Niamh Barker has steered her luxury travel blanket business through the choppy waters of recession and the uncertainty of Brexit and grown it around her two children and four step-children.
Now 11 years old, it has a £1m annual turnover, but she has ambitions to triple that in the next few years. Her tenacity saw her recognised recently in the 2018 NatWest everywoman awards where she was a finalist in the Aphrodite category for women who have founded their business whilst raising a child/children aged 12 or under.
Niamh qualified as a pharmacist and worked in a hospital setting for a while until she got fed up with the irregular hours caused by being on-call. She moved into the pharmaceutical industry where she rose to the position of manager of UK Medical Affairs at Pfizer for over the counter business. There she learned a lot about business, including marketing.
While at Pfizer Niamh met her husband Andy who is a psychiatrist when he was speaking at a conference in Washington about a drug Pfizer was promoting. Andy had four children from a previous relationship who he shared custody of 50% of the time.
Andy and Niamh married in 2002. In 2005, when Pfizer moved offices from Eastleigh to Leatherhead Niamh was working as a consultant and was pregnant with her second child. She decided the commute from the New Forest was too stressful and took early redundancy.
She had thought about setting up a business in the past, but this seemed the perfect opportunity. However, she had no idea what the business should be about. Having been brought up in a big Irish family where there was no choice but to study science, she felt this was the chance to do something different and express her more creative side. Indeed she is not only Managing Director of The Travelwrap Company, but also its Creative Director.
Through her job at Pfizer Niamh had been used to travelling a lot, especially to the US. She hated the airline blankets and thought she might be able to come up with something more luxurious. She didn’t want to call it a travel blanket, though. “It needed to be something more elegant,” she says. “I was making Sunday lunch when the word Travelwrap came to me. It was elegant and it suggested what it said on the tin.”
She loved cashmere and it seemed the perfect material for the product. “It’s like a big hug. It smells of home,” she says, adding that children love it. Her Travelwrap Company also offers a reconditioning service for worn out wraps.
Change of direction
Niamh started off doing trade shows and working with the big retailers like Fenwicks. The feedback was great. She also went on international trade missions and momentum was building. However, the price of cashmere started to go up, damaging her profit margins. Since she didn’t just want it to be “an expensive hobby”, Niamh did a Goldman Sachs business programme which changed her thinking and the direction of the business and gave her valuable financial skills she lacked.
She stopped going to the big trade shows and switched the main focus from trading through the major stores to e-commerce, building parallel online platforms for different territories. That way she was able to control her pricing better and not have it dictated by the big stores. She also brought in a knitwear designer who created original designs and enabled the business to stay ahead of the competition since other manufacturers were beginning to copy the idea as it was not protected and to steal market share.
Niamh now has a team of two full-time employees, both mums, and the setting is very family friendly, but with high expectations of delivering a great service. “There are so many very capable women on tap,” says Niamh. She also works with a number of consultants, including the designer and a blog coordinator. The business is still based in her house and she has just built a second office at the back of her garden. Her husband also works from home.
Her children, aged 13 and 15, have grown up with TravelWrap and Niamh used to put her beautifully wrapped packages in their pushchair to wheel to the Post office. Her oldest step-daughter, who now works at Pwc, is also a big advocate for the business.
The company has seen a 40% sale growth in the last financial year, with its digital marketing allowing the business to grow overseas. Niamh continues to grow the global strategy and aims to increase annual revenue from £1m to £3m by 2021. One region she would like to explore is Asia and the Middle East, but she realises she needs more capital and expertise to do so.
She is worried about the impact of Brexit, although she doesn’t have a big EU market, but she says any changes to the UK’s trade relationship will affect her business internationally. For instance, she currently has a free trade arrangement with the US which keeps prices the same as UK ones for individual orders, but this is only because the UK is currently a member of the EU. “All we can do is wait to see what happens,” she says. “We have been through quite a lot in the last 10 years so have built a certain degree of resilience and learned a lot.”