A Meeting Of Minds

As we know from experience, nothing changes if nothing changes.
How Calm Could I Rest?

When you hear the plaudits that greet the success of fresh thinking, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s easy to be entrepreneurial. It’s true that with hindsight, the route to a new market can seem almost inevitable. As we retrace the steps from finishing-line back to starting block, the progress made by the new venture appears steady and sure. Even the demeanour of the soon-to-be-successful entrepreneur strikes us as fresh and untroubled. They stride, apparently without any great effort, breathing easily and moving naturally towards their prize.

The failed venture on the other hand is met with much shaking of heads, clucking of tongues and regretful calls of ‘I-told-you-so’. Here too, the outcome seems predestined. From the standpoint of recent downfall, the initiative appears risky and ill conceived from the outset. In contrast to the easy progress made by their successful counterpart, the steps of the defeated entrepreneur seem dogged (even stubborn) and painful. When the time comes to pick over the bones of failure, everyone else knows best. All are agreed that it would have been better if the impulsive risk-taker had kept it simple and stuck to doing what they did best.

And yet, as we know from experience, nothing changes if nothing changes. It’s not just madness that has us doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Honest endeavour has many of us reluctant to step off the treadmill and strike out on our own.

Not In This Wide World

The entrepreneur will be familiar with this dilemma. Subsistence or even modest success can make a conservative of the best of us and sometimes it’s much easier to stay with what you know than venture something new. It’s particularly challenging for the business that has its roots in manufacturing or production. The technician in us argues for the certainty of craft. There is a strong temptation to keep our head down and heed the words of caution from the often older and wiser heads around us.

When I was younger, this note of caution was often struck with the suggestion that you ‘stick to your knitting’. In the case of Avoca Handweavers however, it’s undoubtedly a good thing that they didn’t stick to the manufacturing formula that had served the enterprise for over 250 years.

When you stand in the gardens at the Avoca outlet in Kilmacanogue, as I did recently, it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine that the company arrived fully formed as a designer and retailer of thousands of products from around the world. Here too, success can seem inevitable.

When Simon Pratt recounts the story of Avoca, there is an easy grace in the telling that belies the many dilemmas that he and his entrepreneurial siblings faced as they traced the path from the company’s origins as a maker of rugs, throws and scarves to the international retailing business that it is today. But a brand as individual and confident as Avoca doesn’t arrive as a much-admired player in the highly competitive world of retail without some soul-searching on the way. Or without making some far-reaching decisions.

Brightest Of Green

Simon recalls one such watershed moment some twenty years ago, when Avoca opened a shop on the famed Ring Of Kerry to sell its produce. The lengthy tourist trail is broken up by a series of vantage points where the sightseer can stop to admire the view, take refreshment and buy souvenirs of their visit. As is the case in most tourist spots, the choice of what to buy from one shop to the next varies little. The Pratts determined that if they were to truly stand out from the crowd, they would have to do something more than a little different.

Around the same time, Simon and his sister Amanda had begun to play a greater role in the family business. Whilst they remained passionate about the hand-weaving craft that was the mainstay of the business then, they were also eager to make their mark in producing something that was more of a reflection of their own taste and of the changing tastes of the time.

The Best Charms Of Nature Improve

And so began a shift in thinking that would see Avoca move from being mostly a manufacturer of tweed material and clothing for the tourist and overseas markets to a retailer of goods ranging from clothes to food to books and almost everything in between and a wholesaler designing, making and supplying goods to independent retailers around the world.

Of course, it would be a little simplistic to suggest that this shift was made in one eureka moment. The Pratts had long included some local produce such as jams and preserves on the shelves alongside the tweed clothing in their outlets. And the move to create a new version of Irishness that we might market to ourselves had been anticipated elsewhere in the pioneering efforts of the original Kilkenny Design workshops, and carried on in the cooking of the Allen family at Ballymaloe, the pottery being cast in the Pearce studios in Shanagarry and in the cheeses of trail-blazing dairy-farmers up and down the country.

But it was still a shift that had to be made and one that was by no means inevitable. Remember that the technician inside the business had to be reassured that the new direction was not a betrayal of the manufacturing credentials on which the business had been founded and had to resist the urge to cry out: ‘That’s not how we do it around here.’ It probably helped that, in addition to their desire for something new, the young adventurers had great respect for the craft that underpinned the manufacturing side of the business (and which can still be seen today in the quality of production across the entire Avoca range).

Looks That We Love

However, it isn’t simply this ability to strike a balance between the old and the new that sets Avoca apart from the rest. Simon confirms that the team behind the business is remarkably single-minded when it comes to identifying who their customer is.

Moving beyond the shift from tourist to local, Avoca homes in on the independent woman who sees in the eclectic mix on offer something of how she likes to shape her own surroundings. In the flourish of what Simon describes as the ‘handwriting of Avoca, which has always looked to create something individual, quirky and inspiring’, the customer can reflect her own sense of style and be inspired.

Whilst this choice of customer might at first seem a little limiting, Simon is quickly able to reach out beyond this woman to the family who might accompany her on a weekend, the girlfriend she might meet for lunch during the week and the visitor from overseas who she might wish to impress with something local, personal and a little different.

To paraphrase legendary retailer Julius Rosenwald (he of Sears Roebuck fame), Avoca’s ability to ‘stand on both sides of the counter at once’ means that their handwriting can be quickly adopted by the customer to create her own signature style. It’s not surprising that Simon can trace back a great deal of the inspiration for how Avoca has organised itself in terms of inventory and layout to the home of his grandmother where a mix and match of antiques and bric-a-brac made for an inspiring place to both live and visit.

A Valley So Sweet

It’s this sense of place that sits at the heart of all that’s best about Avoca. When the team sets out to build or adapt in a new location, it’s much less about following a rigid formula and much more about exploring how they might make a new Avoca space. Whilst Simon acknowledges that the Kilmacanogue outlet is probably the one that best fits the Avoca ideal, it enjoys many natural features that can’t be easily reproduced elsewhere: the old Jameson family estate and gardens, the nearby Wicklow mountains and a sense of removal from traffic and the city.

So when they decided to build from scratch at Rathcoole, where the outlet is located only metres from one of the busiest stretches of road in the country, they decided to take advantage of the unpromising location to create something quite new. The handsome building turns its back to the main road to face the distant mountains and the customer is invited to enter through a walled inner garden instead. In an instant, the outlet manages to skip past the dourness of the typical roadside offer of the retail giants elsewhere and create the delight that its customers cherish. Inside, the store is arranged on a series of terraces, which in turn offers the surprise of a glass-enclosed chill-room where cheeses and cold-cuts can be sampled before purchase.

The Bright Waters Meet

So what might we learn from the success of Avoca, apart from its not being quite as inevitable as it appears? It strikes me that the team behind it has such a clear sense of both where they’ve come from and who their customer is that it makes much of the decision-making very simple indeed. Whilst Simon talked of some of the more traditional management tools that they use in their business, it appears that he and his colleagues rely more on their understanding of their customer and of making a place where she (and those she brings with her) will feel at home. Avoca, in every sense then, is a meeting of true minds.