Nestled between an Italian restaurant and a craft shop just off the main thoroughfare in Kendal is a business which, certainly in Cumbria, is instantly recognisable. Herdy has been a huge success not only for the couple who run it, but also benefitted Herdwick sheep farmers and local communities across the county.

Diane and Spencer Hannah have turned their business into a multi-million-pound concern, creating gifts, homeware and furnishings which are instantly recognisable. Last year alone their turnover was up 28%. “For a retail business, coming out of Covid that’s pretty phenomenal. We are quite happy with that,” said Diane.

The story of how Herdy was created has oft been told. The couple - married for 23 years, but together for 38 after meeting at college - relocated to the Lakes from Bolton with their design consultancy where their clients included Nissan, Marks & Spencer and Argos. Inspired by the county’s Herdwick sheep they launched Herdy in 2007. They decided if the ‘soft’ launch went well they would use their mortgage endowment of £16,000 to fund more stock. “We have been self-funded from day one, no borrowings,” said Spencer.

Five years ago the business relocated to its new headquarters, investing £500,000 in 4,000sqft of modern, airy accommodation. Quite a change from their previous base, a 400sqft ex-TV repair shop. “Nice cheap rent though!” said Spencer.

“We have done what we have done gradually, by growing organically, reinvested our own money, we are pretty much self-funded or were until Covid,” said Diane.

“We have a wide appeal to a wide demographic. When we started out we were thinking Herdy would appeal to visitors, tourists…not really thinking how far it could go,” said Diane. “If we hadn’t been able to originate all the design ourselves I don’t think we would have managed to get the business off the ground. As designers we had a lot of the skills needed, interior and graphic design, photography, our own marketing capabilities. We were really self-contained, if we had to buy in the skills, we would have needed significant investment. I think that was one of the reasons we managed to grow organically, our cost basis was relatively low in the early days.”

One of the real turning points for the business was in 2014.

Diane said: “We have grown the brand by growing the range, growing our customer base and our following on social media. There hasn’t been anything that suddenly catapulted the growth but we did get to a point in 2014 when we got the brand to a certain level and we were happy but not sure what steps to take next.”

At that point they had an e-commerce website, a shop in Grasmere, had granted a licence for a Herdy shop in Keswick, achieved an annual turnover of £500,000 and were still running their design agency, The Knack. “We flatlined for a couple of years,” said Spencer. “We were definitely a bit more feral back then,” said Diane. “Not as targeted, a bit all over the place, we were working with a company in America, thinking let’s go to Japan.…”

It was then they met former Saatchi and Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts at a Cumbria Life magazine event. Kevin, who has a house in Grasmere, was already a fan of the Herdy products and agreed to work with them. “Kevin recognised our shortcomings and said, ‘If you don’t do something about this now you won’t have a business in three years and you won’t have a marriage’…that was quite a sobering experience,” said Diane.

“We are from a design background, we had come up with this creative idea, the concept of Herdy but we did not really think of ourselves as business people. We were typical creatives, like fireworks going off in all directions and what Kevin did was to focus us and build up our business training. He tasked us to spend an intensive two days with him…we wrote a purpose document because he said without that you have no focus. We wrote it and in the last half an hour when we were getting ready for a bit of a breather he said, ‘you’ve got half an hour to write a three-year business plan’. The door closed and we looked at each other and we thought ‘how are we going to do that?’ But we did. We signed off the plan that day.” The plan was to double the turnover. They trebled it. At around that time they also shut their design consultancy and Spencer joined Diane working for Herdy full time.

“Kevin has been a big part of it all,” said Spencer. “We became retailers as well as designers,” said Diane. They opened three more shops, invested heavily in their e-commerce platform, attended more trade shows, created more distribution channels, extended the range and raised their profile by networking. “It was important we didn’t dilute the brand. Working with integrity and social purpose and transparency we have never diluted that message, in fact it’s probably got stronger year on year,” said Spencer.

“Kevin doesn’t give us answers but he’s given us focus and skills that we have developed over time. Every time we were coming up with a hare-brained scheme, he would say ‘focus, discipline, stick to the plan’,” said Spencer.

Kevin is now chair of the Herdy board, alongside Diane and Spencer. This year they appointed a fourth member to the board, Ricky Green, ex Global Wholesale and Licensing Director for Ted Baker. Diane said: “Kevin keeps us in line. He said that businesses that are successful in the home market do better overseas, that we were going off too early and we needed to focus on our home market first.”

“One thing that hasn’t changed is people being interested in the brand,” said Spencer. “From the early days we’ve had people seek us out, asking to invest. One chap just knocked on the office door one day – we’d never met him before! We have had lots of engagement, we always say the money is in the face,” said Spencer, referring to the Herdy brand mark. “People react positively to it, it’s cute and needs no explanation. It’s also friendly and makes people smile.”

“We have always been passionate about the product, we design everything ourselves and work directly with manufacturers to make for us. We have a very small team so we’ve not made it easy for ourselves,” said Diane.

Around half of the range is manufactured in the UK – ceramics in Stoke on Trent and woollens in Yorkshire. Other products are made in Turkey, Portugal, Sri Lanka and China.

“We have retained control. We have established good strong relationships with manufacturers. We have managed that side of things really well. Our core operation to design, develop, produce and retail has been quite well built,” said Spencer.

“In 2019 the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, (CIPS) South Lakes visited…we were laughing because we thought why on earth would somebody who procures nuclear submarines be interested in coming to Herdy to hear our procurement stories. There was someone from the NHS with a billion-pound we had about 30 people and presented our Herdy story and talked about our supply chain partners, many of whom have become really good friends. The chairman said afterwards it was one of the best events they had been to. He said we were exemplar in how to maintain supply chain relationships, that was a real compliment given we have learnt on the job!” said Diane.

Herdy currently employs 23 members of staff (including part time) has a Herdy Lifestyle brand selling gift and homeware products; four shops, an e-commerce platform; Herdy Campervans which is licensed to a Cumbrian couple, a wholesale business working with over 200 retailers across the UK and its newest venture, Herdysleep (which has its own e-commerce platform) where they work with Cumbrian Herdwick sheep farmers using their fleeces to fill mattresses made by Yorkshire manufacturer Harrison Spinks.

They feel it’s all part of their social responsibility to champion Herdwick wool and help the Cumbrian farming community. “For a fun little brand like Herdy it’s done a lot to promote the Herdwick and its wool,” said Diane. Spencer and Diane have just been granted the Freedom of the City of London and have been inducted into the Worshipful Company Of Woolmen in recognition of their work championing the Herdwick sheep.

Then there’s the Herdy Fund through which they have donated over £100,000 mainly to promote upland fell farming, rural communities and the Herdwick sheep. The donations included the very popular Herdy Heroes tea towel fundraiser, created during the pandemic.

They also export to Japan and the US. Spencer said: “The Japanese love pictograms, Herdy is such an icon-based brand, anything involving icons is very much part of their culture. It resonates well with the Japanese and Asian consumer.” Before Brexit they also exported to Europe, but Diane says they’ve ‘turned that tap off for now’. “Being aware of all the paperwork for every single order, all the documentation, getting up to speed with what is required takes a lot of input. Because of Covid, we had a relatively reduced resource and we have not got back up to speed with it. Because it was not a huge part of turnover, we thought focus on what we need to focus on for now.” she said.

During the pandemic they saw 80% of income killed overnight. At Kevin’s suggestion they went into a ‘survive, revive, thrive’ strategy. Spencer said: “It was a sobering exercise. Despite the challenges we finished the year 9% up with one income stream pretty much for 7 months (e-commerce site) and a skeleton crew running the business. That’s a pretty impressive performance. A lot of that came on the back of not discounting, not vouchering but being kind, we engaged with people, entertained people, did a lot of stuff you could download for free. At a difficult time we just tried to made things a little bit better. We offered kindness and generosity, amazingly in return our e-commerce income stream developed that growth.”

“In the past the business led us and now we lead the business,” said Diane, who had a major health scare in 2019. “It put things into perspective,” she said. “You are never going to switch off but learn to manage time better, we have really grown up in the past two years and we have a really great team. Everything we do we really try to focus on what the customer wants, put effort into the service and product. Our customers are everything to the business, word of mouth is really important.”

So what’s the plan for this multi-award-winning company this year? “Our ambition now is to establish Herdy as a well-known, lovable British family friendly brand. It’s about brand amplification, working with other people on collaborations and licensing,” said Spencer. “We’ve just signed a three-year licence deal with Dean’s of Huntly to produce Herdy Shortbread and there are loads of exciting plans in the pipeline.”

The couple live at Troutbeck Bridge and love to walk their rescue dog Riff Raff in the nearby countryside; Spencer enjoys photography and Diane wild swimming. Diane said: “It’s funny to think that we moved to the Lakes because we loved it and we were able, because of the business we were in, to relocate wherever we wanted. We saw the opportunity for Herdy and seeing it become part of the Cumbrian business landscape has been a really amazing experience. Giving something back to the area that inspired us is also really important to us.”

Now the brand with its tagline of ‘Made to Make You Smile!’ is planning for wider exposure across the UK this year. Watch this space…or should that be face.