A family-run Northumberland firm is enjoying the sweet smell of success after taking its first steps into international trade
Home Scents, of Hexham, specialises in eco-friendly products crafted from totally natural ingredients. It was launched six years ago by Judith and John Mathias, after they were inspired by their granddaughter who suffered childhood asthma.
At that time living in Kent, they were concerned about the reported increases in childhood asthma and eczema. As a result they developed their own range which included 100% natural laundry, cleaning and mother and baby toiletries made from 100% natural ingredients.
John had been an electrician but Judith’s experience was slightly more relevant.
He explains: “Judith was a trained chef and she always says, basically, it’s a matter of recipes and menus.’’
They began by making products for their granddaughter but things took off with more and more people taking an interest and asking to buy the products. It soon became apparent that they had a business.
“It started so that we could produce stuff for Isabelle, but it started to get bigger and bigger, we got backing from Business Link and they gave us a lot of help,’’ says John.
“It literally started on a kitchen table and Judith made one or two things and handed them round to people. It’s trial and error, you learn as you go and we came up with one or two products. I think the first one we did was a room spray and then from there on we saw what the need was and laundry was one of the obvious things because residues stays in things like nappies, and particularly with babies it can be absorbed easily through the skin and cause all sorts of problems. We just sort of built up a range as we went.’’
The essential principle was to ensure that all the ingredients used were natural so the products could be used by people with allergies. This was as much a matter of principle as business.
John says: “All the essential oils are all aromatherapy grade, they’re all natural, there’s no synthetics at all, we don’t have anything to do with that. None of it is tested on animals, all of the other ingredients are biodegradable and botanical. We also list all the ingredients on the back label and it’s all there for people to see and I really feel that’s the way it should be for everyone.’’
When their daughter and grandchildren moved to the North East, they followed and brought the business with them.
They started in Bellingham where they rented a large house, part of which they could use for production, but as the business took off they outgrew it.
“It got so big it got ridiculous,’’ says John. “You couldn’t move up the stairs because there were boxes everywhere waiting to go out.’’
Then they found a unit in Hexham where the business is now based, although expanded again so that it now occupies two units. It is attracting the interest of larger retailers and further expansion is on the horizon.
“The way it’s going we may have to move elsewhere,’’ he says. “At the moment we can contain it but as more and more people come on board, we may have to move. We’re talking to some of the bigger retailers now, which we avoided in the early days. We’re talking to people like the Co-Op.’’
Now the business has two employees apart from John and Judith. Recently they launched the Violet’s 100% Natural Laundry range and Little Violet’s Baby Toiletries which have proven to be a big hit among those with skin allergies or sensitivities to chemicals.
Keen to explore potential in overseas markets, the company signed up to UKTI’s Passport to Export programme 18 months ago and commissioned an Overseas Market Introduction Service (OMIS) report for its baby toiletries and laundry products in the Netherlands.
As a result, Home Scents is celebrating its first overseas sales, with orders worth more than £10,000 so far. Just last month it had enquiries from potential customers in Portugal and Switzerland.
Judith explains: “We aim to make a big impact abroad, initially in northern Europe. Holland, Germany and Scandinavia are our prime targets at first. These are the more eco-friendly markets. Homes Scents has already had small exports to Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Spain.
“UKTI has been very helpful to us in our journey, guiding us through the minefields of finding the right markets, the pitfalls and advantages of agents or distributors and all the problems that can arise. This help has been invaluable since Lissa Balmer, our international trade adviser, came on board. We now feel we can make real progress in exporting our products to new markets.”
Lissa Balmer, who has been working closely with Home Scents says: “Home Scents was a novice exporter and understandably was unsure how best to approach international markets.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with Judith and the team to develop an export plan, identifying the best markets to target and it’s great to see that they are now exporting to several overseas markets.
“Home Scents is a great company to work with – very innovative and keen to explore collaborations and partnerships. It’s a great example of how, if you have the right product and the right attitude, you can succeed in the global race and I hope Home Scents’ success will inspire others to take up the export challenge.”
When they began mixing their products on the kitchen table, did they ever imagine that the business would take off and that they would be selling their products not only in the UK but around Europe?
“No, not really,’’ says John. “We were just concentrating on Izzy because she was struggling with the inhaler and that sort of thing. We thought there’s got to be a reason for this, some people get it and some people don’t. When we started researching it a lot of things came to the fore and the big boys don’t care anyway, they sell the stuff and make it as cheaply as possible and sell it as high as possible, ethics don’t come into it. But there are companies around that are ethical, and we’re one of them, we feel.’’
What are their plans for the business? “I’m 76, but Judith won’t forgive me if I tell you her age,’’ laughs John. “The family are not interested in taking over the business. We’ve had investment and we’ve got people who are interested in the business. If we get it big enough, we can stay on in an advisory capacity and help to run the company or we can sell it, it depends. At the moment, we’re just concentrating on growing it and growing it.’’