The positive side of the recession
The recession has not been bad news for everyone. Jessica Salter finds three businesses that are flourishing amid the gloom.
7:00AM GMT 26 Nov 2009
Prev Cindy and Robert Pellet, owners of Forsham Cottage Arks Photo: Tara Darby Jennifer Pirtle with a class at The Make Lounge. Photo: Tara Darby
When economists first warned us that Britain’s financial collapse might be as bad as the Great Depression, a national belt-tightening ensued. But while other G7 countries have managed to bounce back, Britain is still lagging behind, and the Bank of England says the country will take two years to regain its pre-crisis level of economic output.
Sales on the high street have struggled as the recession has thrown up a new set of values to live and enjoy life by. The businesses that are booming are the ones that reflect the shift from rampant consumerism to a more austere but creative way of living. While a girls’ night out may once have involved a new dress, <snip>tails and a taxi home, now you could be customising knickers over a glass of wine at an evening sewing class. And instead of buying organic fruit and vegetable boxes and free-range eggs, parents who are worried about what their children eat are embracing the Good Life by growing their own greens and keeping chickens.
Cindy Pellet looks fondly over her black-and-white speckledies as they clean each other’s beaks. 'They’re just like two little old ladies,’ she says. 'They no longer lay, but they have given us such good service I have to keep them.’
The retired hens spend their days modelling chicken houses, or 'arks’, to an increasing number of customers. Based near Ashford in Kent, Forsham Cottage Arks, the company Cindy, 52, founded 30 years ago with her husband, Robert, 57, now sells about 14 chicken arks a day, compared with three or four a week in 1979.
'People are buying chickens not only to save money on eggs. Keeping hens is also a step towards being a bit more self-sufficient and going back to traditional values, and I think that’s what people look to when the economy turns bad.’
According to a nationwide survey, an estimated 1,000 chicken sheds are being sold in Britain every week to people who want to keep chickens in their back gardens. B&Q, the garden equipment and DIY retailer, reported a threefold rise in sales of chicken coops last year, and riding on that success it is now planning to stock pigsties. Sales of vegetable seeds have massively increased, according to the seed company Suttons, which says that 70 per cent of seed sales are now vegetables, and 30 per cent flowers, reversing the trend of five years ago when 30 per cent of sales were vegetable seeds.
The Pellets decided to set up the business when Robert was made redundant from his job as a printer at the Kent Messenger, the weekly newspaper where he had worked for 17 years. Faced with two mortgages, one for the house and another for his 'horse-mad’ wife’s paddock, Robert started developing the chicken houses he used for their own hens into arks which they could sell commercially. Now the couple employ 23 staff, including their daughter, Tracey, 31. Their office is across the garden from their house and on its wall is a framed picture of Robert proudly holding up the first egg his chickens laid.
'We’re the original Good Lifers, we have had chickens, pigs, goats, dogs, horses and grow all our own vegetables,’ Cindy laughs. 'It’s important to be aware of the food chain, and if you feed your own chickens there is no better way of controlling the quality of what you eat.’
In addition to the chicken arks (the bestselling Boughton starter kit, including ark, floor liner, feed holder, water fountain and nest sawdust shavings, costs £395), the Pellets sell accessories ranging from electric fencing to automatic door openers. Three times a year, the couple also run a one-day £85 poultry course from a rented room at a nearby golf club. Today, two middle-aged couples, a man in his thirties with a ponytail and a woman in her forties, none of whom have owned chickens before, are on the course. Pellet is busy doling out cups of tea and biscuits while Fred Ham, an international chicken show judge, is turning a brown hen over to demonstrate a healthy chicken. 'You want a nice big eye at this end, which shows that there are no respiratory problems, and a clean white bum at the other end, which shows there are no digestive problems,’ he says. 'If you have got both of those, whatever happens in between will be fine.’
Dressed in tight jeans and Converse trainers, Jennifer Pirtle does not look like the type of woman who runs a craft workshop. But then her workshop, based in a converted Georgian house, with light streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows, is a world away from a sewing class in a chilly church hall.
Pirtle, 41, who was born in California, founded the Make Lounge, where participants learn skills from sewing to cake decoration and jewellery making, three years ago after struggling to find an evening class that fitted in both with her job as a magazine writer and her life as a mother.
'I checked with some girlfriends and found that there was a real market for this kind of class,’ she says. 'My classes are full of women mainly aged between 25 and 40, either with jobs that do not allow them to be creative or busy mums who need a bit of time to carve out for themselves.’
To test her idea, in April 2007 Pirtle began running a few classes in a shared studio near Angel in north London. A year later, with the help of a private investor, she moved around the corner to her current location in Barnsbury Street – after eight months she had broken even. Now, with a team of 30 freelance coaches, she runs about 25 classes a week. 'Part of the Make Lounge’s success is down to the recession,’ she says. 'There is this make-do-and-mend mentality, but mainly people don’t just want to charge meaningless items to their credit card, they want to put a bit more thought into it.’
The courses, described as 'the price of an evening out or less’, range from basic sewing lessons (£34 for two hours), to Italian leather belt making classes (£45 for three hours). All include materials, wine and nibbles. 'The women who come to my classes want their clothes to be personal,’ Pirtle says. 'So instead of the same fast, throw-away fashion everyone else is buying, they come away with a stylish item and a skill.’
According to a recent survey by the climate change charity Global Cool, the average woman in Britain spends £470 a year on clothes she never wears, wasting £11.1 billion in the process. With this in mind, Pirtle designed her creative alterations course. 'Most women have items at the back of the closet, probably with their tags still on, that they can then redesign rather than spend money on new clothes,’ she says.
The Make Lounge is tapping into a national trend: according to hotcourses.com, Britain’s largest course-finding website, there has been an 84 per cent increase in the number of internet searches for dressmaking tuition. John Lewis, the department store chain, reports similar findings: sales of buttons are up nearly 50 per cent on last year, zips are up 20 per cent, and the chain’s own-brand sewing machines have sold over 200 per cent more than this time last year in its Oxford Street store.
With 5,000 subscribers to her weekly newsletter, and at least 10 women a day signing up, in September Pirtle opened a retail shop (which, if it is successful, she will take online) and she is looking into renting more workshop space. Her biggest challenge is not getting women through her doors but making crafting appeal to men too. 'When the rare men do come to our workshops, they really enjoy it.’
Octavius Black bounces in his chair excitedly and, struggling to keep his voice down, leans across the table. 'The secret for organisations to escape a recession is different each time,’ he says. 'In 1980 it was strategy. In 1991 it was technology. This time it is people. Those organisations who engage their employees, rather than dismissing them as “lucky to have a job”, will be the ones that emerge fastest and strongest.’
Then he laughs loudly, because it is not much of a secret. Since the recession there has been a 50 per cent increase in uptake of courses run by the Mind Gym, the company Black co-founded 10 years ago with his business partner, Sebastian Bailey. Courses cost £75 each per employee and range from 90-minute mental workouts with titles such as 'Wood for the Trees’ and 'Me, Me, Me’, to board games and paired interviews, rather than presentations.
The Mind Gym now boasts a client list comprising 40 per cent of companies from the FTSE 100. 'We worked with a retailer who was cutting 40 per cent of roles,’ Black, 41, says. 'As a result of applying the Mind Gym techniques to the remaining employees they remained sufficiently motivated to work split shifts through the night and delivered the best customer service in 21 years.’
After graduating from Oxford in 1989, Black began working as a management consultant. He cites an early career blip as 'working for the tycoon Robert Maxwell at the time Mr Maxwell jumped ship’. In 1991 Black led the sales and marketing side of a fledgling communication consultancy as it grew from nine to 100 people before being snapped up by the American advertising giant Omnicom. He continued working there until he founded the Mind Gym in 2000.
The original idea came from a discussion over dinner. 'We were sitting at the table pondering trends,’ he explains. 'We started thinking that if the 1980s was the decade of the body and the 1990s was the decade when people started taking care of their soul with feng shui and yoga, then the decade of the mind had to be coming.’
Now the Mind Gym, whose head office is in Kensington, London, has more than 100 freelance coaches who have worked with more than half a million people, and in 2006 they opened an office in New York.
'Brain training is a bit like medicine at the turn of the 20th century,’ Black says. 'Much of it is like the old apothecaries – the personal view of the person who is proposing them. We’re like the first doctors with the science to back it up.’
He points out a study recently commissioned by the Mind Gym which uses psychology and neuroscience to illustrate that people who have the best work-life balance are those who work the longest hours and are self-employed. 'That is just the opposite of what you would imagine. But things are not as they are; they are as we see them. If we can train people to look at the world in a certain way they will have more energy, achieve more and be far happier.’ Black, who has already had one breakfast meeting before 9am and is itching to bound away to another, is testament to the science. 'I just love my job, so it doesn’t feel like working,’ he beams.
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