Name: Shona Young
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Nutscene has been producing jute twine for close to 100 years. Remarkably, they still use the same production machinery that’s been around since the 1920s. It’s that strong link with the past that continues to attract customers from Aberdeen to Adelaide.
When Shona Young joined Nutscene as office manager more than a quarter of a century ago it was a very different company. Although the 1980s were almost complete, the office still harked back to an earlier time, with roll-top desks and typewriters, and no scent of a computer. In fact, the overwhelming scent in their Forfar factory was that of jute, a vegetable fibre used to spin into coarse, strong threads. While many websites offer tips on removing the aroma from jute backed products, it’s a smell that has on a number of occasions attracted buyers to their authentic product. It characterises not just the product, but also the emotion it instils in its devotees.
In those days the company’s business was reasonably consistent, supplying green jute twine for gardeners to then household names like Woolworths, Timothy Whites and Texas Homecare. But challenges in the form of cheaper imports from China began to cut into their market share, and pressure from existing customers to offer more competitive prices dug deep into their profits.
By the late 90s the company was facing a crisis. Innovation was the answer. They needed to make their products appeal to a wider market, cut out the wholesalers who were continually squeezing their prices, and deal direct with retailers. Their first new product was a tin of twine. On the surface perhaps not the most radical move, but it was the 1940s packaging that gave the product its distinctive retro feel that has been instrumental in its success. Nutscene’s product range has expanded quite a bit in the intervening years. Today they offer twine in a variety of colours, gift sets, and a wide range of craft, kitchen and laundry products, including the ever-popular Sheila Maid clothes airer, a retro-looking kitchen pulley.
In a sense, exporting found Nutscene, rather than the company devising a particular plan that would help them acquire overseas customers. For a number of years they had been serving a small number of customers in Ireland, France and Holland. That was just business though, Nutscene didn’t really see themselves as exporters. Nor did they expect to expand their international reach when they participated in a trade show in Birmingham. But an American buyer surprised them with his interest in their product, and the nostalgic tin. That event resulted in their first significant US order, and opened Shona’s eyes to the massive potential beyond our own borders.
Success in Japan began in an equally quirky and unexpected fashion. In the days before the internet, Shona remembers receiving an order from a lady in Japan. It was only for a small amount, maybe £20, but it was a foot in the door. Two trade exhibitions in Tokyo later, and Japan is now Nutscene’s biggest export country. In total, the company now exports to 23 countries, and this accounts for almost half of their turnover.
It’s easy to see why exporting is so important to Nutscene. Shona sees attending trade exhibitions as instrumental in the company’s export success. She says, “We don’t use in-country reps so getting in front of buyers is critical. So is making an impact. That’s why we’ve invested heavily in exhibition design.” But it’s not just the visual aspects that attract people to the Nutscene stand, it’s the smell too. People are intrigued by it. Shona will often see stand visitors pick up a roll of twine, smell it, and leave with a faint smile on their lips, as if remembering an earlier time in their life.
Of course exhibiting on a global scale comes with a cost, and takes a lot of organising. Over the years Nutscene has benefited from export support from Scottish Enterprise – providing advice, logistical support and guidance. But, as Shona points out, you need a high level of commitment before you undertake that sort of venture, and be ready to pay for everything upfront. She says, “Exhibiting is valuable because it helps you win business, but it also lets you experience the culture. If you don’t understand that you might struggle to make the most of it. So do your homework first and visit some international trade fairs before you exhibit yourself.”
Nutscene CEO for the past four years, Shona is passionate about what she does, and believes that passion contributes to maintaining the company’s upward trajectory. She concludes, “In business you need courage and self-belief, and you need to be prepared to get your fingers burned now and then. If you know your product, understand the dynamics of your market and believe in what you do, you’ve already gone a long way along the road to success.” Not bad advice from a girl who was expelled from school when she was 16!