A business leader has told how he built a multi-million-pound garden buildings company from scratch after his father decided to sell the century-old family business in the same sector.
Charles Walton had hoped to become the fifth generation to run his family’s shed manufacturing business but had to make other plans when his father and uncle decided to sell the company which their great grandfather has started way back in 1878.
He launched his company back in 2000 but not everyone was convinced sheds would sell online and many tried to convince Charles his idea wouldn’t work. They advised that such a traditional item as a wooden garden building could only be sold in person.
Now his company is recognised as a market leader in sheds and garden buildings with a turnover of £23m a year and more than 220 employees.
Today BillyOh operates from a 14-acre site in Nottinghamshire and sells more than 165,000 items online each year. It makes around one in every eight sheds sold in the UK.
The decision to sell online and to create his own manufacturing facility has clearly paid off for Charles who cites his family history of innovation as his inspiration.
His Victorian great-great-grandfather EC Walton was a lecturer in bee keeping who spotted a gap in the market for affordable hives. E C Walton & Co, the company he founded soon moved into garden buildings and became one of the UK’s leading shed manufacturers.
The company still trades today more than 140 years after it was founded but the family is no longer involved.
Instead Charles now owns one of the UK’s most successful online retail business and is seeking to expand into other areas of online e-commerce.
The company has invested heavily in research and development leading to a series of innovations in the manufacturing process which have led to more choice than ever before for buyers of garden buildings.
This means they can offer their customers a range of options making an almost bespoke garden building available at a much lower cost than other manufacturers.
The dedication to innovation has also led to the use of timber pressure treatment in the manufacturing process which means the sheds are longer lasting and more durable.
And the online business model means they are able to offer a much wider variety of shed and garden building than would be possible in even the largest garden centre.
Charles said: “My father and uncle chose to sell the family business at a time when the internet was still in its infancy.
“I could see the potential in a website selling sheds exclusively online but not everybody was convinced. The perceived wisdom at the time was that such a traditional object as a wooden garden building could only be sold in person.
“Lots of people told me that customers would only buy sheds if they could reach out and touch them but I wasn’t so sure. This was pre-Google, we were relying on early search engines such as AltaVista, but I thought if customers could find them online then they would buy.”
Charles (pictured with COO Christopher Palmer-Smith) launched his first website in 2000 from a room above his parent’s garage soon after graduating from the London School of Economics with a degree in management.
“In those early days we did everything we could to get our website seen, even taking out classified ads. It meant we were one of the first to market in the digital space and today a majority of new sheds are sold online.”
Soon he outgrew the home office and moved to new premises before eventually deciding to manufacture his own products.
He said: “The first factory was cobbled together using our own sheds. We put up the biggest sheds we could to house the heavy manufacturing equipment and hired 15 members of staff. It was a makeshift factory to test the market and we quickly realised the demand was there.
“We were able to move to a bigger site and in 2014 we acquired the 14-acre site in Worksop where we are based today.
“It’s been wonderful to be able to create jobs and offer something back to the community. More than 140 years after my great-great-grandfather launched his business it’s been very rewarding to start up again from scratch and, thanks to the internet, make a success of traditional wooden garden buildings all over again.”