Talent and technology: what powers rural growth

Jane Field started Jonny’s Sister in 2005. Her previous career involved a lot of travel, taking her away from her children. She and her husband upped sticks and moved to the Dorset/Somerset countryside. So the driving forces behind starting her online retail business were family, a rural location, and the potential of the internet. Now, she says, the positive impact of taking on apprentices has become a fourth. Here’s her story.

I did some research in the USA and could see that consumer demand for personalised products was large and growing. We personalise all types of products from cushions to tins. (Currently our best sellers are cake tins and so-called “man tins.”)

We have grown organically and quickly. Last year, something clicked. I just really felt that we were understanding the customer and what they wanted. It wasn’t about our products; it was about the customers’ needs and wishes. This year, we are 43% ahead of last year. We worked a seven-day week in the run-up to Christmas, running from 8am to 10pm. It was all hands to the deck.

All our products are made by us at Jonny’s Sister – we employ seamstresses, printers, joiners and signwriters – and we distribute them all from our farmhouse.

At present, I have three apprentices working at Jonny’s Sister. They are simply amazing. It’s funny really; they left school and joined us when they were 17 and 18. In one sense they brought nothing to the table – and yet they have brought so much to the table.

How the company benefits from our apprentices

I hadn’t realised the importance to the company of their vitality and youthfulness. It’s something that I have not experienced before. They are open, fresh and they question things. And they make a real impact: I have removed products which I was convinced would sell, based on their reactions.

They keep us up to date on social media, fashion and music.  They are excellent on the phone with customers because they are so chatty and positive about life. I sometimes hear them asking about a customer’s dog or cat that might have been sick on a previous phone call. They carry zero baggage, have a real ‘can do’ approach to everything. They bring a freshness that money can’t buy.

They run the operational side of the business on a day to day basis. The video was done by Hannah, one of our apprentices. Our website, which has just won an award, was pretty much done by our apprentices. And the website is so important to us: we sell direct as well as via online marketplaces and shops and I want to increase that percentage. Selling direct is more profitable and gives us the important direct relationship with our customers.

What we give our apprentices

We give each of our apprentices a course in business and administration, where they shadow everybody across the whole business. That way they find out where their strengths and weaknesses lie and what they like. I then try to place them in the area that they like best, as that is invariably where their strengths lie. This means that the company gets the best out of them and they gain a positive experience from their apprenticeship. It’s a genuine win-win.

They get to work in a job which they would not be otherwise qualified to do on a regular employment contract. It also breaks that dreadful vicious circle where they need the experience but no-one will give it to them. They also come out of it with an NVQ level 3 – which is a qualification not to be sneezed at.

An apprentice will stay just as long as they are learning. When, and if they do leave, they will have gained excellent work experience and, as importantly, will know the direction in which they want to pursue their career.

I’m passionate about bringing apprentices back into the work place. However, they can’t be expected simply to make coffee, operate the photocopier and be hired as cheap labour. They have a very important role to play in getting Britain back on its feet.

You can find out much more about finding and hiring apprentices, as well as the employment grants that are available at apprentices.org.uk