Read our blogpost where we catch up with Father & Son Company Directors Bob & Oliver, and discuss their 2020 review.
Let’s be honest, the year 2020 is a year that many would like to forget. It was a tumultuous time with both a global pandemic and Brexit (for our UK friends, colleagues and customers) to contend with. Forced to adapt and evolve our personal and working lives, many ambitions and goals for the future had to be put aside. We learnt (or at least tried) to be grateful for the small things, and found new ways to connect and engage with life and the people around us.
The English Soap Company has experienced many challenges over the past year. Our team’s hard work and perseverance and the innovation from the product development and design teams kept us moving, and we are very humbled and grateful for our customers who supported us through these difficult times.
For this blogpost, we catch up with Company Directors and father and son, Bob & Oliver, to ask for their end of year review of 2020, and give some insight into how The English Soap Company fared in 2020.
First things first, let’s discuss your end of year review. What has the last year been like for The English Soap Company?
Oliver: The past year has been very challenging for us as it has been for everyone on the planet, let alone those that run a business. Myself and my wife Ailsa returned from our honeymoon in January, fresh with excitement for 2020. We discovered that 2020 was not the year we thought it was going to be.
We didn’t think there would be a pandemic early on. I remember reading the WHO said there was a 30-40% chance it would turn into a pandemic, but ever the optimist, I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case. But unfortunately, it was.
In mid-March, the full brunt of the lockdown came in, and a lot of our wholesale and overseas customers had to close, and it was uncharted territory for everyone. We had to put the majority of our staff on furlough because most of our export and wholesale business disappeared overnight. Between March and August, we ran the company on a skeleton crew, didn’t have many orders to fulfil, and were essentially forced to go into hibernation mode.
During that time, it was an opportunity to work on product development and to see what we needed to do to strengthen the company to move forward. When these kinds of events happen you’ve got two choices, you can either let it destroy you or you adapt, fight it and become stronger as a result. We had no choice but to choose the latter, so we worked on new products such as the hand sanitisers and liquid hand wash (Ed: watch this space for the hand wash). We were fortunate that we do make products that help fight the spread of Coronavirus, so it was a very natural evolution for us to adapt with new product ranges.
We released our Kew Gardens Hand Sanitiser range in the latter part of 2020, and they were very well received. We’ve also focused on other business areas, such as the new website, which launched in June 2020.
“2020 has been a tough year, but one that’s forced us to adapt, and do things we’d never thought we would have to do, and as a result, we will always be stronger, for whatever comes in the future.”
And has The English Soap Company been affected by Brexit at all?
Oliver: We are finding that out at the moment. My biggest worry was one of sentiment, specifically European customers not wanting to buy a product because it’s English. I was concerned our European customers would be put off from buying a product that is so clearly British: “Why would I want to buy British when I can buy from a company that is happy to be in the European Union?” – that kind of thing. That was my biggest worry, and although it is early days, that doesn’t seem to have materialised.
We are still doing business as usual in Europe, from the perspective that people still want to do business with us. It’s added some cost, there is a great deal more paperwork for us to do, but so far, the extra costs have been worth it and we are not seeing a downturn in European custom.
What would you both say has been your proudest moment for the company this year?
Bob: I’m proud mostly, of the staff that continue to work throughout the lockdown because we are classed as an essential industry. If you’ve got the government telling everyone to use soap, you can’t stop making soaps. We had to furlough 30 people, but the main soap line kept going. I think everyone did exceptionally well to do that under those circumstances. And the other thing is we switched part of our production to hand sanitisers, and I think that was a good move commercially as well.
Oliver: Winning the Institute of Directors Family Business Award was a very proud moment for me. Not because it’s a nice trophy, but what it means and represents. To me, a family business is about maintaining certain values. The values that we hold as a company began when my parents first set up Christina May Ltd, and are values that every member of staff hold dear. So the recognition from the Institute of Directors was fantastic.
On top of that, it was exhilarating to have ITV News come and film a news feature piece about the company. Our staff found it really exciting to see the factory on television. It was wonderful to be part of a positive story within what has generally been a tough year for everyone. It was amazing to see the company on television and see my mother and father’s achievements recognised.
Also, I’m very proud that we released the Kew Gardens Hand Sanitiser range and celebrated our new website’s launch in June.
Can you tell me more about the new English Soap Company Website?
Oliver: I’m delighted with our new website, and how it corresponds with the family business award: it shows the values of the company.
For me, it’s a real joy to have positive feedback from customers and watching our online customer base grow. The website is a perfect showcase of the values that we have, and the story we want to tell, products we want to show people. To have that direct communication with the end customer has been really great.
Bob, since handing the day-to-day running of the Christina May Ltd and The English Soap Company to Oliver, how do you think he has fared?
Bob: Oliver has done exceptionally well; after the first few months, he went from strength to strength. And I knew he’d do well, from when he was eight years old and beating me at strategic computer games. I knew then that he would be good at running a business; he just didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t have any concerns about giving him that responsibility.
Oliver has got some key attributes: he is very diplomatic, gets on very well with customers, and people like him. He has been particularly good on the sales side, and if you look at the way the business has developed, I’ve done the tech side and the graphic design side, and the formulation side, and he’s gone out and sold it. He runs the business with his wife Ailsa, who is very capable as well. I got two for the price of one!
Having two people run a company is challenging. If you can pull it off, it is an ideal combination, because you need someone to make the product and someone to sell it. Oliver has done an excellent job in organising the company, running the personnel on a day to day basis, and creating a magnificent distribution network.
Looking forward, is there anything you would still like The English Soap Company and Christina May to achieve? What are your goals for 2021?
Bob: I’d like to see line two go in! (The soapmaking line). In the last three years, we recognised we needed a second line for soap making, and we were about 2 to 3 months into getting it going when COVID struck. Other things such as sanitisers and liquids have now taken priority, and with social distancing, we had to move packing into the barn space we had for the second line.
This year, hopefully, big changes are going to happen. We will be expanding our space to rearrange packing and liquid manufacturing, making room for the new soap line. We’re setting up barn three, setting up line two, we’re organising a new liquid packing line, we’ve got a new labelling machine coming, and we’ve got a new tube labelling machine coming. And we’ve got ideas for new designs so there’s a lot of changes happening and a lot to play for – we have to keep the dynamism going. And I like new machinery!
Oliver: For me, the goal is to keep hold of our company values, grow our customer base, and let the product do the talking. We put a lot of pride into the products we make. If someone is looking to buy a bar of soap for the first time, they will look for three things: the packaging, the fragrance, and the cost. I believe our products have beautiful packaging, I believe the fragrance is fantastic, and I believe it is affordable for such a high-quality product. Once someone purchases a soap bar, they’ll repurchase it if they are happy with the product and if they’re not they won’t.