Name: Donny Carstairs.
What is your business called? The Just Slate Company.
Where is it based? Kirkcaldy, Fife.
What does it produce, what services does it offer? From our workshops in Scotland, The Just Slate Company hand-crafts a range of slate tableware products. We hand-cut each individual slate piece to fit with our contemporary designs. Using traditional methods, each piece of slate is selected, cut, shaped, foam-backed, finished and inspected before packing. Historically, our best sellers were coasters and placemats – more recently, we have been focusing on more giftable products, such as mezze platters, canapé trays and sushi sets.
To whom does it sell? 85% of sales are to retailers, from familiar high street names like John Lewis and Lakeland to independent cook shops, garden centres, gift shops and farm shops. 15% of sales are direct to the consumer via online or retail consumer shows such as the Good Food Show. Today we are the country's largest slate homeware producer and can be found in over 600 outlets around the UK. Online sales can come from Europe, the US, Asia and Australia.
What is its turnover? £2 million and growing. In the past three years, the business has generated a 70% to 90% increase in annual turnover each year.
How many employees? In 2009 we had five employees, now we have 25.
When was it formed? I bought the business in 2006 from a family in Kirkcaldy who had formed the basics of the business – a simple product range, packaging and a handful of customers. They were looking for help to take the next step. At that time, I formed a new limited company as a vehicle to buy the existing business, and approached Business Gateway Fife for the first time to see what help, advice and finance was available – I was pleasantly surprised!
Why did you take the plunge? I was already running another business supplying retailers whose markets were starting to mature and Just Slate represented an opportunity to reach new markets with new types of product. Diversification of sorts! One advantage of running two businesses side by side is that you gain an immediate economy of scale for things like packaging purchasing power. Just Slate also benefited from specialist knowledge in areas such as imports, logistics, finance, design and sales.
What were you doing before you took the plunge? I was MD of a company called Scottish Everlastings Ltd – and still am (dual roles). Scottish Everlastings Ltd was set up in 1987 by my mother Louise and today is still very much a family business, employing my brother Colin, sister Emma and father Ian. It is an importer and distributor of decorative accessory products (like dried flowers in ceramic displays) designed exclusively for multiple retailers. It is based in Kirkcaldy and employs 28 people.
How did you raise the start-up funding? Bank and personal finance. Despite what the papers say, we have always had a good working relationship with our bank, Royal Bank of Scotland – with securities they loaned approx 40% of the capital required – the rest coming from a loan from Scottish Everlastings Ltd and some personal investment.
What was your biggest break? It sounds boring but finding the right sales agents. Sales agents travel their areas looking for new customers while servicing existing ones. A good agent is worth their weight in gold, but a bad one can do real damage to the brand. We now have a team of six agents who cover the UK and Ireland. Agents will typically cross-sell three or four other product ranges, so it's important that you find agents that sell "complementary" products – this means that they will already be selling into customers that you are targeting. Our agents have monthly targets to meet that include actual sales values but we also evaluate them on other things, like number of new clients brought on board.
What was your worst moment? Staring at management accounts two years into forming the new company that showed no sales growth and at best, break-even profits. You really start to question yourself. It was a big wake-up call and made us really focus on getting new customers and expanding the product range.
What do you most enjoy about running the business? Seeing employees get passionate about the business, product and brand. Employees spend more time at work with their work colleagues than at home with their family so it's important that they buy into the brand and company ethos.
What do you least enjoy? Dealing with under-performing employees who don't buy into the company brand and ethos.
What are your ambitions for the firm? We've spent six years developing our product range and growing our sales and brand profile in the UK and Ireland and have hit our initial target of becoming what we think is a desirable brand with a broad range of retailer stockists. We now want to focus on export markets and have selected France and the US as our first targets.
With the help of Business Gateway Fife, and assistance from Scottish Development International (SDI), I secured funding for an external sales consultant and a Talent Scotland graduate who will work to build our brand in France. Business Gateway and SDI also helped me secure funds to exhibit at the internationally renowned Maison & Objet Show in Paris earlier this year.
We made good connections with many French retailers and also drew a lot of attention from Japanese retailers and importers. That interest resulted in us signing a deal with a catering distributor and a giftware distributor in Japan. In September of this year, we head off to the New York International Gift Fair, where we plan to meet with various US distributors and retailers. There seems to be a history of brands who just haven't managed to crack the US market for one reason or another – so clearly this is going to be our biggest challenge! We have also taken a licence to sell a Maw Broon's branded kitchenware range.
What are your top priorities? Exhibit at the New York International Gift Fair; implement our newly formed social media plan; launch the new website; bring our new autumn range to market; launch the Maw Broon's kitchenware range in August.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help? To organise a networking system that would put me in touch with other business leaders who are in similar industries with similar issues and problems. So not a networking lunch with bankers, lawyers and recruitment consultants but rather other SME managing directors who are trying to develop brands and export Scottish-made products.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned? Things don't happen overnight – they need patience, determination and hard work. And even then, sometimes business plans don't work out – and that is just about luck more than a deficiency on your part. We all need luck! Using external support agencies such as Business Gateway and SDI has also been valuable because the advice and financial support gives you the confidence to reach out faster and sooner to try and achieve your goals.
How do you relax? Sports and being with family and friends.