Me And My Partner: The founders of Chinasearch, a crockery matching company

Helen Rush and Jackie Wigley met at a coffee morning in Warwickshire and set up crockery matching company Chinasearch in 1989. It now employs 35 people and turns over £1.5m
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The Independent Online

Jackie and I met at a coffee morning in 1984. We'd both recently moved to the area. I didn't know a soul so I'd gone along, sat down next to Jackie and we started chatting. She mentioned that before she'd moved to Warwickshire, she had a small antiques business. More of a hobby, but it paid its way. She said she was thinking about starting it up again, doing small antiques fairs on Sundays, that kind of thing. She invited me to join her, even though I knew nothing of antiques.

She was very encouraging. She's a very confident, entrepreneurial lady whereas I'm not entrepreneurial by nature at all. We used to go to local auctions where we'd often buy large job lots and among them would be these modern dinner services from house or factory clearances, and we'd wonder what to do with them. We started advertising locally that we could match up dinnerware and had a great response. That's where the idea for Chinasearch came from.

Jackie has always been a keen wheeler dealer, but I didn't realise how driven she was when I first met her or for quite a long time afterwards. I'm a hard worker, but I have to be driven by somebody else. Jackie does that. She is always thinking ahead, looking out for the next thing we can do.

Until we took on more staff, I used to focus more on the administrative side. But we always shared the buying equally, which we both enjoyed. I have learnt a lot from her, developing my bargaining skills and that sort of thing. If something was £5 it would never occur to me to ask if I could have it for £4.50, so I had to develop more of a commercial outlook.

Being in business with a friend never really worried me. I think it worried other people. Our accountant says she's been amazed at how we've managed to keep so friendly when we spend so much time together. We've worked at it I think, a bit like a marriage. We never go to bed on an argument. We do argue a lot, but not in a nasty way and we never carry it out of work.

We've both got a good sense of humour. We have a good laugh and that's a great reliever of tension. People working for us sometimes find it very amusing, because they'll hear us being quite voluble with each other and the next minute we're having a laugh.

The relationship has probably changed as the business has grown. There's a lot more at stake now. We're spending a lot of money, deciding whether or not to employ more people, whether we're going to expand into other markets - that sort of thing. Our discussions are more serious.

We've had to try to become a bit more organised in the way we plan our meetings and make our decisions. And that's something that we find quite difficult because neither of us has had any management training. There's also so much legislation to deal with. But we take lots of advice. If we don't know how to do something we are not afraid to ask.

To run a business I think you've got to either have lots of training and experience or else lots of gut feeling and determination. And I think ours is mostly gut feeling and determination. But it's worked so far.

Jackie Wigley

I've always dabbled in antiques, buying things at auctions and selling them on. It was something I enjoyed and which brought in a bit of pocket money. But there was never really an ambition to build up this big, successful company.

We just played with Chinasearch for the first few years. We ran the business from our two houses and from a little rented unit in Warwick. We literally had stock under the bed and in the garage and up in the loft. One day our accountant, who had become a great friend, said, "Just get real, get some premises and do this properly!" So we bought a very small warehouse. That was when we started to do it seriously. We had some great luck, too.

One of my customers rang me and it turned out she worked for Good Housekeeping magazine and they wanted to do a little piece on us. Then from that we were on the BBC Homes &Antiques programme, which was filmed in my house. And they liked the house so much they did a feature on it in the magazine. So we suddenly got this huge boost to our profile and had to take on more people to cope.

In the early days it was difficult for some people, mainly men, to take the business seriously because we were both middle-aged women. People found it rather intriguing and slightly amusing. They'd say things like, how's your little business getting on? And I used to find that very annoying and patronising. It's a serious and very successful business and we put our whole hearts into it.

Helen and I were friends first and we always will be. We're both very different people. That's our strength. I'm much more aggressive; Helen's not. I'm the one that likes to take risks, whereas Helen keeps my feet on the ground. She's more of a realist and I'm very optimistic and think everything I do is going to work, which of course it doesn't.

Being friends made us both work much harder. We saw each other slogging away and thought we owed it to the other person to work just as hard as they did. From time to time things happen, but one of us is always on hand to take up the slack. One of us is usually up even when the other is down.

I'm more argumentative than Helen and probably more difficult to work with. I have always been argumentative, but now I have to tone it down in order to persuade other people to buy my ideas. If I were just working on my own, I'd do whatever I liked all the time. But then I don't think we would have succeeded because you need that counter-balancing influence.

We worked ridiculously hard to make it a success. And it was very invasive. The staff who worked at my house would arrive at about 8.45am and the last one left about 6pm. Every night I had to clear the remains of the day's trading off the kitchen table before my family could eat their dinner.

When we first started, we'd send things out on trust. When customers received them they'd send us a cheque. And they did. Only about four times in our existence has someone not paid. People thought we were mad, but it worked. You've got to trust somebody at some stage for any business to work.