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Sally Hurst was sitting on the beach with her five children 10 years ago, surrounded by carrier bags. What would be really useful, she thought, would be to have a nice beach bag instead of the plastic ones lying around her so she went home and designed one. From those beginnings, she has built a successful business, The Old Bag Company, and employs four women in South Devon. The original bag is still a top seller in her summer range.
It’s not all been plain sailing though – last year a fire destroyed most of her stock – and she has had to put in a lot of energy and hard graft. “I was always interested in fashion, but when I started the journey I didn’t realise what a minefield running your own business can be. You have to learn to become a saleswoman, a PR person, a marketeer and lots of other things,” says Sally.
However, she believes that, as “an ordinary mum of five children”, hers is an example that could inspire others. “If I can do it anyone can,” she says. “I had no background in fashion, only an interest, but I didn’t need it. What I did have was a lot of self belief.”
The business has fitted perfectly around her family life since she was able to run it from her kitchen table in the early days. Her children are now 14, 19, 21, 24 and 26 and the first bags were named after them. They also featured in the marketing as Sally was very keen to ensure they were part of her business. Indeed one of her daughters was so inspired she has gone into the fashion industry herself.
As it grew Sally moved out of her home and took on staff. She was keen to offer them a lifestyle which also fit around their families. Working days start after 9am and finish by 3.30pm, but staff are expected to arrange all dental and doctor’s appointments outside those hours in return. “It makes for a happy workplace,” she says, “and people give back. There have been so many times when people have gone beyond the call of duty.” She is keen to treat everyone well, offering days out for the team. It’s important, she says, since she owes her business to them.
Before she started the business, she was working part time in a tourism information centre and indeed the name of the company is down to the five older women she worked with there. She has always worked and says that she thinks it is important for women to do something that fulfils them. “I think it’s good to do something for yourself and it’s good for children to be a little bit independent,” she says. Before she had children she worked in the insurance industry in London.
To build her business networking was vital. She is part of a women’s networking group and does a lot of talking to women about her business. “Life is who you know,” she says. A friend of her husband’s knew a woman in China who could make the bags. She started with two types of beach bags in different sizes and colours and had to make a minimum order of 6,000 bags. She had no customers so she got in her car and drove around Devon and Cornwall selling the bag. By the end of the first year she had sold four and a half thousand bags. Some of her original customers have remained with her.
In the early days, she went to the bank to ask for a loan and was given £7,000 – that is the only money that she has borrowed. She recently saw her bank manager and he said it was the best £7,000 he had ever lent a customer.
Sally started taking on staff and in the last five to six years there have been at least five women working in the business with another three working on a freelance basis. She has also diversified into other types of bags and sells to hundreds of retailers and to cruise ships as well as online. Recently she has found local companies to manufacture the bags and has been working with the Royal British Legion and the V & A as she feels it is important that businesses give something back. “You cannot stand still,” she says. Her role has also changed. She used to do everything, but has started delegating some aspects of the business. She still does all the designing and is in charge of large accounts and shows. She also does the PR and marketing.
Sally’s plan is to grow the business to a point at which she can sell it in the next five years. She wants to spend more time with her husband, who helps with the accounts, and take life easier.
Her company’s growth has not all been steady growth and business was tough a couple of years ago. Last year there was a big fire in the business park the company use. Sally lost all her stock and had to move into temporary offices. Fortunately, she was insured. She adopts a pragmatic approach, but admits it was very stressful at the time. “At least it wasn’t my home. Luckily I had brought some samples home, but I lost everything else. One of my daughters said recently that she wished she had her own business, but I said remember what happened with the fire. I had to work 24/7. It was all down to me. The buck stopped with me. Yes, being your own boss is flexible, but what you put in is reflected in your business’ success. She understood that,” says Sally.
On the upside, though, when things are going well things you can pat yourself on the back and you get to make all your own decisions. “I could never go and work for anyone now,” she says.