Safe, brave spaces – how culture finds talent

Posted on 28 Dec 2023 by Tom St John

Samantha Johnson, Managing Director of Avalon Home, talks to me about how her experiences in big retail as an e-commerce buyer has informed the running of her current business. She discusses local supply chains, four-day working weeks and how “safe, brave spaces” create breeding grounds for talent.

Samantha relaunched Avalon Home, a table linen company started by her family a century ago, and recently acquired Cumbria-based Pintail Candles. Her mission with both brands, is to bring British-made, personalised products to independent homewares retailers. In the same way a top football team reflects its manager, a business should exude the traits of its owner.

Samantha seems to have put her bespoke stamp on Avalon Home and more recently Pintail Candles, with her own consumer preferences informing products and her belief that work culture gets you the best talent. Her views on the latter are steadfast; manufacturing facilities should be just as attractive, if not more so, than offices and workers should have autonomy over their time. It may not come across too well in print, so I should point out how huge the emphasis was on Samantha’s response to the idea that four-day weeks are hard to implement. “Not at all – it’s just not hard,” she stressed.

From a writer’s perspective, I would say that some of the below business decisions are easier to take for a manufacturer of bespoke, lower volume products. Samantha would argue that Pintail hand pours upwards of 750,000 candles a year for some high-street brands, so the approach is scalable.

However, as we often see, what you manufacture informs your approach. Avalon and Pintail don’t have the same headaches as a mass manufacturer. That said, you could take these sentiments into almost any business and succeed. And indeed, from the people perspective, I’ve seen examples where manufacturers are veering away from the traditionally optimum factory setting.

Brompton Bicycle works on a four-day shift pattern, with communal areas decked out with foosball and pool tables. Gripple has a similar area, Encirc Beverages – The Park recently spent big money on gym facilities for its employees and Lisi Aerospace in Rugby has a dedicated wellbeing room.

That’s not to say that the approaches discussed here aren’t unique. In many ways they are, but they join a small wave of incremental change that appears to be stirring in the sector. However, this takes strong leadership to implement, as you’ll realise in my interview with Samantha.

Samantha Johnson discussing creating businesses that attract talent

Give us some background on Avalon Home

I’m the Managing Director of Avalon Home and Pintail Candles, which we acquired in June of this year. I look after both businesses and I’m also responsible for product development and designing creative. Avalon is our textiles company. We’re headquartered in Cheshire, where we make all our textiles. We design and manufacture everything in the UK.

How have your experiences shaped the way you run your businesses?

My background was in big retail; on Far East, long lead time products. The inspiration for Avalon came about through my fondness of shopping in weird, quirky, independent places that stock product that no one else has. I come from a family of makers, but I’m not a maker myself. My mum would say that she was a maker because she was poor.

Back then, if you wanted nice things, you made them yourself, because there was no other way to afford them. That’s not the reality of the generation I grew up in – one of mass manufacturing. The goal was always to create a manufacturing partner that is designed to work with independent retailers who want to have something different.

The High Street isn’t dead – it’s not going anywhere. Nobody wants to buy everything on the internet, even me, who rarely wants to leave her own house. The High Street should be an amazing, vibrant, community driven place, but they’re not going to be if the retail experience is exactly the same as shopping online, just more expensive (and you have to pay for parking). So, the question is, how do you create products that are super bespoke for customers?

So, how do you do that?

We use tech. We print digitally with our pattern designs. That allows us to create very small, bespoke quantities, but to still hit the total overall manufacturing quantity that we need to get to economies of scale. Yes, we’re more expensive than products that are totally massed produced, but not overly so. We’re talking ten percent, rather than 200% more. Creating a unique and incredible retail experience is hard if you don’t have venture backing or serious amounts of cash. So, the inspiration was to ensure that manufacturing comes in partnership with independent retailers.

You mentioned that your background in big retail left you frustrated over lead times. What have been the benefits of keeping your supply chain local?

Fundamentally, there’s two. The first, and more obvious, is your speed to market; it’s a lot easier if we’re holding our raw materials in the UK. We can get to you faster and it allows us to be slightly more agile in how we plan stock and demand. There are also huge environmental benefits to not bringing materials into the country on containers or air-freighting product at the last minute – which I was guilty of in the early stages of my career. However, secondly, and I think more importantly, is the working capital implications. It’s not just about placing your Christmas order in September and having it in your store in October.

Avalon Home product - an article discussing talent attraction

It doesn’t have to be the big department store approach of massive orders that come into your warehouse in containers which then have to be distributed. You don’t need to do that. You could order 25% of the volume and see how it goes. Rather than saying, “That was a runaway success, we sold out by Halloween.” That ultimately means you also left money on the table.

You don’t have to commit your entire stock buy that early; you could actually do two or three buys, and far more revenue could be available to you – all the while being laser targeted about where you spend that money and testing with your individual customers. By combining that approach with doing something bespoke, we haven’t just tested product, we’ve made it for the customer that’s in their colour palette.

That’s what they love, and they’ve come to us because they couldn’t find it anywhere else. Making it here brings together all the beautiful design led benefits of being able to create bespoke products quickly. But there’s also commercial benefits of going bespoke but not ordering in huge volumes.

Manufacturers often report difficulties of attracting skills to their business. How is Avalon overcoming that?

We don’t have a problem. We design our business to be an attractive place to work. Our entire business runs on a four-day week, including our manufacturing arms. I come from a start-up background, and in my early career it was ping pong table offices, unlimited beer taps on a Friday and everybody in the pub by two o’clock at the end of the week – that was my era of office culture. However, that never really translated into manufacturing.

The work culture in manufacturing, for the most part, has never reflected the fact that this is a skilled environment. It’s our job as employers to make these spaces attractive places to work. I personally believe that this is a top-down issue. The work that our teams do, to make beautiful products for people’s homes, is hard. It’s physically demanding, it can be long hours and it’s awkward at times. The first thing you should do culturally is recognise that the people doing the hardest jobs deserve the most respect and help from everyone else in the business.

They are the beating heart of the company and ensuring they’re happy, comfortable and can excel in what they do is what our office is here to deliver. We have a perception issue in the UK that manufacturing roles are worse than office jobs and that if someone could chose to be in an office, they would do so. There’s no objective truth in that statement – everyone I know that works in an office full-time is completely miserable! It is not more fun to sit behind a desk all day than it is to do something with your hands. It’s a personal choice; they are not objectively worse jobs so they shouldn’t be treated as such and crucially, the people that are in hands-on roles are not intrinsically less valuable.

You mentioned four-day working weeks. Tell us why this was implemented?

The day-to-day manufacturing tasks are physically hard, so rest is important. A four-day week means marginally longer days (45 minutes), but that allows us to achieve greater volume. Because we create bespoke products, a lot of time is spent in setup. So, if you do slightly longer days with less setups, you achieve more volume, and overall productivity is higher.

Our workshop productivity went up by six percent when we went down to four days. I appreciate the calculations are different depending on what you’re manufacturing. But the bottom line is people are happier. We don’t struggle to recruit, and that means we can recruit the best available people because the best people have choices. I need to be able to give our employees the best package. That’s not just about money, in fact, it’s never about money.

Samantha Johnson - on how to attract talent

For this generation in particular, I don’t see anyone more concerned about money than they are about having control over their time. Knowing that if they’ve got a doctor’s appointment, or a parents’ evening or a Christmas play, family comes first and Fridays are your own.

And guess what? Nobody ever has a doctor’s appointment. Not because I’d mind, but because people tend to have them on a Friday. They see that as their life admin day; do the food shop, see the doctor, pick up a prescription, clean the house. And suddenly they’ve got a whole free weekend. It’s those people that come to work happy, enthused and wanting to be here, because work is enabling them to live the life they want to live.

I see that as my job; to make sure that we have the commercial pipeline, the processes and procedures so that everyone that works for me can build the life that they want. You don’t have to worry about your level of customer service if you’ve got a happy and fulfilled team.

We’re seeing this at some companies, but not many. Is it hard to implement a four-day week in production sites?

Not at all – it’s just not hard. I liken that stance to when people say fully remote working doesn’t work. Fully remote can work if it’s what you want, and you build a team that wants that as well. Can people abuse this trust? Of course; not every hire I’ve ever made has been perfect. However, you have to deal with that situation; don’t threaten everyone by saying the perks will be taken away, just deal with that one person. Ultimately, if you’re creating the best possible environment, it gives you access to the best possible people at whatever level. Why would anyone want to take advantage of that?

Skills seem to be a challenge for most manufacturers; attracting diverse talent seems to be even harder. Is this the case for Avalon and Pintail?

The make-up of the team at Pintail existed before our acquisition, so I didn’t build that team. Our head of production has been with us for ten years; he’s male, but everyone else on the shopfloor is female. Just for clarity, we interview both genders whenever we hire for a new position – the formation of our team isn’t intentional. It’s a little bit more mixed across the operational side of our business.

I think once you start to redress that balance, it’s very easy. I have conversations with people who think that they can’t do it. But we’re an organisation of phenomenal role models who show that you can. We take diversity seriously in a lot of ways. If you’re building a product, cultural diversity is fundamental, because you need that difference of life experience to feed in from the start.

We do make a product that is bought primarily by women, so that’s quite fundamental. However, I would argue if you look at how household spending is directed across all categories, you’d struggle to make a case for creating a team that is not gender diverse.


  • When we say diverse talent in manufacturing, we’re normally talking about women. Racially diverse talent is sometimes mentioned, but neurological diversity rarely is
  • Manufacturing needs to be more accepting of backgrounds. Not just from different areas of industry, but from different industries all together
  • There has seemingly been a shift in priority within the workforce – away from money and more towards work-life balance
  • While this approach to running a business comes from experiences outside of manufacturing, we are seeing similar strategies starting to emerge within the sector

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