It has been quite a year for Woolcool. 2019 began with success at the Sentinel Business Awards, and then saw the firm’s tenth anniversary celebrated with a Royal visit by HRH The Prince of Wales. And the year has been rounded off with another award triumph – with Woolcool being named Best Small Family Business at the prestigious Family Business Awards.
They recall the challenges they have faced, the triumphs, the tough times and offer their advice for new businesses fighting to build credibility – as well as sharing their knowledge of a mystical business force they call the ‘magic flow’!
“When I look back to how it all started, it’s remarkable,” said Woolcool CEO Angela Morris. “I had already been running my own packaging design business for thirty years and explored the idea of using wool as an insulator for one of my clients, the National Trust, for their tenant farmers to send fresh produce direct to the consumer at home.
“Word started to get around about the product and we were getting enquiries, so in 2008 I registered Woolcool as a trademark and set up in a farm building in Market Drayton.
“It was all very simple back then – we bought in rolls of wool, bought a big guillotine and chopped it down to the right sizes. Some students helped us cut and pack it, so we were doing what we do now but in a rudimentary way on a much smaller scale. A cottage industry, really!
“It got busier and busier, and I thought ‘this is the time – we have to do something with this.’
So, in May 2009 I incorporated The Wool Packaging Company and the rest is history.”
Early awards recognition, from the Observer Food Monthly and Sunday Times, helped put the fledgling Woolcool product on the map, leading to more enquiries – including organic food pioneers Abel & Cole.
Angie said: “It was a very exciting time to be setting up the business. I was going through a period of big change in my life – my children weren’t reliant on me anymore – they all had their own jobs and lives, I felt that I HAD to make it work. That was very liberating in a way.
“Winning Abel & Cole as our first customer was a real coup, as they were seen as innovative pioneers in organic food. I worked so hard to get them on board and they were the first invoice we sent out as The Wool Packaging Company. It was so important because everybody knew Abel & Cole in the online mail order food industry.
“It was the beginning of the momentum that has seen the company grow so much since, and helped create the credibility that we’ve built up as a brand. It was a real milestone.”
Not long after, in July 2009, Keith Spilsbury joined the business, bringing with him years of senior management experience in the packaging industry. But it was serendipity that led him to Woolcool.
“At the time I was running my own business consultancy and coincidentally my sister owned the converted stable offices that Angie had set up in,” remembered Keith, who is now Woolcool’s Strategic Director.
“She said to me ‘there’s a lady here in the stable office, running a business in packaging, and I think she might need a little bit of advice with sales and marketing’.
“We were introduced by my brother-in-law, who then never got a word in edgeways, because Angie and I got talking and we realised we had lived these parallel lives in the world of packaging, Angie at the retail end and me in the bulk materials handling side of things.
“We realised we’d been to the same exhibitions, the same trade shows, and as the conversation progressed, we realised that we had once lived very close to one another, used the same supermarkets. How we never bumped into one another earlier I’ll never know!
“It really did seem like serendipity. Anyway, I brought to the company the ability to make a really good cup of tea and the expertise to cut the crusts off Angie’s sandwiches at lunch time.”
As well as these gastronomic skills, Keith brought a strategic approach to building the Woolcool brand.
“Keith thinks strategically, and also has a strong marketing background,” Angie said. “Our skillsets complemented one another – I had run my own small business for years and Keith was used to big business and understood how to set up a manufacturing site.”
As with all new small businesses, Woolcool faced many challenges in its early years.
“When you’re starting a small business, you have no credibility with the world of finance, no track record with suppliers and lots of things are stacked up against you,” Keith said.
But while they may have needed to build that credibility, they had total belief in their product – and in something that Angie calls ‘the magic flow’.
“Angie has always believed in ‘the magic flow’,” Keith explained. “It comes down to a belief in what you’re doing, that it’s the right thing, and you’re doing it in the right way.
“The fact is you can put as many plans down as you like but you’re still reliant on so many intangible factors coming together to create a positive outcome for the business.
“Where we hadn’t got very specific things lined up to get a specific result, we had to tell ourselves that we had done everything correctly – and we just had to rely on the magic flow to deliver. Over the years I have come to believe in it too. I think Woolcool’s success is proof!
Angie explained: “I would say ’this will work, we will get there’. But it’s not just a case of sitting back and waiting for success to come along. You have to be positive, believe in what you’re doing, but always keep pushing, keep prodding.”
As their shared Woolcool journey progressed, Angie and Keith’s working relationship blossomed into a romance.
They married in 2015, adding to the friendly, welcoming family atmosphere at Woolcool.
In the early years, Keith and Angie set out across the UK, seeing as many potential clients as possible and delivering samples personally.
Keith said: “We drew up five-year plans. Through experience I knew we had to create a sales pipeline. That meant making sure that we always had the sales ‘funnel’ filled so that at the narrow point you always had a drip of customers coming through, passing through the various stages of qualification, validation and conversion. We were building a more pro-active sales and marketing programme that reached out directly to the market. The references we had from those key customers like Abel & Cole were vital too.”
Other vital ingredients arrived in the form of individuals who would help shape the company and remain involved to this day. Gail Miller, who had worked with Angie back in 2008, is now our exclusive UK distributor for small orders of Woolcool, while Warwick Blake looks after customers in the South West.
“We have always been lucky in meeting people who are like minded,” Angie said. “Back in early 2009 for instance, The Times did a piece on Woolcool, which included a photo of me standing in a field with sheep!
“One of the directors of our wool suppliers read the article over his breakfast one morning and turned to his wife and said: ‘you know, I think I can help this lady. They have supplied our felt ever since. It was the magic flow in action!”
However, as with many small businesses, cash flow presented challenges.
Keith remembered: “In mid-June 2011 we reached a point where we had an order book, great customers, products we believed in but little in terms of credibility with lenders and suppliers.
“We were probably within months of having to seriously consider the future of Woolcool, because we didn’t have three years of figures to enable us to get the funding from the banks that we needed to grow,” he said.
Angie went on: “Then the magic flow delivered again. A phone call came out of the blue from a business in the oil engineering sector who said they had been looking at us for a while in terms of a possible investment.
“They wanted to have a ‘green’ business within their portfolio and would like to chat to us about investing in Woolcool.
“We were assured that they wouldn’t interfere in how we operated. By the time we saw the agreement they were offering we had little choice but to go for it, despite any reservations we had.
Keith described this period as a ‘tough couple of years.’
“We had to do it, but were determined that this should not be a long-term solution,” he said. “It was hard, as they were not keen on any R&D or product development, and we were essentially a design-led company. But this was about survival.”
Angie said: “The lesson is that there might be times in business when you have to do something like that but you need to have a plan to become independent again, which is what we did. By mid-2013 we succeeded in buying the investors out and Woolcool was ours again!
Keith agreed: “If you’re growing a business, you might need to make a difficult decision like this. My advice would be don’t be afraid of seeking external investment, when you reach a certain plateau beyond which you can’t grow organically but be very careful about who you choose to work with.”
Careful planning meant Woolcool were also building the credibility they needed to break through in new markets.
“From the outset we had been battling with credibility because we were using wool as a packaging material, which nobody else was doing,” Keith explained, “so we were having to work really hard to prove it worked. That meant doing lots of tests and trials to collect data.
“With a healthy client base in food, we wanted to reach out into the pharmaceutical sector. We soon discovered that they speak a different language in pharma – we had to change our vocabulary when talking to them to ensure we focused on scientific terms like performance, data, validation and statistics.
“We knew that pharmaceutical products could benefit from the advantages of real wool in the same way that our food customers did. It was a question of building the credibility within the sector.
“Then, in 2013 there was a massive change in European legislation, which required all companies wholesaling medicines to prove that their packaging would keep the product at the right temperature in transit. Without that proof they couldn’t get their license.
“Suddenly companies were looking at their existing plastic packaging and finding that it didn’t insulate to the level required by the new legislation. Woolcool out-performed manmade alternatives and we had the data to prove it!
“Our pharma side is Levitra showing real growth this year,” Angie said, “The future looks very positive.”
Another kind of credibility – ecological – has grown throughout Woolcool’s ten years.
“It’s funny, but at the time we weren’t quite aware that environmental awareness was growing at the same time and rate as the business,” Keith said.
“The business had sustainability at its core, but we perhaps didn’t notice that the environmental movement was growing in parallel to us.
“In the last couple of years, it has really hit the main headlines, thanks to things like Blue Planet. But at the time it wasn’t as clearly defined, we just thought we were tapping into something that was growing from a niche interest into a movement. Now everyone is talking about it, and what sustainable materials we should be using in the future.
“Attitudes are changing.”
The future for Woolcool’s founders means changing roles. As a family business, Angie’s daughters Josie and Jessica are now in control of running and growing the business. Angie and Keith are taking a natural sideways step into an ambassadorial role for Woolcool, engaging with the UK farming community and the natural materials sector.
Keith said: “It’s important for any family business, especially the founders of it, to recognise the point at which they need to step to one side and let the younger generation come through – that’s where we’re at now.
“We recognised that our customers are getting younger and there is a different way of communicating. It’s about knowing your place and recognising when your role in the company transitions from one thing to another, both of which are equally important.
“You have to be flexible and broad minded enough to allow it to happen, without feeling that somehow you’re losing your control or effectiveness. Ultimately, it’s all about doing the best for the business.”