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Business support means a new chapter for Willoughby Book Club

No one said it would be easy taking over a business. But the challenges of the last two years were never meant to be part of the story for the Willoughby Book Club. Director Marianne Chala faced a fire that destroyed the premises then a global pandemic. The latter also led to discovering some hidden weaknesses in the business causing further plot twists.

Willoughby Book Club began in 2012 as a family business operating from a kitchen table in the south Leicestershire village of Willoughby Waterleys. Today, it is a leading bespoke book subscription service, based in Blaby, that caters to all reading tastes and ages with around 5,000 subscribers.

Marianne, who has a background in book retail, took over the business in 2019 with friend Danielle Rowley. Danielle was an employee at that time. However, just before taking over, the new owners faced their first major challenge when a fire broke out at their premises making the business ‘homeless’. The fire was a huge blow, but they managed to secure premises with a neighbouring business, M3 Create Print, where they remain to this day. However, no sooner were they back on their feet and beginning to get to grips with the organisation, the pandemic hit.

Marianne said: “With many people having more time on their hands during lockdown, there was a surge in interest which was fantastic, but we were struggling with all the same issues as everyone else. We had to change everything about the way we worked and there was one month when no books went out at all.

“The pandemic struck just as we reached our first anniversary. Although it was a period of financial success it showed up every weakness in the company and gave us visibility on what needed to change.”

Marianne reached out to the Business Gateway Growth Hub before the pandemic and had already started working with Adviser, Joanna Moore on developing growth strategies. However, during the pandemic, a different kind of support was needed as the focus shifted from growth to survival once again.

“Joanna gave us just what we needed at the time. During the Covid-19 crisis, I was regularly advised on the furlough scheme. I was supported with helping staff return to work, arranging a socially distanced workplace, flexible hours and working from home options.”

During the lockdown, the business donated books to local care homes and schools to help where they could. Support from the Business Gateway continued after the initial distress and upset of the pandemic as new challenges began to present themselves.

Marianne continued: “We didn’t have any business experience and Joanna provided that continual voice of sanity in the madness. It’s taken a long time to get through just learning about the day-to-day survival to now having more confidence and thinking strategically.

“We’re working more efficiently now too, half the team of 10 work from home successfully and we’ve cut our costs. There were some cultural and workforce issues within the organisation and an understandable nervousness about the Covid situation. With Joanna’s help, we’ve improved communication and implemented better HR practices.

“There’s also been concrete support on putting together financial and business plans. She’s made me focus on the stuff I don’t really like, or know, but is necessary. That gentle accountability was very good for me.”

The next major challenge for the business is around sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint, as well as delivering on their commitment to being a socially responsible organisation. They already have a long-standing partnership with Book Aid International which means a book is donated to the charity with every subscription sold.  As a result, Marianne has taken advantage of other Business Gateway services including the Peer Networks programme and has joined the Zellar sustainability platform pilot. She has also attended many online courses to grow her business skills.

She adds: “Some of these things I would never have known about or got involved with had it not been for the process we have gone through. We are a different organisation, in a good way, to the one we were a few years ago. We are more professional operationally and staff wise. I also personally feel like I’ve transformed from having an employee to a leadership mindset.”

Joanna Moore added: “The initial aims we identified were to help the business grow through sales and profits and become sustainable. We spent time on what was happening in the organisation and the way they worked so we could really understand the challenges and barriers to growth and identify solutions.

“As well as general discussions on running a business we revisited some areas in much more depth like putting a marketing plan together and human resources. They’ve also made changes to their website because of our funded digital marketing support.

“It’s very rewarding to see their hard work has led to increases in productivity, different ways of working and a more harmonious workplace. I’m delighted to have been part of their growth story.”

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Pictured: back l-r Marianne Chala, Nicola James, Danielle Rowley, Front and seated l-r Olivia Turner and Aishah Morshed with Joanna Moore (Image by Beth Walsh Photography)