America Embraces Shetland Tannery
Published: 28 Aug 2015
Shetland’s only tannery, The Shetland Tannery, has hit the right note with the American market thanks to its clever use of social media.
Set up in October 2012 by Natalie Cairns-Ratter and her husband Tom Ratter, after gaining advice from Business Gateway Shetland, the Ollaberry-based business counts residents of New York, Florida and Washington as customers.
The company has also fielded inquiries from a Hollywood production company as well as an LA interior designer.
SO NATALIE, WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?
My background is in agriculture, I worked previously in the veterinary industry and the fisheries sector, so always had a passion and interest in animal science. Before I entered agriculture, I studied classical music and I still teach violin part time today.
DID YOU PLAN TO EVENTUALLY HAVE YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
Yes, as I was always looking for something more in my previous employment. The idea of starting with an idea and growing the concept into a business has always excited me, as I love planning.
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR THE TANNERY COME ABOUT?
I was on a high fashion website and looking at expensive handbags made of calf skin, and it got me thinking what happens to our sheepskins and cowhides at our local slaughter house in Lerwick, so I contacted them and asked if i could buy the hides and skins, and thats how the process began.
HOW DID YOU MAKE IT A REALITY?
I contacted our local animal health division, as working with animal by products, you have to do things properly, and with a lot of help and support from animal health and environmental health, I began to work with the skins. I also did a lot of research and attended a course in Northampton to see if I could actually do the process. But as it is a science, you have to respect and keep up to date with the processes all of the time and continue your professional development.
Having never been my own boss I also went to Business Gateway for help, as I had a vision and needed direction and someone to help me find out if my idea could become a business.
They made me focus and think strategically; their support has been invaluable as they paired me with an adviser who works within the agriculture/animal science industry, so straight away they could relate to my vision and see the potential my business had.
WHAT IS IT LIKE RUNNING THE BUSINESS? WHAT IS YOUR ROLE WITHIN IT?
Running a business is great and hard at the same time. It is a lot of responsibility but very satisfying and rewarding simultaneously. When running a business you have to drive it and push it forward the whole time, as no one else will.
But overall it is the best thing I have done so far, as I get to work with chemistry everyday, as well as building a brand, selling to customers and managing the accounts.
It is such a varied job, you never get bored. My role is handcrafting our sheepskins and goatskins and taking them to finished products to sell to direct customers at our workshop,
I love that every skin is different and every skin belonged to an animal who had a good life on Shetland, and to be able to capture the beauty of Shetland and translate it into our products, I feel very lucky and inspired every day.
I also manage the wholesale side of the business. My husbands role, is to maintain the technical side of the tannery making sure the machines are in working order, and keeping me in check.
HOW HAS THE BUSINESS GROWN OVER THE YEARS?
The business started from one idea of taking a waste product and turning it into a finished high quality product.
We started from nothing in October 2013 and now in our second year are going from strength to strength.
We now have our workshop open to tourists who can buy direct and we also sell online and to other shops in Lerwick. We are also establishing links with retailers in central Scotland.
DID YOU HAVE ANY AIMS FOR IT? TO EXPAND INTO GLOBAL MARKETS FOR EXAMPLE?
We have expanded naturally into global market by our online presence on social media and our website, so it has happened quite naturally for us.
YOU RECENTLY BROKE THE AMERICAN MARKET. HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
Again by visitors coming to us and by use of social media and our website
WHAT SORT OF CLIENTS ARE YOU GETTING FROM THE AMERICAN MARKET?
Clients vary, we have had mainly gift orders and bulk orders from interior designers and we had inquiries from a film producer too. But we will continue to build our presence and hopefully one day make it on the big screen.
It’s always exciting when an inquiry or an order comes in from overseas as it means what we are making has global appeal and how we are promoting it really works.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR THE TANNERY?
Next for us is to re brand, take on more staff and continue to grow as a brand.
WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE GOAL?
Our ultimate goal would be to be recognised around the world for our products and our brand. it would be incredible to think as The Shetland Tannery sheepskins and products associated as easily as shetland fair isle is to Shetland.