uniforms range will be sustainable. We will achieve this by minimising virgin synthetic fibres as much as possible, as well as using recycled and eco-friendly fabrics, materials and packaging.
Our sustainability journey actually started in 2015 when we came across REPREVE® – an advanced recycled polyester fabric made from plastic bottles. We incorporated it into many of our uniform styles and it’s still one of our core fibres. To date, Repreve has recycled more than 30 million plastic bottles that would have otherwise ended up in landfill and we’re proud to have contributed to that.
Since then, we began using other recycled fabrics as well as introducing other sustainability initiatives such as changing our garments bags and mailing satchels to recycled plastic, using recycled paper for garment tags, optimising shipping and other supply chain processes and reducing general waste in our warehouse and office.
Although we have always been an ethical business and sustainably minded, we have only been able to ramp up our sustainability efforts recently as new sustainable and recycled fibres, fabrics and recycling initiatives became more widely available.
Understanding the environmental impact of different fabrics, production processes and the supply chain has certainly been a learning curve. What we discovered is that sustainable fashion is very complex and multifaceted, but we are doing as much as we can to reduce our environmental impact.
We have also learnt it’s important to educate people on the benefits of sustainable fabrics. For instance, many people assume the use of recycled or eco-friendly fabrics compromises the quality, feel or comfort of the fabric, when in fact it is quite the opposite.
Recycled fabrics are extremely durable, versatile, include moisture-wicking properties and are easy to care for. The only difference being the environmental impact is much lower.
Lastly, disposing of uniforms at the end of their useful life in a sustainable way is also important. Instead of uniforms ending up in landfill or being incinerated, we can provide clothing recycling/upcycling services, or where possible old uniforms can be donated to charities that distribute them overseas.
Our goal of making uniforms more sustainable is a big step in being accountable and doing our part for the good of our planet, but we also hope it will help drive positive change in the industry.”
Looking for a better uniform solution for your business? Get in touch.