The Phoenix Effect
please note, this message was written by David (the AW founder) in November 2016 shortly after our 21st birthday as a company...
Now I know you are jolly busy, but if you have time, settle down pour yourself a glass of the wine or make yourself a nice cup of tea and let me tell you the story of Ancient Wisdom and the Phoenix.
It all began on a cold and windy market stall you may have read my story about the first day of trading.
That journey from there to now, over twenty-one years has not been without it's up's and downs. Not without a number of complete disasters. It's been hard-work, lots of fun but not without heartache.
Lots went wrong, mistakes were made, there was downs as well as ups. This is the story of in spite of all this Ancient Wisdom grew up to be a strong healthy 21 year old business.
The First Phoenix moment..
Back to that market stall on The Moor, every morning I set up that stall come rain or shine and slowly developed enough trade to make it worthwhile. It was really hard work just me a one man business but I was learning, six months I worked that pitch slowly building the trade. Then one day the market manager came to see me, he said he was really sorry but the pitch I was on had been licensed to a foreign guy years before who they thought had gone back to his home country for good. But he had come back and now wanted his pitch back. Just like that - I was out of business. That weekend I was in despair, totally depressed, all that hard work it seemed had gone to waste. Monday morning the phone rang and it was the market manager, could I go and see him. An indoor shop was available, a big one, in Sheaf Market across town, as a consolation (for losing The Moor pitch) they could let me have it rent free for three months, it took all my money to fit it out. But from day one I was trading profitably and no need to set up in the morning, just roll up the shutters. I could afford staff and more importantly the time to develope more products and the profits were enough to fund opening more shops. So from apparent disaster the first stroke of good luck.
The Second Phoenix
So there were shops in Sheffield market, Bakewell and Castleton, that was the early days... learning about gifts and retailing them. Sleep stones, and lavender oil. Listening to customers and finding out what they want. Meanwhile I had got myself involved with a company selling coffee to pubs and restaurants in those days.. we changed it over to giftware wholesale, with the AW brand and products. It did well, even if it was a bit dodgy here and there. There were things I wasn't happy with. (But at least here the Simmering Granules were developed). I'm not sure if I was pushed out or I sold out of that company (it's a long story) but I took the AW brand with me and Ancient Wisdom Marketing Ltd was born in October 2000.
The Third Phoenix
I felt rejected and dejected, with not much to show for years of effort except, a bunch of products and the name Ancient Wisdom. From that time on I determined - come hell or high water, if we was going to do this then we would do it with honesty and integrity. Sorry..back to the story..
Starting up again with no real capital to speak of, I had to think outside the box. So I did a deal with a big international company with a large complex of warehouses in Lincolnshire. The boss was a likable flamboyant guy. I pitched my ideas to him, and he just said yeah, lets do it.
The deal was this: We did the product development and marketing, they did the manufacture, warehousing and distribution and paid a licence fee to AW. It went very well to start with, but gradually we discovered they had serious cash flow problems and weren't paying us... at the time it looked like the end, it was certainly difficult and depressing. Business was good, but basically we had no money coming in. There was a few awful months of agonising limbo.
Then disaster struck, I received a call at 3am, the trading estate in Lincs was on fire. Early that morning I drove down to see how bad it could be. I arrived to see a smoking wreck, five fire engines still hosing down the embers. Two blocks remained undamaged, one housed the offices of the company, the other amazingly - the Ancient Wisdom stock (either side had burnt down). I went to see the boss and offered him 20% of the value of the stock to buy it out... which was every penny I had and could borrow. Incredibly he accepted, and the very next day we loaded several large trucks and brought the stock to Sheffield. We found a temporary warehouse, (in an old brewery) but soon moved to Lancelot Works at Heeley. Finally we was free to trade how we liked. It was a very BIG lucky break and the forth Phoenix. Ancient Wisdom actually did rise out of the flames.
Later we started seriously importing from India, then China and a few years ago Indonesia. Our own offices and warehouses in China and Indonesia. All these milestones have come and gone, not least moving to our new home at Parkwood Business Park a few years ago. Of course there is a lot more to this story, here left untold, but this gives you a feel for our heritage and history.
You will notice that as stories go we have had more than our fair share of disasters. But the thing I learned (and this is true of life and business) when things go very bad, if you keep the faith and integrity something extraordinarily good comes of it. This I have called the Phoenix Effect. I think and believe it only works if the underlying values are there. So many times disaster has struck, and so many times it has turned out to be the best thing ever. The Phoenix has risen, and keeps rising and actually there are many more examples than I have detailed in this short story.
Of course you maybe sceptical and say the phoenix is just a figment of my imagination, and it's all been a just matter of luck and random events. All I'm saying is when life gives those lemons, have faith, the lemonade is just round the corner. Maybe, just maybe. So take heart.
But when all is said and done.. we made it, we are still here and furthermore - in fine fettle - as they say in Yorkshire. We made it not only because of the Phoenix Effect but because of people like you our amazing customers. Some of you have been here since the very early days, others joined along the way, but everyone has contributed in some shape or form to what AW is today including it must be said the fantastic team of enthusiastic people that I'm honoured to work with at AW.
What now.. well I hope you are along for the ride, AW is all grown up and it's time to really get move on.
Moving forward the company continued to grow, opening new warehouses in Indonesia and Slovakia. Until in the midst of the first big wave of the pandemic in 2020 a major disaster struck the company.
Please note, this message was written by David (the AW founder) on the one year anniversary of the event.
A warm July day almost a year ago someone at AW cleaned up a minor oil splash, the oil soaked rag as per health and safety was carefully binned. The bin must be (as per H&S) stored outside of the building. The bin must be lockable to avoid some smoker tossing in a fag end.. As per H&S guidance.
Six hours later a little before midnight, in that hot sealed pressure cooker bin a self combustion occurred. It probably should have smouldered and gone out for lack of oxygen, but a small hole in the plastic melted open, and a hot westerly wind that night was just enough to rouse the flame.
Due to H&S regulations IBC's of oils must be kept outside. Now a burning bin might have just burned out, but the IBC nearby began to melt from the heat. The oil escaped and ran across the carpark and under a door that contained the essential oil room, and of course it caught fire as it went. Something (probably the gas for the underfloor heating) caught fire and exploded blowing off the roller shutter doors. The wind blew the flames west through the building. First though the factory, then the main warehouse then the office block. I was in a different time zone. Early in the morning in Indonesia, my mobile is buzzing. I will never forget Tomas's tear stained face framed by a massive blaze. It's over, it's over.. Was all he could say. Within two and a half hours despite a rapid response and valiant effort from the brigade the place was burned to the ground. It was the biggest fire that Sheffield had seen for years. The whole drama from the bin combusting to the fire engines arriving to the total destruction was captured on CCTV by a high level camera in the carpark.
from this to this...
in 2 hours..
That day was a monumental shock not only to me but everyone at AW, and many of our customers and suppliers who had been with us for years. People ask me how I felt at that moment?
The answer is part of me could have just given up, I told myself I'm too old to deal with this. The thought went through my brain, that the company could be liquidated, insurance claimed, everyone paid off.. retire, game over - the easy way out.
My brain did the cold hard calculations, but my heart held the casting vote.. and when I thought about the people that depend on AW, the 25 years of hard work building it up. When I started to receive thousands of messages of support from customers, from you maybe.. then there was no alternative..
There was no way we could give up.. I got myself on the only plane out of Bali in a month.. and made it back to the UK within the week. So Tomas, Katka and I made a plan. We put it to the team. This job was not going to be easy, but with enough support, energy and teamwork I believed we could recover. But more than that, to borrow a phrase.. I told the team.. we had to build back better.. and to think 3X up.
Forged in the Fire..
As we set to work, there were some who couldn't hack it and left us, but most stayed, and rolled up their sleeves and got on with building back better (to borrow a phrase). I have to say there are some people at AW who stepped up to the plate and exceeded all expectations. And remember not only the fire, but the pandemic and bloody Brexit we have had to deal with..
My personal thanks to those AW Hero's without whom AW wouldn't be here today. Many people at AW grew in character and abilities.
Of course this has been a trial for you also, the pandemic has tested the whole world, so there is a sense that we all came through this.