WHEN Steve Bowkett was made redundant, just four weeks after it had happened to his wife, Penny, he put his pounds 1,500 pay-off straight into the small business she had begun from a spare room of their Shropshire cottage. At the time it seemed more an act of faith than an investment. Four years later, they are joint directors of a cottage industry with a burgeoning export market and turnover of pounds 350,000 a year.
Their success with Woodland Cottage (Country Gifts) Ltd is not just down to enterprise, persistence and hard work: it is also a pay-off for cultivating the raw materials at their doorstep - flowers. They grow, pick, press and frame flowers for Victorian-style fireguards and wall decorations. And for Steve, who had been a publishers' representative, it is a return to roots. He had trained at the Pershore College of Horticulture in the Vale of Evesham, and was once student of the year.
'Give him a fork and a field, and he's happy,' said Penny. Just as well - their cottage outside the village of Hope Bagot, near Ludlow, was surrounded by 12 acres of dock and nettles. He replaced them with larkspur, pansies, candytuft, potentilla and many varieties of rose.
'The only wild flower we use is cow parsley, and our frames are all of soft woods,' said Steve, sounding an environmental note.
Such is the demand that they had to buy an adjacent field for 40 acres all told. After a battle with local planning officials, they converted a derelict barn into a business headquarters. It houses eight full-time workers, while another 50 work part-time to meet orders from round the world. The Bowketts' floral designs are particularly popular in Japan and Norway.
'It took us nearly a year to get it right,' Penny said. 'The stuff we produced originally was awful. Local shops bought them but there was no sale-through, no re-orders. It was back to the drawing board.' After eight months they had to re-mortgage the cottage to carry on trading. Penny admits now that her background in marketing had made her too scrupulous about market research. 'I was listening too much to what people said they wanted. In the end, we made what I liked myself.'
The breakthrough was not far away. She took the results to a craft trade fair in Harrogate and orders came flooding in. 'I was so tired afterward,' she recalled, 'that I had to pull in at a motorway service station on the way home and grab some sleep in the caravan with the exhibition equipment.'
Sleep became an optional extra over the next two years. She took on their first part-time worker to meet the orders but had to go to work as a night manager in a motor hotel to pay the worker.
Steve, too, began working round the clock. 'I have an ulcer to prove it,' he said. But he also has a share in a thriving business that is already expanding into other fields. They have a separate company producing photograph frames, and market research in Japan suggests a strong demand for jewellery boxes and glass-topped tables that include their pressed-flower designs.
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