The multi-award-winning, global journey of Brigg-based greeting card, gift and stationery company, Wrendale Designs, all began on Hannah Dales’s kitchen table in Melton Ross, Lincolnshire…
Having completed a degree in Zoology at the University of Cambridge, Hannah was determined to discover an outlet for her extraordinary artistic skills and imagination. Drawing inspiration from the gorgeous Lincolnshire countryside and its surrounding wildlife, she began to paint, and draw, and sew.
Since that day on her kitchen table, where the spark first arrived to transform her fascinating imagination and awe-inspiring artwork into a business, Hannah and her husband, Jack, have never looked back, winning award after award and branching out to markets all over the world.
This, is their story…
KW: You’ve said in the past that Wrendale Designs started from your kitchen table. Talk us through how the journey began…
Hannah: I had found myself at a bit of loss career-wise. I’ve always been ambitious and loved working but having left a career behind in the city to move up to Lincolnshire I was struggling to find something exciting and challenging that would also fit around a young family.
Art has always been a big part of my life and while I was working in finance I craved a creative outlet of some kind, so I thought I would try to start a small business from home based on my paintings.
I tried quite a few different things before Wrendale Designs took shape and it took a few years before it really crystallised as an idea, but I haven’t looked back since.
KW: Was there a particular moment or achievement where you thought, ‘this could be something special’?
Hannah: I’m not sure about a particular moment but I definitely had a sense that I was embarking on something exciting. It just felt ‘right’ from the moment I started putting a business plan together and it was a feeling that things were falling into place.
KW: What’s surprised you most about starting your own business?
Hannah: How much I have enjoyed it. My very risk-averse family drilled it into me from a young age: ‘never work for yourself’, so it wasn’t something I ever thought I’d pursue, and it was only really my circumstances that led me in this direction.
I love the fact that you are totally in control of your own destiny and the opportunities are endless if you are prepared to work really hard, think creatively and take some chances. Obviously it also comes with some major downsides and I think I push myself to the absolute limit of what I’m capable of and never quite feel it’s enough and that can be exhausting.
KW: Where do you find the inspiration for your designs? Talk us through your creative process…
Hannah: A lot of my inspiration comes from the wildlife we’re lucky enough to have close by in Lincolnshire. We’ve got foxes, deer, hares, pheasants, barn owls and little owls right on the doorstep and you can’t help but be inspired by that.
I love nature and wildlife so I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather paint. I always try to bring some humour and characters into the subjects and that seems to emerge as I sketch and paint. I never quite know what’s going to appear when I start drawing.
KW: You run Wrendale Designs alongside your husband, Jack. How important was it to ensure WD remained a family-run and orientated business? And what’s it like working alongside your husband?
Hannah: I don’t think being a family business was what we set out to do as such, it’s just the way it has evolved. However, being a small business where everyone is very invested in the product by default gives a family feel to it.
My feeling is that running a business, especially when at the core of it is something so personal, means that you need people working for you who share your passion and strive for excellence in the same way that you do.
In return we try to create a culture that encourages creativity, nurtures and cares for its employees and is obsessed with being the best that we can be at every level – I think a family business is the best way to deliver this – everyone at work refers to the ‘Wrendale Family’.
I get asked a lot about what it’s like to work with Jack (usually followed by ‘I could never work with my other half’!) As luck would have it, our skill sets have turned out to be very complementary.
He gets really excited about warehousing and excel spreadsheets but has no clue about design so we each have our responsibilities and don’t tread on each other’s toes too much.
Neither of us could have achieved what we have done on our own so we’re really lucky to have been able to start a business together. Sharing the excitement, stresses and successes with one another has been amazing – it would be weird to be doing it alone.
KW: What do you believe has been key to the success of Wrendale Designs?
Hannah: I don’t think there is a single factor. We were lucky enough to have a style that was very different from anything else on the market and it immediately captured people’s imaginations and allowed us to build a distinctive brand.
It also seems to have quite a broad appeal so it has been possible to build a brand overseas as well. We have worked extremely hard to make it happen and constantly push ourselves to expand the product range, improve the service we provide, get better at marketing, become more efficient and face challenges head on.
We’ve also got a fantastic support system, not just at work but from family as well who have helped us with childcare and more when we have been away at trade shows.
KW: You recently collected a Queen’s Award for excellence in International Trade. Talk us through that…
Hannah: We feel very privileged to have been given the award – we had to demonstrate exceptional and above industry standard growth in export sales over a consecutive number of years. I’d had it on my radar for a few years (I’m quite competitive) so I was thrilled to win.
KW: Your exports have grown tremendously over the last few years – how have you been able to launch Wrendale Designs in the US, Europe and Japan?
Hannah: We knew that there was demand in the US for our products but we couldn’t find a distributor that we thought would be a good fit so (probably quite naively) we thought we would just replicate what we did in the UK.
We went over to New York to do a ‘research’ trip, filled a container of product and shipped it over to a warehouse in Texas. We have gradually built up a network of sales reps across the whole country and we now have stockists in every state, including Hawaii and Alaska!
We have distributors in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa amongst others and we have our own reps and distribute our products across a lot of Europe. In Japan, we have a business partner who has placed our brand in a number of high profile department stores and Jack and I are going out there in September to take part in a British Fair at one of the stores.
I do feel that we have been lucky to hit upon a style that seems to be popular regardless of language and culture barriers – that is definitely more luck than judgement!
KW: How do you manage teams and relationships with people overseas?
Hannah: Neither Jack or myself have ever had any experience of managing people so we have had to learn it all on the job – we’ve made a lot of mistakes and we continue to try and educate ourselves to become better managers.
Overseas, there is an added complication of a distance, culture and sometimes a language barrier as well. We’ve tried to remove every obstacle for customers based overseas trading with us and part of that has been having dedicated managers based in Brigg who look after all of the reps and customers.
The team who look after the US cover the phones in the evening to make sure that we can offer customer service during their business hours. We use Skype to have face to face conversations and we spend a lot of time visiting customers and agents at trade shows overseas.
This allows us to get our brand message across – which is really important to us – we want our salespeople and customers to understand the unique features and inspiration behind all of our products as well as our company ethos, and history – all of this helps us to create a strong connection with our customers.
KW: How did the collaboration with Portmeirion arise?
Hannah: Portmeirion approached us at our second ever trade show to see if we would be interested in working with them. It took a while to materialise, but they eventually launched six Royal Worcester mugs with our designs on and they said that they have never had such a big reaction to six mugs.
They have been a brilliant and very collaborative partner and have definitely helped us to build the brand to what it is today. They launched a dinner service earlier this year and I love it – I think it’s the thing I’m most proud of.
KW: Having combined your artistic talent with the online world with great success, where do you see art sitting in the digital age?
Hannah: The nature and process of art is changing and evolving as it always has and the advent of new digital technologies creates new opportunities for artists.
I think that art, in whatever form it takes, is fundamental to all human culture – when you think of the earliest examples of art date back to 700,000 years ago it makes you realise how fundamental it is to our existence – I don’t believe that will ever change and clever artists will always find ways to exploit and take advantage of the digital age.
KW: How does it feel to have your name and work in so many homes?
Hannah: It’s quite overwhelming – I think it’s better not to think about it!
KW: What are some of the pros and cons of being based in North Lincolnshire?
Hannah: Having grown up in Lincolnshire, Jack and I are both very happy here. I particularly love being based in Brigg, it’s such a great community and we have everything we need here.
I think there is a lot of local pride that we have stayed in Brigg and one of our best stockists is Brigg Garden Centre, who have been amazingly supportive. One of the key factors for me when starting a business was trying to create an international business that could be scalable and that we could run from anywhere without needing to be near any major cities.
KW: What impact did going to Cambridge University have on you?
Hannah: I absolutely loved Cambridge and I think it was probably the three years that have had the most impact on me throughout my life so far. I was academic and arty at school and not at all sporty, which isn’t a great recipe for popularity.
At Cambridge I suddenly found myself in an environment where everyone else wanted to learn as much as I did and there was no need to be embarrassed or ashamed of doing well. I studied Animal Behaviour and Evolutionary Biology and was completely in love with my subject as well so it was just the perfect three years for me.
KW: What advice would you give to someone who understands their strengths and talents but is unsure how to turn them into a business?
Hannah: I think it’s very easy to talk yourself out of it – there’s always a reason why it’s not the right time or you might not have exactly the right skillset but I would say just get on and try something – it definitely took me a few false starts to get to the point of starting Wrendale and I would never have been able to start it on day one fully formed.
I think you have to experiment and try different things, to not be afraid to make a change, walk away or go in a different direction as you learn more about your own ability and the business you start.
It’s like a living organism and you can’t quite predict what form it will take – the key to survival is being able to adapt.
Work hard, think creatively, and don’t be afraid to take a chance. Surround yourself with people who match your strive for excellence and share your passion for what you do. Oh, and make something that captures people’s hearts and imagination.
These are the building blocks that Hannah has invested in to build Wrendale Designs, the very foundations that have helped her art travel the world, transcending any potential barriers of culture, language and geography.
That is the power of art – it builds bridges and creates connections that may otherwise seem implausible. Art, as Hannah touched upon in our chat, is going nowhere. It has been here for thousands of years, and will continue to be here for thousands upon thousands more.
Art is as much an expression of emotion as it is a demonstration of skill and imagination, existing equally to enthuse and provoke discussion, to inspire and provide an experience like no other.
The best art is often regarded as that which reflects the artist. Having enjoyed a fascinating discussion with Hannah, one look at the exquisitely detailed, characteristic, charming and award-winning Wrendale Designs tells me that she most certainly falls into this category.
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