NOT long after County Durham native Sara Davies turned up on shopping TV in Florida, the phone lines started begging for attention. Of course, that didn’t mean the millions at the other end of the line necessarily had a clue what she was saying.
The founder and figurehead of Crafter’s Companion had taken her products over to the USA and swept away the buyers at the Home Shopping Network with her enthusiastic pitch. They insisted Davies showcase her products to the nation herself, but could an American audience cope with a North East accent?
She says: “Someone advised me to take elocution lessons. I told the elocution person I wanted to speak more slowly but didn’t want to change my accent. I only went to one lesson and never went back.
“I started off with the best intentions of speaking slowly, but imagine you’re in a studio with seven robotic cameras and TVs around the sides, and you’ve got to process all the information while you’re making your pitch in 10 minutes.
“As the phone lines went into meltdown and the dollar signs started going up, I got more excited and just got faster and faster.
“I looked at one of the forums afterwards and someone had asked who that new English person they’d brought in was. They said they couldn’t understand a word I’d said, but that I’d sounded so excited about the product, they’d bought one anyway.”
Davies’ enthusiasm has made her a familiar face on shopping channels across the world.
She says she clocks up 150 live hours a year on Florida-based HSN, the UK’s Ideal World and Create & Craft, Home Shopping Europe in Germany and The Shopping Channel in Canada.
Her globe-trotting appearances have introduced viewers to a range of products from her Coundon-based company, which was born in the bedroom of a student flat she shared at the University of York Management School.
She says: “I have an over-the-top passion because I’ve developed a lot of these products myself, and I really believe people will like them.“
The success of Crafter’s Companion has seen Davies win a string of awards, most recently two national accolades – the UK Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award at the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur Awards last year, followed by the Santander Small to Medium Sized Business of the Year award at the National Business Awards.
The company boasts an office in Orlando in Florida, and sells a range of more than 300 products both online and to more than 400 shops across the UK.
Crafter’s Companion is a big innovator in a quiet but huge crafts market that was worth $28bn in the US alone last year.
Davies says: “For the last 10 years, crafting has been the second biggest luxury-spend market in the UK. As the recession hit, we found that people were cutting back on new kitchens and cars but not the £20 they spent on their hobby.
“More than ever now, mothers and daughters are crafting together, younger people are getting involved and the next generation is coming through. There’s even been research which indicates that crafting is beneficial to your health in terms of dexterity and stress relief.”
Crafter’s Companion spearheaded the rise of producing CDs which contain data which customers’ computers can turn into templates for crafts projects. The firm has also handled licensed products for characters such as Beatrix Potter’s childhood favourites.
But you might have to slow down as you pass through Coundon to spot Davies’ base of operations, tucked away in a red-trimmed brick building just above her mother’s longstanding wallpaper and paint store.
Davies grew up as the daughter of two entrepreneurial parents. Her father, who ran firms including a logistics business, retired five years ago to help Davies as her start-up gathered pace.
She says: “I grew up helping my dad with his business and helping my mum at weekends. It wouldn’t be unheard of for a painter and decorator to knock on our door in the morning as he had a job at late notice and needed some paint mixing, and we’d open up the shop especially for him. They brought me up with the mentality that if you’re going to work hard you might as well do it for yourself.
“If you’d have asked me at 19 what I wanted to do, I would have said I was going to run my own business, but I wouldn’t have known what that business would be.”
With that in mind, she attended the management school of the University of York, eventually graduating with first class honours.
She says: “I was very much the underdog. It was an elite course that only took about 30 people a year, and many had private school educations and had just been rejected by Oxbridge.
“By the end of the first year I was one of the highest achieving students on the course and by the end of the fourth I was one of the highest in the whole school.
“I enjoyed what I was learning so much as it felt like common sense because I’d been brought up around business. I’m also a bit of a geeky swot who spent a lot of time revising.”
When the time came to do work placements in the third year, many students went to London. Davies found her own placement at a small northern mail order company called Graphicus.
It was there she learned about small business, and decided to develop some interesting craft ideas on her own. As a result the Enveloper was born. One of the first versions sits on the bottom shelf of a cabinet in her building.
She says: “It was a hand-held device for making envelopes.
“I worked out the concept and my dad used his engineering skills to help with how it would work. I approached Business Link for advice about patents, and told the TV shopping channel I would love to launch it there. I told them my product was the best thing since sliced bread.”
The channel agreed a launch date of October 24,2005, and Davies did the live launch shows to millions of UK homes.
She says: “We sold 8,000 units in the first couple of hours. Everyone wanted one for Christmas and they were buying them as quickly as we could make them.
“At first, they were being made in MDF by one of my dad’s friends, who ran a local carpentry firm specialising in bespoke windows. He had three staff working full-time, making 1,000 a week.
“He kept that up until we’d sold about 30,000, and then we took the profits and re-invested them in tooling to make them in plastic.”
While many assumed she would be taking production to China, Davies chose a company in Hexham.
She says: “Everyone assumes if you make something in plastic, you’re making it in China. We decided to buck that trend.
“We could physically drive up to the factory and quality check things coming off the line, and being nearby allows you much more flexibility.
“The only thing that’s cheaper in China is labour, but when you’re making a single impression product as we were, the only real labour is packaging, and if you’re making it in China, it obviously costs more to ship.”
The success of the Enveloper meant Davies had to balance her final year at university with a new business. She says: “Shops up and down the country were phoning my university bedroom to get orders.
“I had a fax machine and laser printers installed and turned my bedroom into an office. I’d run the business nine to five and study in the evening.
“The other students I lived with were really supportive. They’d get the phone for me and deal with customer queries.
“I used to get up at 7am and take my business papers to the gym and highlight them on the cross-trainer, because they were so boring I’d fall asleep if I read them at home. I’d work until midnight or 1am every night.
“When I’m busy now I look back at that time and think that if I can do that, I can do anything.”
In the months after the Enveloper, Davies came up with an idea that later became the Ultimate Pro, a multi-use tool that won major innovation awards in the UK, Europe and the USA in 2009 and is made in a factory in Aycliffe.
The company also started developing software to allow crafters to put a CD in their computer, select a kit and print it out rather than just buy paper kits.
Davies also scoped out the USA at the CHA trade show in January 2006, took a stall the following year, and launched an office in Orlando that summer.
She says: “If I have an idea on Monday morning, we’re doing it on Monday afternoon. It drives the staff around the bend, but I think it’s really helped the business.
“A lot of the paper crafts market is made up of smaller cottage companies, run by people that have turned their hobby into a business based on their personal taste.
“I’m not a hobbyist. I’m a businessperson who picked it up as a hobby. We did detailed market analysis, found out what the customer wanted and filled the gaps in the market.
“I really love the industry, and I love the hobby now. A lot of our competitors are friends of mine and people help each other.
“Crafters who see me on the shopping channels come up to me at exhibitions and talk to me like we’ve known each other for years.
“When I got married I had over 200 gifts and cards from customers.”
Her husband Simon Davies left his job soon after their marriage to become the company’s MD, allowing her to focus on product development, TV work and sales.
She says: “He’s very much a corporate person and we realised the only way we could make the company work was if we had an efficient manager. I run at 100mph and leave a trial of destruction and he picks up the pieces.”
Davies’ husband is just one of a group of family and friends involved in the business, which employs 21 people in the UK.
Her father and her best friend’s mother are on the board of directors, while her husband’s dad is warehouse co-ordinator. Davies prides herself on being open with staff. She says: “I’ve learned the most important thing about my business is the people. If I was to try and relocate the business I’d lose that.”
However, she does hope to be able to step back slightly at some point.
She says: “I definitely don’t have an average week. Last year I spent more than half my time on the road. I try to go to the US once a month, to Europe every two months and I’m down to the TV station in Peterborough once a week, as well as providing vision for product development.
“Quite often I’ll fly over to the US for a TV show and be on the ground for less than 24 hours. The only time it really quietens down is in December, so we try to get a long weekend away then.
“I’m 26 and I want a family down the line. We’ve started putting forward other crafting celebrities on our staff, so hopefully when I do want a family I can step back a bit and provide the vision without always being the enabler. Maybe I could also start getting involved with other businesses, not necessarily in the craft area.
“I love the industry so much though, and I don’t see myself as being one of these people that build a business and then sell it. It’s about more than the money to me.”
What car do you drive?
A Nissan 350Z (however it’s not too great in the snow, so this winter we bought a Range Rover Sport for trudging through the snow into work!)
What’s your favourite restaurant?
For all you local people, I LOVE the Pavillion at Iveston (best-kept secret in the North East!)
Who or what makes you laugh?
My staff – not only do they keep me sane but they make coming into the office something I look forward to every day.
What’s your favourite book?
I love autobiographies of business people – I particularly enjoyed Duncan Bannatyne’s (local guy come good!)
What was the last album you bought?
I was born totally in the wrong era – give me a classic "best of" Abba or Queen album any day!
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
I love to teach, and always had aspirations of teaching when I was younger. I suppose I manage to achieve those aspirations every time I demonstrate our products on TV because it is a form of teaching but on a bigger scale.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Tea, milk, no sugar.
What’s your greatest fear?
The dark (yes, I am a total wuss!)
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Turnover is vanity, Profit is sanity, but cash is definitely KING!
And the worst?
Someone told me that you can’t be a successful boss and be good friends with all your staff – I disagree
What’s your poison?
Chinese take-out in the office on a Friday!
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
I tend not to read traditional papers – but I always keep up to date with the industry trade press
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
When I was younger I used to work in my mum’s wallpaper shop – slave labour, she had be working for 50p an hour till I was in my mid-teens!
How do you keep fit?
I’ve got a cross-trainer at home, but I really should learn to use it as a piece of exercise equipment as opposed to a clothes horse!
What’s your most irritating habit?
I drive everyone in our office round the twist in my insistence in doing everything NOW! As soon as I have an idea, we’re working on it – I don’t believe in this ‘forward planning’ or ‘scheduling’ malarkey!
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I’m not a particularly extravagant person... my husband and I like to have a weekend break in Dubai each December to wind down after a long busy year, but we do use our Airmiles to pay for it, so not really an extravagance!
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Forest Gump – he never gave up in the face of adversity.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Alan Sugar, Peter Kay, Johnny Depp and Gordon Ramsay.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who made a difference and positively impacted peoples lives (which I always try to live by through the business as I’m very passionate about the positive impact craft has on many people).