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July 2009

The Interview: Jackie Whiteley On Why Challenges Reap Their Own Reward

Jackie Whiteley, co-founder of Strulch

JACKIE Whiteley is one half of garden mulch company Strulch. The former careers advisor now heads the growing Yorkshire firm while husband and scientist Geoff continues his academic work. In this week's The Interview she reveals why challenges can reap their own reward. What aspects of your job/profession do you enjoy the most? The freedom to make my own decisions. Having worked in big organisations with a chain of command, it is refreshing to be able to just do the job. That autonomy allows me to be creative and focused. I also love my garden and love Strulch - our organic garden mulch - and the excitement of seeing it at work in places such as Kew Royal Botanic Gardens or to get feedback from the Eden Project is such a joy. Every day is different for me - from marketing to selling to project managing. That variety is what keeps me going. What key challenges do you anticipate will affect your sector/profession over the next six months? Similar for anyone in manufacturing; keep the client base steady and ensure the financial support is there. Once you have the product in place and it has a track record, it is then a case of ensuring the flow of business can be maintained. If people are staying at home and spending more on related activities then there is opportunity for expansion within the gardening and horticultural sector. The challenge is to find a way of capitalising on it without recourse to credit. What key skills do you think every entrepreneur should have? The ability to seize opportunities. You create a product and have a plan - but it's key that when opportunities arise, you act on them quickly and thrive on that challenge. You need tenacity, too. Sometimes, we won't get it right first time and to succeed ,we often need to look for other solutions -so flexibility too. Why do you think Yorkshire is a good place to start up/operate a business? We have good infrastructure, good transport, the best financial and legal expertise. There is also great support available through Business Link, The Chamber of Commerce, and networking groups such as Forward Ladies. SMEs can benefit greatly from grants but also from the training that is offered and there are some excellent training providers in the region. This has added value to my business. If you could improve anything in the region what would it be? Perhaps Yorkshire Forward could offer more encouragement to new businesses in the technology sector. There are world class universities in the region but there isn't a big enough pool of emerging companies to benefit from the technology transfer on offer. Your views on the recession...... It is a challenge and will highlight any deficiencies in a business. It also focuses the mind and makes us think carefully about our spending. However, there are still opportunities to grow business, if you can be creative in what you offer What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Keep focused and know where you want to get to! I was once told you wouldn't get on a train if you didn't know where you are heading. The same applied in business. And the worst? It is all too risky and don't give up the day job! Didn't listen, thankfully! What barriers have you had to overcome in growing your business/developing your career, and if any, can you explain how you overcame them. There were and are several challenges. We had to work out how to fund the patents we had for our products. We got a National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts Enterprise Award of £50,000, in 2002. A competitive award for an ‘environmentally friendly technology'. Our investment and company profits have kept the patents current. This is essential to our plans.Our backgrounds were from the public sector- academic and careers adviser. We had little commercial experience although used to working with budgets. We learnt fast! We took advantage of opportunities for self development in commercial awareness and more general business skills, networking, attending workshops.We went to accountants and lawyers surgeries. We applied for grants to access consultants who supported our business planning. It was a steep learning curve but we felt energised by the support and spurred on to put what we learnt into action. Our products are unique and innovative. The challenge was how to bring them to national attention and to make the brand well known for its ‘organic' and wider environmental credentials, including carbon saving. We had academic credibility but wanted professional credibility. We offered material for trials at The Eden Project and at Royal Horticultural Society and gardens such as The Alnwick Garden. The results were phenomenal. The Eden Project offered us free endorsement. Our bags say ‘As Used at The Eden Project' .The RHS undertook a trial and reported on it in RHS journal ‘The Garden'. Our web site contains the many quotes that the professional gardeners gave us and they still champion the product that does what it says on the label. What was your first job and what did you spend your first wage packet on? I was a Saturday girl in a hairdressers shop at age 13! I bought a tartan ‘Beatles' bag with a black fringe along the bottom. How cool is that! Wish I still had it, actually. If you could choose to start your career over again would you do anything different and if so what? Life has presented challenges to me but the opportunites have also been amazing. I actually think I am doing what I was meant to right now. I was training to be a lawyer until circumstances lead myself and my husband to create our company and market Strulch and other organic garden products. All my career has led me to this point and I never think there is any point in "if only...". I now only look forward. So, no I don't think so. Life has presented challenges but there have also been amazing opportunities and I might have missed them and I haven't finished yet! Name one item/hobby/gadget you couldn't give up Having a manicure- seriously, if you treat yourself well others will treat you well too. The dog lead, as walking the dog is such a great pleasure. My Blackberry, as life without communication would be impossible. And lipstick, naturally.  

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Mulch ado about new product

It’s often a big step from the world of university research to the gritty reality of commercial success, but a West Yorkshire company run by a former academic and his wife is going from strength-to-strength after cornering the market with a unique horticultural product. Their small company is taking on the multi-national giants who dominate the gardening products market. Strulch, based in Burley-in-Wharfedale, was launched in 2004 by Geoff and Jackie Whiteley, who have since achieved a six-figure turnover. The organic mulch developed by Geoff, a former soil scientist and biology lecturer at Leeds University, is now used and endorsed by the Royal Horticultural Society, including at its Harlow Carr Gardens site near Harrogate; along with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Eden Project in Cornwall. It is also used in several ‘own label’ gardening products and sold through several leading horticultural websites, one of which recently reported that sales of Strulch had overtaken traditional cocoa shells. Growth is testimony to Geoff’s ingenuity and Jackie’s tough and self-taught sales and marketing approach after inventing the peat alternative which is building sales among discerning gardeners at home and abroad. The labour-saving mineralised wheat straw mulch reduces weed growth by up to 95 per cent; retains moisture, so conserving water; and enriches soil and its structure. Jackie was recently voted the 2009 Yorkshire Woman of Achievement, partly due to the success of Strulch, but also for bouncing back after a breakdown following a family tragedy. The former university careers specialist says: “Developing the Strulch product and launching the company has been a life-changing experience for us both. I have always been a keen gardener and Geoff’s interest was through science. “We have had to adapt quickly and learn to compete in a market dominated by huge companies.” Geoff says: “Many small businesses are facing a difficult time in the current economic climate. We’re doing well because we have a competitive, high-quality product and we have been very disciplined in keeping our borrowings, cash flow and expansion plans under control.” As sales of Strulch continue to grow, the university takes a licence fee, under an intellectual property licensing agreement. And the Whiteleys, who describe themselves as an innovative research and development company, now hold patents for Strulch in many countries in addition to the UK. Now they are poised to take their growing business to another stage with the launch of a unique new pelleted compost while plans for a bio-degradable plant pot are well under way.  

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Mulching forward to global success

YORKSHIRE-based entrepreneurial academics Geoff and Jackie Whiteley are celebrating a double win for their innovative organic gardening product Strulch. On the day Jackie collected the Yorkshire Woman of Achievement Award, husband Geoff was delivering a repeat order to the world famous Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Both events mark the continued success of the wheat-based peat alternative, which is gaining repeat sales from discerning gardeners at home and abroad. The labour-saving mineralised wheat straw mulch reduces weed growth by up to 95%, retains moisture thereby conserving water while enriching enriches the soil and its structure making life easier for busy gardeners. It is highly recommended by leading gardeners and endorsed by Tim Smit's Eden Project. Now the company hopes to capitalise on its first product's success by further launches of additional products currently in the pipeline. Mr Whiteley said: "Many small businesses are facing a difficult time in the current economic climate. "We're doing well because we have a competitive, high quality product and we have been very disciplined in keeping our borrowings, cash flow and expansion plans under control." Among the new products is a biodegradeable plant pot and a new pelleted compost with strong green credentials including a lower carbon footprint that most conventional composts. Mrs Whiteley continued: "Having successfully placed Strulch in leading garden centres, home improvement and supermarket chains, we should have a ready-made platform for the new product." Establishing a strong brand for a product based on new technology in a market dominated by multi-national giants has been a tough act for the Yorkshire-based business. But a growing six-figure turnover is testimony to the couple's tough and self-taught sales and marketing approach. Strulch was launched in 2004 after Mr Whiteley, a former soil scientist and biology lecturer at Leeds University, created it. The university takes a licence fee as sales of Strulch continue to grow under an intellectual property licensing agreement. The Whiteleys now hold patents for Strulch in many countries in addition to the UK.

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