Today we interview our managing director, Charlotte Gillan, about her career history and her role at Classic Canes.
Tell us a bit about your career history and how you came to work at Classic Canes
My parents launched Classic Canes in 1982 to supply walking sticks to local retailers. They had discovered the woodland around their Somerset home was naturally growing suitable raw material for sticks, so they had them made into finished products to offer to the local shops. The business grew from there so it was part of my life from when I was very small. My brother and I used to stick code numbers on sticks and pack ferrules into bags of 10 for pocket money. I joined Classic Canes in 2003 but first I gained some very valuable experience in other companies.
After reading Politics and Philosophy at Bristol University, I went to work in the luxury goods industry, first with the Asprey jewellery group. It was at that time owned by Prince Jefri of Brunei and was in an expansionist phase, so I soon found myself in Edinburgh where the group had bought a famous old Edinburgh jewellers, Hamilton & Inches. While I was there in a marketing capacity, the directors staged a management buy-out, after which it was an independent business once more. Working directly for the managing director, Julia Ogilvy, I received a fascinating and very valuable education in how to run a small luxury goods company. We worked with many famous brands such as Tiffany & Co, Cartier, Patek Philippe and Rolex and held events in conjunction with Vogue magazine, Harvey Nichols, Ferrari and many notable Scottish businesses. It was great fun and I even met my husband, Malcolm, there as he was the sales director at that time.
From there, I went to work in marketing for a subsidiary of Drambuie called the Glenvarigill Motor Group, also based in Edinburgh. Glenvarigill had all the top luxury marques in its stable of dealerships: Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and others. It was a very enjoyable role with a lot of time behind the wheel of some very expensive and glamorous cars as I promoted them through dealership events, motor shops and at racing circuits.
When the company relocated, I was flattered to be offered work by The Herald newspaper, based in Glasgow, to write on luxury goods issues such as motoring, property, fashion and interiors. This took me all over Scotland meeting many business owners and writing about their products and companies. However, back in Somerset, the family business was growing and needed my assistance on the sales and marketing fronts. So I returned to Classic Canes, Malcolm in tow, in 2003 and became managing director in 2010. The marketing, PR and writing experience I had gained was invaluable to me and I would encourage any child of a family business to go and work elsewhere so that you have something new to bring to the family firm.
What are your main responsibilities at Classic Canes?
Running a small business requires a high number of skills, most of which one has to develop on the hoof as the business's needs change. Sales, marketing and new product design are my core duties and I have learned to employ people who are much better than me at accounts, administration and warehouse management. Never employ someone who is worse than you are yourself at the task in question! I have also learned to design patterns for our height-adjustable and folding walking sticks. We tried using commercial artists for this but I found they could never quite create exactly what I had in mind and what I knew would sell, so I started doing it myself and, with the technical help of our design agency Mercer Design
, was able to start producing repeating patterns we could use on the walking sticks. This has been a very enjoyable and creative role that I am sure I would never have had in any other company. It is a great thrill for me when a customer orders a thousand or more pieces of one of my designs, as a mail order catalogue did recently with our new songbird folding cane
. It is wonderful for Classic Canes too because it means the company can have exclusive products that none of our competitors can replicate.
What are the best things about working for the family business?
As a lifestyle, there are great benefits: I can live in beautiful rural Somerset, bring my dogs to work and have a commute of only a few minutes through farmland and local lanes. I see my parents every day and can help them with their daily living requirements and I can look out over our woodlands from my office: so much prettier than an industrial estate or an inner-city office. It is inspirational too for product design: some of our newest collection of sticks are derived directly from the flora and fauna at Classic Canes, such as our new hedgehog
canes. Family businesses also attract interesting members of staff, so we have a great team of very resourceful and talented people who enjoy the diversity of work they experience within a small, family business framework. We also get to have office cats, Jose and Catarina, who feature in our new Classic Cats
What have been the highlights of your time at Classic Canes?
Every time we produce a new trade catalogue is a highlight for me. I love designing and choosing new products, creating the lifestyle pictures and working with the designers to ensure it reflects the Classic Canes sense of style and quality. We have great fun doing the modelling; another skill I doubt I would have had to develop working anywhere else! There have been other lovely moments too: we have won various small business and family business prizes, celebrated anniversaries, like our 40th anniversary this year, but probably the best thing is knowing that our walking sticks are both a practical help to their users and also ensure they can maintain their personal sense of style whilst using their stick.
Tell us a bit about yourself away from work
I laugh at myself because I have such classic English lady hobbies: walking the dogs, riding, gardening, reading and painting. I love opera but don't know very much about it so, given more time, that is an interest I would like to pursue further. I also love fashion, never throw anything out and so have wardrobes and wardrobes of clothes plus a large library of fashion and style books, which I refer to often for Classic Canes. I think in another life I would have liked to have been a fashion editor. I'm a very visual person and how things look is very important to me, which is also why Classic Canes' sticks are designed to be as elegant and stylish as they are practical. Whoever said mobility aids were dull?!