It’s safe to say that the owners of Westmorland Sheepskins, the Heaton family come from a long line of entrepreneurial Yorkshire stock!
Reaching the significant milestone of 40 years in business has given them a rare chance to reflect on their heritage, their challenges and triumphs along the way, and of course their future.
Wind the clock back to the early seventies; a time when tanneries were a feature of most sizeable towns across the UK. Howard Heaton was just starting out his career as a 20-year-old working alongside his father as five previous generations had done, in their 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 would visit the tanneries, leaning how to select and sort the different raw skins for their final use.
After meeting his wife Joan and starting a family the couple made the move to the old county of Westmorland in 1981.
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.
Thinking back to when he first formed the business some forty years ago, Howard 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.”
A Yorkshireman through and through, Howard is proud to have built 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’re buying from the same tanneries as brands such as UGG, Hermes and Mulberry. We aim to deliver the same level of quality as those well-known brands, whilst also delivering good value to our customers”.
One of the factors that make family businesses special is the way in which knowledge and passion acquired over decades is passed down through generations. Today, it is Howard and Joan’s two sons, Joe and Tim and their daughter-in-law, Dominique that 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 any sheepskin and tell you what country it comes from or the derivation of any marks on the back of a skin.”
Each keen to explore new ideas and develop the business further, the next generation of Heaton’s have introduced plenty of flair, fashion and a new focus towards online retail.
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.
However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing! 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, what’s been the secret to the enduring popularity of this family-run business?
The exceptional quality and value of their products may have something to do with it, but perhaps it’s also down to the authenticity of the business. At a time when many retailers have migrated online with e-commerce boutiques replacing bricks and mortar shops and web chats replacing telephone services, Westmorland Sheepskins have remained true to their roots. The family-run team are there in person or at the end of the phone to provide that personal touch and to engage with their 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 working at the Christmas Markets! I think that’s the genuine touch that our customers really warm to.”
To mark their 40th anniversary, Westmorland Sheepskins are celebrating with 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! A lucky customer will be selected at random every week, between October 1st and November 19th. Full details, terms and conditions of the celebratory giveaway can be found here
Over the remainder of the year the team will be publishing new content from across the years along with stories about the trials, tribulations and successes of small family business life.
To find out more about Westmorland Sheepskins and their products, visit https://www.westmorlandsheepskins.co.uk/