Lessons from choosing a manufacturer

Lessons from choosing a manufacturer.


After spending several years in the kitchen concocting the formula for our An’du Shampoo bar, the assumption was that we could continue making our bars in the kitchen and start selling. Not so. On further enquiry Good Manufacturing Process needs to be followed - and manufacturing in a kitchen with a visiting dog and daily food consumption does not meet this standard - who knew!


So, outsourcing it was. We wanted UK manufacturing, both for the environment - the closer to home the less transport as well as  wanting to support UK manufacturers.


A few days of googling / ringing around later and we had our short list. We really liked a small family-owned company in North Wales. They were comfortable with small batches, friendly, helpful, and reactive to our problems. They didn’t like to work with powders so we had to change our formula once again - but we eventually came up with a formula that we were happy with, and they could manufacture for us.

It then seemed plain sailing, with  payment up front (seems to be the standard way), an order for 1000 Back to Basics bar was  made and 3 weeks later, like new parents, we cooed and fussed over our first ever delivery of shampoo bars.


To sell on the UK market several things need to be done - too many for this blog. A later blog will go through all the steps. Some you can do yourself, some you can pay money and get someone else to do. However, we undertook all the steps and, job done. We really didn’t understand why people keep on saying running a small business is so difficult.


Emboldened by our first sales and high on the excitement and newness of running our own business we developed 4 more bars - one for dry and damaged hair, one for dandruff hair, one for oily hair and one for our male hair care range.


This development process was done in conjunction with our manufacturer over the winter of 21/22. We planned to launch our bars at the Hampton Court Flower show in Summer 2022.


But problems started in the Spring of 2022. The company that had been ‘same day responding’  to queries started taking weeks to respond, they were slow to help, and time was ticking away. We asked to come and visit them, but some excuse was made, and the visit never happened. Weeks went by and no response was given to e-mails. Phone calls went un- answered. In hindsight, at this stage, now, I would seriously consider pulling out. We are talking thousands of pounds worth of bars. It is difficult to pull out however, you are invested with a company and spent many hours in the development stage, that would have to start all over again.


When we did manage to talk to them, we were promised that the bars would be made to meet our deadline. What we did not know at the time was that the company was in severe financial difficulties, that they were wanting our money to pay off outstanding debts and that other customers were having the same difficulty.


On the first day of Hampton Court Flower show the bars had not arrived. The stall cost over £1,000, took 2 days to build and on the first day  we only had one product to sell -  our Back-to-Basics shampoo bar. On that day  we took payments for imaginary bars  and orders with promises to post on once they had arrived. We took the hit on the postage.


Our full range arrived the morning of the second day, and as always in a small company, family members muck in, so  my husband got a selection of the bars, packed them in their cases then hopped on his scooter and scooted them over, by  Tuesday afternoon our display was complete.


It didn’t stop there however, halfway through the flower festival , the manufacturer’s lovely employee with whom we had most dealings  told us that she had been made redundant via  an intermediary . She was understandably upset, the other employee who helped make our bars on the shop floor also contacted us saying that he had lost his job and was owed 2 months wages - he was devastated. I was unable to get hold of the owners , they had over £1,000 of raw materials of ours along with the recipes for our bars. There was now complete radio silence, they did not answer calls or reply to e mails. We were left with no choice; we had lost our raw materials and the exact quantities and how they made the bar on a semi-industrial scale was gone.


A search on Companies House showed that they had gone into administration. The friendly employee did send us a what’s app image detailing some of the manufacturing process of our Back-to-Basics bar. The rest was lost.


Where to go from here? Our raw materials gone. Detailed descriptions of the manufacturing process lost, and some of the fun was lost. Enthusiasm needs to be fed, once  when doing a winter show, my neighbouring stall - an old timer who had put in many years - gave wise words along the line of  ‘ you must keep the fun in what you’re doing or else you run out of enthusiasm’.  The manufacture’s  unwillingness  to communicate - a business version of ghosting had left a sour taste in the mouth. After doing some digging,  I discovered that other companies were left with orders unfulfilled. We were relatively lucky.


Throughout the autumn we looked for another manufacturing company. Again, with  some googling,  we found one in Suffolk. This time we pledged to visit first, which we duly did. The place was a converted barn and a bit more ‘home-made’ than I had expected. The owners were friendly and assured us they were capable to making up our order. We signed on and asked for sample bars to be made.

Months followed with excuse after excuse as to why the sample bars did not arrive.

They did answer the ‘phone and one reason given for not sending the sample bars  was they were in the middle of the country and could not get the package to a post office. I offered to arrange for courier pick up - that made the owner  say that his sister would post the samples tomorrow as he did not wish to wait until 8 pm which was the latest the courier might arrive. A bit bizarre to think that the samples had been made and were waiting to be posted.

Four days later a parcel from them arrived, when we opened it had a size 18 fuchsia pink cotton dress in it. Instead of sending the parcel to our home address as requested, they sent it to our registered address (which is  on the side of our packets). We rung our registered address company who were clear that they had forwarded it correctly. The Royal mail asked that the sender lodge a lost parcel complaint , having no faith that they would do this , I also  lodged one. The picture shown on the Royal Mail tracking system was identified as the wrong one by our manufacturer, the label written by our shampoo manufacturer was covering a label written to a third party (who presumably had lost a fuchsia pink dress). My assumption was that 'our' label had come off and got stuck on the wrong parcel. The shampoo manufacturer opted to try to find the lost parcel. 15 days later the Royal Mail sent a polite letter saying they had been unable to trace our parcel. I wrote to the manufacturer - who had not communicated in that time- advising that after several months we still did not have any sample bars and we were  halting the contract.

Were we just very unlucky or is this fairly standard? Certainly , for us, finding a good manufacturer who did what they say they will do was more difficult than initially thought.


In finding our third manufacturer we asked  friends and companions that we had made during the past year as a business. On recommendation we settled on the third manufacturer in Wiltshire, who  asked me to purchase some of   the more unusual  raw materials for the sample bars. I now realise that the second manufacturer had not been straight with the truth  as one of the raw materials had stopped being sold in small amounts forcing me  to purchase a 23 lit drum costing over £1,000. How then could the second manufacture have made our bars to our specification and not mentioned that they had to make this purchase on our behalf?

My assumption is that the bars they made did not contain everything that we asked them to contain. Trust and reputation are everything. You are not there on the production line when the bars are being made. The company tells you what is in them - and it is their reputation on the line as well as yours.


Our third set of samples were made with ease, and we are in the process of ordering our second batch of Back-to-Basics bar - almost two  years on from our first manufacturer going under.


So, what are the lessons learnt ?

Undertake due diligence of the company first - Companies House is not enough - the North Wales company was registered at Companies House - until it wasn’t! The company in the East of England is still registered and has made a profit this year - yet with us they were untrustworthy.

 In my humble opinion the best due diligence you can do is follow up on  recommendations from a third party who you trust.

Visiting the manufacturer is also important, we visited our second manufacturer - and should have had alarm bells ringing at the small size of it - don’t ignore any alarm bells.


Finally , once you have found a company try to get to know who you are dealing with - visit them if possible and try to make relationships with their employees. I don’t mean take them out for drinks, just speak to them on the ‘phone, attempt to  stick with one person. Follow your instincts if things don’t feel right - then they probably aren’t.

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