Growing a business, come rain or shine

It’s a far cry from her former career as a gilts trader in the City, but Julia Hunter is making a splash with her innovative waterproof outdoor furnishings. Now her business Oily Rag is set to make huge strides in 2014 as a result of a distribution deal with John Lewis achieved via the PitchUp programme.

“I felt that I had taken Oily Rag as far as I could in the short term,” she says. “I had done county shows. I had gone online and got an e-commerce site. We were being stocked by independent businesses but we were not in any of the large retail players. I was ready for a chain such as  John Lewis to pick me up and take the business forward.”

As she describes in this film, she presented successfully to John Lewis. In 2013 her range of cushions were stocked in four outlets; this year, her products will be in 15 stores and Oily Rag will be producing a special line to celebrate the John Lewis Partnership’s 150th anniversary.

Understanding the tiers and layers of a bigger business has provided valuable insights, she says. “There is more involved in getting a product ready than you might think – from bar coding to packaging and health and safety issues. I have learned an awful lot!”

So what advice would she give to other small companies looking to get their big retail distribution break?

“Think about everything from their perspective. Really, you are the small fish and you want to get into their big pond. You have to think about how things will look in their stores. Think about how quickly they will sell it – and how you will be able to deliver. Just put yourself in their shoes.”

Over the last three years Oily Rag has come a long way. Hunter is expanding the range of products into waterproof bunting, tablecloths, bags and garden products. She is researching the boating and caravanning markets and is in contact with Amazon.  “We’re not yet ready for exports but I am interested in the Scandinavian markets in the future,” she adds.

Big businesses have pledged to do more to make it easier for small businesses to grow as part of The Business Exchange. If you’re a small business, visit the Exchange to see what big businesses are offering, and how this might support your growth plans.