We’ve hit a significant milestone this year - We’ve been running our business, Westmorland Sheepskins, for 40 years! Crikey! What better time to look back and reflect on our heritage, challenges and triumphs along the way – and of course what our future holds.
As a family we have come from a long line of entrepreneurial Yorkshire stock, wind the clock back to the early seventies; a time when tanneries were a feature of the most sizeable towns across the UK. Howard Heaton (Dad) was just starting out his career as a 20-year-old working alongside his father (as the five previous generations had done before too), in their then family business in Leeds.
It was here that Howard first learnt to handle raw sheepskins, colour matching and cutting them in preparation for crafting into fine sheepskins coats and other luxury garments. He visited tanneries, learning how to select and sort the different raw skins for their final use – basically he learnt the ropes in all thing’s sheepskin!
Howard then met his wife Joan (Mum) and started a family. They made the move to the old county of Westmorland in 1981. Hence where the name came from.
Armed with his furrier’s knowledge, an eye for quality and a new motivation to put food on the table for his family, Howard set up Westmorland Sheepskins.
He sourced the finest British sheepskins, leather and wool for making rugs, slippers, shoes and other garments to sell across the country at markets and shows. Some years later, Howard opened shops in various locations across the North of England.
Getting Howard to think back to when he first formed the business some forty years ago, he says “I didn’t set out to build an empire, my plan was simple. I needed to pay the bills and feed and educate my five children.”
“The long hours of hard graft at the markets and shows has been entirely worthwhile. The greatest satisfaction for me now is seeing how far we’ve come and watching my children develop the business; it’s what continues to motivate me every day.”
In true Yorkshire style Howard has managed to build a reputation amongst his loyal customer base, for selling products of both exceptional quality and value. He says, “The raw material is the most important part of the business. We aim to deliver a high level of quality whilst also delivering good value to our customers”.
As a family business we have definitely passed on our knowledge and passionate spirit through the generations. Today, Howard and Joan’s two sons, Joe and Tim, and their daughter-in-law, Dominique, have taken up the reins along with support from extended family and friends.
Dominique explains, “I’ve loved learning from Howard because he believes in what he sells. He can look at a sheepskin and tell you what country it comes from or the derivation of any marks on the back of a skin.”
Dominique and husband, Tim built the first website for the business whilst still working permanent jobs in other careers. When they later joined the business full-time, they made it their priority to develop the online retail platform further, which has since proved highly successful. Each keen to explore new ideas and develop the business further they both wanted to introduce plenty of flair, fashion and a new focus towards online retail.
Don’t get us wrong – it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for them! Dominique recalls the time she suggested introducing a contemporary gold sheepskin slipper to their product range, saying “It took a lot of talking Howard round. I remember his words – Over my dead body, that won’t sell! – he eventually relented, and luckily they sold fantastically.”
“We all have strong opinions and passion for the business and at times we’ve disagreed, but we all accept that change is necessary and it’s healthy to be able to question each other. Some of our best business decisions have evolved that way.”
Dominque adds, “Over the past few years, we’ve really extended our range, particularly in homewares. We now sell a beautiful variety of sheepskin and wool interior accessories including bean bags, cushions, footstools and designer rugs”
“Selling the more contemporary design items has certainly helped our appeal to a wider audience but we will always stay true to our values of quality, comfort and ethical sourcing.”
Overall we are really pleased with the way our business has thrived and proved popular. Selling products with exceptional quality and value obviously helps but perhaps it is also due to our authenticity as a business. At a time when many retailers have migrated online with e-commerce boutiques, replacing bricks and mortar shops, we are proud that we remained true to our roots. Our family-run team are there in person at the shop, on the shows and markets or at the end of the phone, to provide that personal touch and to engage with customers.
This authenticity is something that Dominique feels passionate about holding onto as the business celebrates its 40th year. She says, “I feel so proud of Howard – thanks to his legacy, we can look back at the business and celebrate its achievements. The family element has always been so important to Howard and it’s remained an intrinsic part. We are a close family; everyone pulls together and chips in, even if that means the kids still working at the Christmas Markets when in their 40s with families of their own. I think that’s the genuine touch that our customers really warm to.”
So to mark our 40th anniversary of Westmorland Sheepskins we are launching a Golden Ticket Giveaway where lucky customers may receive a golden ticket in their internet orders - that will enable them to claim the entire cost of their order back! Exciting! (more info coming soon)
Over the remainder of the year we will be publishing new content from across the years along with stories about the trials, tribulations and successes of our small family business life. Here's hoping you enjoy the journey with us and huge huge thanks for supporting us over the years.