Owen Barry’s export strategy driven by core values

Somerset-based company sells their British provenance, skills and craftsmanship in the US and Asia to keep their business alive

In 1948 when Owen Barry started his leather, suede and sheepskin accessories business, manufacturing was a cornerstone of British industry and the main trade in his hometown of Street Somerset was leather tanning. When cheap imports started flooding the market in the 1980s, the company’s future looked bleak and after a spell in receivership, his daughter Cindi Barnstable, along with other family members, stepped up and bought back the business. The company had a decision to make, either give up or find new customers in new markets. Owen Barry’s export journey had begun. 

Forty years on and the company has a turnover of £1.5 million and a presence in seven markets. Export now accounts for 60 percent of the company’s business. Half of Owen Barry’s business is under its own brand name and the other half is white labelled for many of the world’s most prestigious fashion retail brands. Working with customers who care about the origin, quality and sustainability of the leather goods they order and appreciate the level of craftsmanship invested in every product, the company has gone from strength to strength. 

Owen Barry is still a family owned business that has always put its people and craft first, the company truly lives its values and its approach to export has been no different. The business has had to make many very difficult decisions on its export journey in order to protect its integrity and its commitment to quality and artistry.

“Our business is not just about making a profit. We also feel a strong commitment to preserving the traditional skills that our hometown of Street has long been known for and that have provided the livelihood of many local families,”

Cindi Barnstaple, Managing Director, Owen Barry. 

First Deal In the Bag 

Working with the Department for International Trade (DIT), the company’s first overseas mission was to North America. Their very first appointment on arrival in New York was with J Crew and to date they remain one of their biggest customers. Relationships also quickly developed with Brooks Brothers, Barneys, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus to name but a few. Appreciating the quality, dedication and craftsmanship of Owen Barry, the company’s first mission proved to be a huge success and its future was secured! 

Japan was the next country Owen Barry sought to conquer. Due to the language and cultural barriers, the decision was taken to seek a partnership with an agent rather than deal directly with trade customers. Working with DIT and with the support of the Japanese Embassy, a suitable agent was sourced and fifteen years later, the relationship is still going strong. In fact orders for this season in Japan are in excess of £320,000 and rising. Many of the major Japanese retailers/store groups are embracing the concept of having an Owen Barry pop up shop in-store to support the launch of the 2016/17 collections and to bring the brand to life for consumers. 

“In the US we deal direct with different trade accounts because we speak the same language and the cultures are similar. In Japan everything is different. Our agent is also our market advisor and helps guide us on local trends, body perceptions, silhouette cuts and up and coming colours which ensures we deliver products that are tailored to the market.”

Fashion with Principles 

Export hasn’t been without its ups and downs. 

The business was very tempted to enter China and did all the necessary research and invested in a number of market visits but made a bold decision not to move forward despite the huge opportunity it presented to make money. 

“We felt the market demand in China would be so fast and furious that we would have to compromise on workmanship and skill and consider giving up some of our other relationships to fulfill demand. We have built these relationships over many years and we weren’t prepared to do that. We don’t believe in commoditisation, it’s against everything we stand for.” says Cindi. 

The company, likes to take on 2-3 apprentices a year to become leatherworkers, but the business requires expertise and technique to cut and make its goods and that takes time to develop. For this reason it cannot be volume driven and so expansion and growth have to happen slowly. 

“DIT has been a trusted partner for close to four decades. They understand our business and that although we are commercial; we are not always driven purely by the need to make more and more money. They respect our principles."

The company, with the support of DIT, also undertook detailed research in Sweden and Denmark but after meeting many partners and exploring opportunities it was decided that the brand was not suitable for the Scandinavian markets. 

In Russia, the recent economic downturn has hampered what was a growing and profitable market for Owen Barry. 

“The good thing about export is that you mitigate business risk by being exposed to a number of markets but it can be frustrating when you invest in a relationship with a distributor or agent and consumer feedback is positive but factors outside your control affect sales and growth,” says Cindi. 

Future Proofing the Business 

Owen Barry is still committed to export but is exploring the potential of taking its online presence to the next level and developing a direct to consumer ecommerce business model that allows the company to secure a higher margin and work in limited editions thus protecting the integrity of the brand and its products.

“Our e-commerce clients come to us directly because they want to buy British and they buy into our values. The spread of where demand is coming from is truly global. This is also export but a different type of export that allows us to maintain so much more control over our brand and get to know our customers directly,” commented Cindi. 

“Owen Barry is a great example of a bespoke British brand exporting on their own terms and making collective decisions as a family based on what’s best for their employees, business and their brand. They are designing for and supplying products specifically developed for each individual region, which is very unusual in fashion retail and a completely bespoke approach. By not flooding the market they keep demand high and are building a sustainable long term business model,”

Hilary Charman, International Trade Adviser, Department for International Trade. 

Owen Barry is going through a period of innovation and development. The company is collaborating with Harris Tweed on a handbag range in order to show its support for quality British craftsmanship. It is also partnering in 2016 with Glastonbury Festival on a number of eco-friendly initiatives using waste product. The business is developing new products including a range of interiors. It’s also looking to further build its presence in US and Japan and is exploring opportunities in South Korea and Europe. Market specific “famous” designer collaborations are in the pipeline. The company has also recently employed its first third generation member of the Barry family, Chas, Cindi’s daughter. 

Despite all the international business opportunities it is exposed to and the global outlook of the company, the Owen Barry family’s roots are firmly in Street in Somerset and they are very connected to their team, community and town.

“We’re an ambitious company but our commitment to our values has helped us to develop a long term sustainable business model which will hopefully be watched over by many generations of the Barry family and also help keep the traditional leatherworking skills of Street alive,” concludes Cindi. 

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