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France is great for entrepreneurs

Shoe entrepreneur Tanya Heath says she could never have got her business started so effectively in her native Canada.

Shoe entrepreneur Tanya Heath says she could never have got her business started so effectively in her native Canada. Having sold her home and left her job, France gave her the support she needed - paying benefits for two years while she got the business off the ground. Her French bank has also been “proactive” and “done a great job,” she says.

AN ENTREPRENEUR with a bright idea for women’s shoes has been named one of France’s most innovative businesspeople.

Tanya Heath came second out of thousands of entries in the nationwide talent search by BFM Business, beaten only by a baby food manufacturer in a televised live final.

Her seven-person firm, selling shoes with removable heels of different heights, hopes to break even at the end of next year, set up a small Paris boutique and expand to the US, the rest of Europe and back in her native Canada.

“The idea had been germinating for a long time,” says Ms Heath, who moved to France from Ottawa almost 15 years ago with her French husband and learnt the language from scratch. Working at a private equity firm, she found colleagues frowned on the idea of wearing comfortable shoes to and from work and changing into heels.

She was determined to develop a shoe adapting to every element of a modern woman’s life, combining comfort with good looks and offering more freedom.

A chance meeting with British lingerie entrepreneur Michelle Mone at a conference gave her the push she needed: “She said shoes are 100 times more difficult than lingerie and it would take a colossal amount of work, but she said: ‘Why don’t you do it? If you could do it, it would be an absolute winner’, and I became obsessed with the idea.”

The economic crisis struck and in 2008 Ms Heath left her job to start three years of work developing the products with a team of designers, engineers and footwear experts. She sold her flat to fund the research and development costs, estimated at €600,000 so far. “I had this set amount of money I was prepared to lose,” she says.

There was a lot of negativity about the idea, and many people told her it was an impossible venture, but the French social security system has been a big help, she said. “If I wanted to do this in Canada, I’d have been on my own. Here in France you get benefits for two years. You can still feed your children. It’s very conducive to being able to set up a business.”

The company works with more than 30 suppliers at the moment, and the product is 100% made in France – but unlike some producers who say this label helps them do business, Ms Heath says it has not had an impact: “I think as a foreigner they were suspicious of me. I’ve had my integrity questioned on that. I did it for more than commercial reasons.”

The first shoe was sold in Printemps Lyon in February this year. Since then, other outlets have signed up, after a long pitching process, in La Chartre-sur-le-Loire, London’s Kensington and in Belgium, plus online retailer Sarenza.

Cashflow has been helped by the outlets being prepared to pay upfront.

There is now a range of eight different models and almost 20 different heels, measuring two or four inches tall, which can be removed with a click of a button. A pair of shoes and two pairs of heels cost in the region of €250 and the firm has gone from selling one pair of shoes every two weeks to a pair a day. Turnover will be in the region of €200,000 this year.

On breaking even, Ms Heath says: “It’ll be a year and a half, if things go to plan.”

The company only got its first bank loan last month, from BNP Paribas, who she said were “really proactive ... I think they’ve done a great job. It’s the best banking structure that I’ve seen in France.” Finding good quality staff has also not been a problem: “There’s an unemployment rate that’s crazy, so you can always find talent.”

While social charges are high, she says salaries are relatively low in France and the cost of hiring here is not much higher than elsewhere.

The firm has spent very little on publicity and PR, but the products have received widespread media coverage through word of mouth, both on television and print titles like Elle and Vogue.

On future plans, Ms Heath says: “I need to open up in Toronto quite badly.” Other priorities include the US (hopefully next year), Germany, Switzerland, the Nordic countries and the Middle East.

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