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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Made in Cumbria brings Cumbrian values to a global market

“SMALL businesses hold the key to the future of Cumbria’s economy.”

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BENEFITTING BUSINESS Rob Johnston at the Made in Cumbria base in Stramongate, Kendal

That is the belief of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce CEO Rob Johnston – and he should know.

Also the CEO of Made In Cumbria, in his unique dual role he is involved in every step of the journey, from providing start-up advice to setting up export links around the world.

“It’s a pretty unique set-up,” he says. “We’re the only Chamber of Commerce that has a licence to sell intoxicating liquor.

“We are connected to the rest of the world via the internet, and we’ve got the core products that sell. They’re products as good as you’ll find anywhere else in the world.

“I think it is a model others can follow.”

The Chamber of Commerce took over the running of Made in Cumbria, a support service for craft, giftware and food producers across the county, in 2010, after it had been operated by the County Council for more than two decades.

An economic development initiative, similar to projects rolled out by Regional Development Agencies across the country, Made In Cumbria in its original guise must be considered a success, pulling in almost 300 businesses as members and helping to establish some widely recognised names.

Hawkshead Relish, for example, grew from being a two-person operation 10 years ago, to a company that has won more than 40 national and international awards and now reaches consumers in the Middle East, Russia and the US.

But Made In Cumbria was losing money, and the Council called on the Chamber to help them out.

Rob says: “It did very well for a number of years, but the whole thing came under threat as the whole thing was unsustainable and losing a considerable amount of money.

“We were approached by the County Council because they wanted to make it sustainable.

“We had to weigh up, ‘does it fit with what we’re about?’ – because we didn’t just want to own a chain of gift shops. It needed a big rethink, but it was something that we decided we could make work.”

At present there are just less than 300 members, from the smallest one-man outfits to some of the largest manufacturers in the region.

And Rob would be the first to admit that some of those that have grown beyond expectations no longer need their services, but still reap the benefits of being associated with an organisation that is truly representative of Cumbrian values.

“We’re not snobby about selecting members or anything and there is no evidence to suggest that any business isn’t going to be a success – some businesses join Made In Cumbria simply to find their feet,” he admits.

“Most of our products are things that people don’t need, they are things that are nice to have. For that reason, we’re in the toughest part of the market, yet we’re 10 per cent up on last year, so that’s a pretty big success.

“Made In Cumbria has gone from having no sales abroad to exporting to six or seven countries, in the short time that we’ve been running it.

“All the objectives we set ourselves have already been delivered, and that was originally just to turn a loss-making venture into a sustainable business. That has been achieved, and we are always looking for ways to move forward.”

Last year, Made In Cumbria’s Kendal outlet also took over the running of the under-threat Tourist Information Centre, yet another unique proposition, which Rob believes has been an unmitigated success.

“When the Tourist Information Centres in South Lakeland were faced with closure, we on the one here in Kendal, and it really works as part of the mix.

“It is what the word ‘symbiotic’ was invented for. It is a model we would love to roll out in towns across the county.

“If you want an example of a third sector business that works, we’re it. We’re a not-for-profit organisation, we’re sustaining ourselves and we’re progressing.”

With so many changes in such a short space of time, Made In Cumbria would be almost unrecognisable compared with the Council-run project that bore the name as recently as 2010.

Many local authorities had similar schemes – Made In Cornwall, Made In Lancashire and Made In Ireland still remain, among others – but none comes close to our county’s initiative. If things keep progressing the way Rob expects, then Cumbrian products can lay down a precedent for the rest of the country to follow.

“The future of Cumbria is in its small businesses, and we can grow the economic base of this county with people that are from here.

“One of the things we have to avoid is telling people they should be doing this or that, but we have to show them the opportunities. People set up businesses for different reasons, and we’ve got to be there for the ones that want to grow and develop.

“It is our job to work out the best way to make our members as much money as possible.

“We’re getting the businesses now that maybe in the past didn’t want to be associated with a Council-run project, but now they realise that the brand stands for everything they are about.”

In two-and-a-half years, Made In Cumbria has become a profitable organisation, with 22 outlets in and around the county, exporting abroad for the first time.

The brand is fast becoming one of the county’s most successful and distinctive marques, offering imaginative, high quality products for sale in its stores, online and at events and farmers’ markets.

Made In Cumbria has moved into the digital age, developing smart phone apps, an e-magazine, and a new website with online trading.

“Made In Cumbria is an organisation that is about helping its members to grow and develop, and to find new markets,” explains Rob.

“As well as business support, we also offer retail support – that means getting products into our outlets and available online – and a presence at events such as farmers’ markets and county shows.

“Before, the research we did suggested it didn’t have a strong perception outside the county, and it didn’t have the commercial ‘oomph’. That was something we did a lot of work on, because we are a business after all, and we’re here on the high street selling products.

“One of the most important things we felt we needed to do was utilise our media output and online presence, because that’s how we reach markets beyond Cumbria.

“My background is in branding with companies like Audi and Smirnoff, and we had to do a similar thing here, building a brand that’s as aspirational as it is real. It’s all about working with our landscape and surroundings, and having that local aspect to everything we’re involved with.

“We’re not just a sales or a marketing company for anybody, we’ve got pretty high standards and that’s what the branding reflects. Being associated with Made In Cumbria almost verifies the quality of the product.”

To become a member is to join a vibrant business community which has built a reputation for quality and excellence.

For a small fee, you get the benefits of the marketing nouse and links that Made In Cumbria can offer, as well as a presence on a website that holds a prominent position on any search engine.

The company believes that the online presence alone justifies the membership fee, not least networking and support through the Chamber, businesses can benefit tremendously through this unparalleled two-pronged approach.

Rob says: “It is quite a clever package, because with Made In Cumbria they are getting the product marketed and getting support, but with the Chamber of Commerce, that’s about networking with other companies and growing the business.

“It is very exciting and rewarding because you are having an impact on so many businesses at the same time. How many other business support organisations also have a retail outlet?

“We’re not a small exclusive club – if you’re a business and you trade, then we want to help you – and we’re not an exclusive outlet for the products either. Members have a link to their own website on ours, and you can choose to buy through us or directly from them. Our aim is just to promote the fact that those businesses are here.

“We could list the benefits of being a member, but in my opinion, it is an absolute no-brainer.”

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