“That’s not a wheel” the man said, dismissively kicking the cast iron wheel of the shepherd’s hut with his toe. He continued around the hut, scrutinising the details, “That’s not a window” he said, tapping at the window frame with his knuckles. I followed him with raised eyebrows and rising scepticism.
Little did I know that this early encounter with a customer from the upper echelons of British society would go on to help define this rural enterprise that we had embarked upon.
I had always known, as a child of the 1980’s, that I would set up a business making things in a rural setting. For a while, following training at Hooke Park College in West Dorset, I shared a basic workshop with two other Hooke graduates. We rented a former chicken shed on a fairly remote farm near Halstock, the farmer being an early enthusiast for diversification. Derek was so keen to encourage small businesses, and he even set up a nationwide scheme to help save village shops. We were busy from the outset in the mid 90’s, with me tapping into a trendy rustic wave influenced by a particular North American tradition of the Adirondack mountains, my colleagues setting up a thriving enterprise making accessories for smart interiors shops in London and beyond. We worked hard, learned from our mistakes and slowly began to find our own paths.
The three of us started out with assistance and mentoring from the Prince’s Youth Business Trust which, aside from a small start up loan, was most useful for guidance and training. We were allocated an experienced mentor from business, who proved useful in helping to build upon the knowledge gained at college. I would say that mentors are vital for any enterprise. We have since benefitted from brilliant ongoing advice through the Dorset mentor service. Without Anthony and his extensive experience we wouldn’t be where we are today.
Hooke was then owned by the Parnham Trust, the brainchild of international furniture designer John Makepeace. Whereas the school at Parnham House was all about fine one off furniture making, Hooke was about utilising the British forest resource, often using woodland thinnings for innovative buildings, making small batch runs of furniture and accessories. We even worked on real production runs of accessories for Habitat and other retailers. Visiting lecturers from the top end of manufacturing, design, business studies and retail would journey to this strange college set high on the misty hills of West Dorset to share their knowledge with the students. I was quite disappointed in our second year when it was forced into an academic link with a university, but I gained an MSc. for which I am grateful. For me it was a woodland monastery dedicated to craftsmanship and eccentricity and I loved it for that. It is now owned by the Architectural Association, and has moved on.
One of the many elements of the training at Hooke Park which remains relevant today is the appreciation of good design. I remember our succesful visiting design lecturer from Wales bringing in a Maglite torch for us to appreciate, critique and discuss. I had never looked at something before in the way that he showed us; to me it was ‘just a torch’. I often think of that day when I see or feel the texture of knurled metal.
I made a coffee table from chunky, ammonia-fumed, oak thinnings as a set project and put it in front of that lecturer and a couple of others as an exercise. They shredded it with their critique. Why did you carve a scalloped edge, what’s it for? Why three boards wide? The pegs on the side; why can you see them? The ripples from the planer thicknesser are still there in places, couldn’t you find the sander? At 23 and loaded with an as yet untamed ego that I didn’t know I had, I was completely shocked. One of them came to find me afterwards to explain what I needed to take from the experience. Lesson learned, and not forgotten to this day.
The Prince’s Trust mentoring built on this knowledge. Golden opportunities given to me threw this gauche Dorset lad outside of his comfort zone into the thick of it. I found myself with a stand for a week at the busy Ideal Home Exhibition at Earls Court in London, and was so proud when asked to make the garden seat for HRH the Prince of Wales to sit and view the Trust’s show garden at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show. For each event we benefitted from training with the best marketeers and sales experts, setting us in good stead for what was to come.
It can take a long time to tame the ego, but I suppose it is youthful ego or a resolute determination that gets you places. It can be misinterpreted by many, but you have to soldier on. I have learned along the way that the ego, if competitiveness and focus is what that is, is much better channelled into the broader Plankbridge brand. We are lucky to have a strong sense of pride within our team; a collective appreciation of our ethos, enthusiasm for our core values and a strong desire to fulfil our customers requirements and expectations.
“That’s not a glazing bar” the man said. I stood away, slightly taken aback as this potential customer shredded the show hut before us. I could feel my hackles rising, but intuitively felt it best not to tell him to push off. “What do you mean?” I asked, not sure where this was heading and not being one to enjoy conflict. “Don’t worry, I’m ordering a hut,” he smiled. He went on to list what he wanted to see in his shepherd’s hut, which was to go in the woods as a private retreat on the family estate outside London. We then continued to learn what discerning and creative customers with an experienced eye expect to see, adding lead work, finer detailing and oak windows into the mix. As the business grew from humble beginnings we benefitted from this invaluable customer insight as we built and delivered hut after hut across the country and throughout the World.
There was, surprisingly, a lengthy debate about a mat well in the doorway of his shepherd’s hut. He considered sizes for several days whilst the build went on. In the end I told him I would go and buy what I thought was a suitable mat, mark out the potential mat well recess, photograph it and let him know how I thought it looked. A crisp email came in after a few days consideration. ‘In the airport in New York. Do not want door mat’
He did get our wheels though, and a very fine set of cast iron shepherd’s hut wheels they are too.