Deborah Wood talks to workingmums.co.uk about how she built her polytunnel business and how it is coping with the surge in demand for gardening in lockdown.
Deborah Wood is director of gardening business Premier Polytunnels and mum to two daughters aged six and 11 months. Here she talks about how she came to set up the business, following in her father’s footsteps after studying journalism, how she has built it over the years and how she has coped through the current crisis.
workingmums.co.uk: How did the business come about?
Deborah Wood: After finishing my postgraduate diploma at a time when the UK was in recession, and
deciding it was time to stop chasing my childhood dream job, I decided to take control and set up my own business. ‘So, what business should I set up?’ was a question I kept on asking myself. Well, the one I knew best was the obvious choice and that was manufacturing and selling polytunnels to the horticultural market. I know some people thought I was crazy setting up a brand-new business in a recession, but this was a business I knew inside out. I knew what to expect from it, providing I did things right. I had grown up with my dad running his own polytunnel business, where I had spent a lot of time, so I was confident I could make it work.
wms: How did you go about setting up the business?
DW: It feels like such a long time ago, I almost can’t remember! First of all, I set out by sourcing the raw materials I was going to need to manufacture my products. I needed to know I could source the correct materials in large quantities and at the right price. Once I had sourced the main raw materials – the larger materials of steel, timber, and polythene – I set about creating a brand and a brochure, advertising campaigns, and an e-commerce website. I found a factory to rent, employed two members of staff and together we began designing and manufacturing products until I was satisfied everything was ready to go live to the buying public.
wms: What were the biggest challenges you faced initially?
DW: I feel a bit cringey saying this, but as a 25-year-old female in a rather male-dominated industry, I found that some people didn’t seem to take me seriously, particularly as I didn’t have bags of confidence about my ability to run a business. I was learning as I went, and I admit to bluffing my way through some situations which I wasn’t sure about at the time. As I was setting up a business during a recession, lots of people – both on a business level and on a personal level – didn’t seem to think it would really be a success and I saw their ‘let’s humour her’ smiles more times than I care to remember.
wms: How did you overcome them?
DW: I knew the business inside out and I knew what to expect from it, providing I did things right. I had grown up with my dad running his own polytunnel business, where I had spent a lot of time, so I just had to have the confidence in myself and the products I had created. I had to overcome my nerves and embarrassment about not knowing what people were talking about sometimes, and just learn, grow, and learn some more. The more knowledge I gathered, the more confidence I had.
wms: What did you learn about running a business from your father?
DW: Everything is the short answer! My dad taught me the basics of ‘knowing my numbers’ – any successful business needs to know what their overheads are, what their time is worth, what their products are worth, how to work out VAT correctly, what their profit margins are and how to maintain them, and so on. But two of the things that immediately spring to mind about what I have learnt from my dad are 1, the importance of advertising and 2, that customer service needs to be the top priority, above products and pricing. Even at 37 years old and having been running my own business for 11 years, I still learn something new from my dad [who works at Premier Polytunnels] every week. I have learnt so much from him directly, but also from just watching him and learning how to do things or, sometimes, how not to do something!
wms: How have you grown the business since and how many people work for you and are they able to work flexibly?
DW: I am very proud to say that my business was a success in its first year and continues to grow each year – our product range grows, our number of customers grows, and our sales grow. Our small team has grown a little – there are now seven of us here at Premier Polytunnels, with three more people brought in on a temporary basis during our busy season each year. We have a hardworking and dedicated team who bring such value to the business, so I always ensure to help them in any way I can, for example, there have been a number of babies born over the years and sometimes members of our team need to be flexible with their hours to accommodate childcare, school plays, and the like. Our team work so hard and I ensure they reap the rewards and know their worth.
wms: Did you take maternity leave and how did you manage that?
DW: Is it sad to say that both of my babies were planned so that they were born towards the end of my company’s busy season? When I had my first baby in May 2013, we employed two part-time members of staff (one being my mum who had taken early retirement from her previous managerial position) to handle some of my workload during my maternity leave, which lasted seven months…with the odd bit of work being done at home when I could grab half an hour.
My mum still works at Premier Polytunnels to this day, so when I had my second baby in May 2019, she picked up extra hours in the office. We also outsourced some of the accounts side of things to relieve our fantastic office manager from a heavy workload in my absence. My second baby was much more chilled out, which also allowed me to do much more work from home during my second maternity leave.
wms: How have you managed working alongside a young family?
DW: I must admit, I don’t always balance my work life and my personal life very successfully, but I always
try to ensure I have quality time with my family every week. If I know I’m struggling to switch off from work, even when I’m at home in the evening or at the weekend, particularly during my company’s busy season, I will set aside an hour to concentrate on work so that I can then free my mind of work and be able to focus on spending quality time with my children without being distracted. I am in a fortunate position whereby both sets of grandparents adore looking after their grandchildren and my partner is a self-employed barber who is able to leave his barbershop in the hands of his staff some days too, so childcare is rarely a problem.
wms: How has COVID-19 impacted the business, what are the main issues you have had to deal with as a result and how are you managing them?
DW: COVID-19 impacted my business in a strangely stressful, positive way. Hundreds of people decided to take up gardening or update their garden or allotment plot during periods of self-isolation and the lockdown. Therefore we received a surge of orders on an unprecedented level. We had to try and follow the guidance available to us, monitor the situation on a daily basis and update our practices on a regular basis – it was quite a firefighting, juggling act for two months, particularly as many of our suppliers closed their doors and we faced difficulties obtaining the raw materials necessary to manufacture our products. Ultimately, the biggest decision I made was to temporarily close our order book and turn the phones off – it was scary doing this during our busiest time of year, but we would have drowned under a mountainous workload and all have had nervous breakdowns, I think!
I really did not like coming to work and wondering if I wasn’t being a responsible boss. Therefore I made the decision to furlough our team to allow them to stay at home and stay safe, and myself, my parents and my brother (who also works at Premier Polytunnels) worked hard to fulfil the hundreds of existing orders. We welcomed our skeleton workforce back on the 18th May and opened our order book and phone lines again. We continue to monitor the situation on a daily basis, but so far we are all keeping well and processing orders with little stress – long may it continue!