Anti terror girl spied a new career in kids’ fashion

Julie Johnson who set up SportBaby with her son Ben 'Picture by Dean Atkins
Julie Johnson who set up SportBaby with her son Ben 'Picture by Dean Atkins
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Surely there could not be a more radical career change...

For 20 years, Julie Johnson had a vital role fighting the threat of terrorism with the UK’s intelligence services.

But the Sheffielder, who was awarded an MBE for her crucial work after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and spent two years supporting counter terrorism operations overseas after London’s 7/7 bombings, left the world of top secret dossiers, real-life James Bond types and high stress to run an online kids’ clothes store.

She was 40 years old at the time, the Head of Counter Terrorism and Extremism Intelligence Analysis for UK policing. The safety of millions of people rested on her shoulders.

But Ben was the child she feared she could never have. After life-saving surgery following a burst appendix four years earlier, she had been told to forget her dream of motherhood.

But IVF had changed all that - and made her reassess. The intelligence work she had stumbled into at the age of 20 when her best friend asked her to go along to the RAF and Army careers office in Sheffield city centre had been so fulfilling and so vital to the country.

She had spent two years in Army intelligence post 9/11 helping British and overseas military thwart Al Qaeda and had just joined the Metropolitan Police Special Branch as Senior Intelligence Analyst when the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport network sent shockwaves throughout the UK.

She will never forget the tough challenges of leading a team of analysts and researchers working round the clock, the eerie unease on London’s streets in the immediate days after the attacks - and the solidarity and determination that brought people together.

But there was another life to be responsible for now.

Julie, now 44, explains: “I worked in intelligence with the Army then the police. There was huge responsibility and pressure. You cannot make a mistake when your team is pinpointing potential terrorist threats. Lives hang in the balance. Plus I had fought hard to be respected in a very male world.

“I loved my work but after almost losing my life, having to face the fact that I couldn’t conceive naturally, then finally being able to hold my miracle baby, I knew that there was more I wanted to do with my life.”

While pregnant, she had set up children’s sports and outdoor wear online store as a project for her sister Jo, who had given up her own career as a JJB Sport senior buyer to move to London and be the live-in nanny so Julie could return to her high-powered role after giving birth.

As Julie saw the business take off, she made the life-changing decision to quit her career - and throw herself into running the business alongside her sister.

She took redundancy and with husband Kevin, whom she had met during a stint as a performance analyst with Midland Mainline, made the decision to move back to Sheffield to grow SportBaby.

Initially Julie worried a career in retail wouldn’t live up to the challenges of her career in intelligence.

“How wrong I was,” she says. “I soon realised that developing and running your own business stretches you intellectually and emotionally. There is so much to learn - from website design to search engine optimisation to social media marketing. Every day brought a new challenge and I found myself on a steep learning curve.”

Jo had the sports industry knowledge and the contacts, but Julie discovered that her previous career was also great for the business. “It taught me to be organised and structured, it developed my common-sense and it taught me how to motivate myself to take every task from beginning to end. Those characteristics, along with the researching and analytical skills intelligence honed in me, have proved invaluable to Sportbaby,” she explains.

Although she’s studying for a Masters in Terrorism Studies - a qualification which could take her to a role in Whitehall - she sees her future expanding the business, which is now approaching its fourth year with an established niche in the market.

The company is growing month on month with a range of officially licensed Premiership football, International rugby supporter’s wear for babies and children and sports and outdoor wear from brands including Converse and Lego.

Orders come from all over the world for its cute, colourful, always practical gear. Marmite cycling shirts, skiwear, UV-proof swim and beachwear and Manchester United babygrows fly out.

Waterproof and windproof gear kids can conquer the Great British outdoors in, and an innovative range of clothes that change colour when wet to encourage youngsters to go out in the rain are a perfect fit for the sisters’ passion for encouraging children to get into sport from an early age.

“We grew up playing in Sheffield’s parks at every opportunity and most of our holidays were spent on family walks in Derbyshire. We want to sell clothes that make kids want to be active,” says Julie, who grew up in Hackenthorpe after living until the age of six on the 11th floor of a high-rise in Norfolk Park.

She doesn’t miss her all-consuming role in protecting the nation’s security. “I don’t have time,” she says. “My son is now four, my sister has a year old daughter Charlotte and Sportbaby consumes the rest of our time. When I worked in intelligence I could switch off when I wasn’t on duty. But not in this life!”