Peter Barron looks at three great County Durham businesses that underline the value of the Powered by People initiative...

HATCHING A PLAN TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS

IF someone had told Margaret Manchester a dozen years ago that she’d now be running a business born out of her love of rearing hens, she would have told them they were cracking up.

Margaret was teaching archaeology, local history and genealogy at Darlington College but gambled on an unlikely future as a “hen-trepreneur”.

Durham Hens, based at Tow Law, now has five people employed in the business and has grown into one of the largest retailers of hens to the public in the UK. It is proof that Durham’s “Powered by People” philosophy isn’t just confined to big business but feeds right down to the grass roots.

“It’s good to see Durham County Council promoting businesses through people and their passions because it’s people who really make a difference,” says Margaret, who grew up in Weardale. “I can’t believe how well it’s gone and Business Durham was very supportive when we were looking to expand and needed advice on planning and grants.”

Margaret had kept hens as a hobby on a three-acre small-holding and needed to re-stock when her “pets” were killed by a fox.

“I only wanted a dozen or so Black Rock hens but I discovered the chicks were only sold in their hundreds. I ended up with far too many, reared them, and sold the surplus. That was the beginning of Durham Hens.”

The business now sells everything hen-related – including poultry supplies, bedding, and feed – has its own farm shop and is open five days a week. Hens are sold to people who want to keep them for gardens, allotments, small-holdings or farms. Other outlets have included schools, hospitals and even prisons.

There’s also a small hatchery supplying eggs with the potential to be incubated all over the UK.

Meanwhile, Margaret runs three-hour courses in keeping hens, while a boarding service – hens on holiday – is in big demand. There can be more than 3,000 birds on the site at any time and the site is a veterinary training centre.

Margaret’s husband Alec, a chartered engineer, joined the business in 2011 when it became a limited company and he uses his skills to come up with ingenious chicken inventions. The “Durham Henhouse”, made of recycled plastic, sells well all over the country, as does the “Red Mite Alert” – an exclusive device to detect a nasty parasite that lives in henhouses.

Winner of the Best Retail Business in the National Rural Business Awards, and Federation of Small Business Awards Micro Business of the Year, Durham Hens certainly has plenty to crow about.

CARVING A SUCCESS STORY OUT OF A PASSION FOR WOOD

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WOODSHED Workshop is another inspirational example of a small business that has grown out of the determination, passion and enterprise that County Durham people are known for.

Nathan Hopkins, managing director of the community interest company, can hardly have had a more challenging time when he was growing up. He lost his parents in tragic circumstances when he was young and went into foster care, living in various parts of County Durham.

At 16, he was homeless and living in a tent in woods at Langley Park but signed up for a tree surgeon’s course at Houghall College. He excelled in his craft, took up offers of work in the charity sector, and built up his experience.

Woodshed Workshop, aimed at supporting the long-term unemployed through creative skills, was established in a disused council depot in Lobley Hill in 2015, and the joinery and wood reclamation side of the business took off. People with disabilities and mental health issues, as well as disengaged young people, became part of the social enterprise and calls began to come in from local authorities, looking for placements.

By the end of 2018, Woodshed Workshop had outgrown Lobley Hill and Nathan made an impassioned plea to Durham County Council for a licence to occupy part of a derelict Co-op building in Sacriston.

“They listened and now we’re working on a feasibility plan to develop the rest of the building,” says Nathan. “The aim is to bring the building back to life and create a social enterprise hub and community drop-in centre.”

All kinds of wood products – from outdoor benches to cabinets – are being produced, with the proceeds used to sustain the business and support people who might otherwise struggle to find work.

“The area had a hard time in the 1980s but has bounced back thanks to the resilience of local people. This is where I’m from and it’s good to see the council recognising that it’s people who making things happen,” says Nathan.

FORGING A BRIGHT FUTURE OUT OF STEEL

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STEELCRAFT celebrates its 30 anniversary this year and is another small business making the most of people’s passions.

The family-run company employs 30 people at Chester-le-Street, specialising in bespoke architectural metalwork, including railings, gates, balustrades, handrails, stairs and balconies.

And managing director Matthew Rodgers is another advocate of the Powered by People initiative.

“All our products are designed and made on the shop floor so it’s a very labour-intensive business. We need good people – it’s not a place for robots,” he says.

“We’ve got old-hands from the shipyards all the way through to apprentices, so we’re investing in the next generation of skilled people.

“It’s about making the most of enthusiastic, willing people who take pride in what they do and that’s why Powered by People makes so much sense.”

  • Business across Durham can benefit from the Powered by People initiative. Share your business success story. Follow us on Twitter @DurhamPbyP. Be inspired, view our films at durhampoweredbypeople.co.uk