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A step ahead

Charlotte Gillan, Managing Director of Classic Canes Limited, guides us through the ins and outs of the family business

Charlotte Gillan, Managing Director of Classic Canes Limited, guides us through the ins and outs of the family business

When and how did Classic Canes launch?
Classic Canes was launched in 1982. My parents, Ben and Diana Porter, had bought a ruined house set in a Somerset woodland in the late '70s. As they restored the house, it gradually became apparent that the surrounding woodland was producing large quantities of naturally regenerating ash: the perfect raw material for traditional walking sticks. Enquiries made to local shopkeepers revealed that there would be good demand for a range of walking sticks, and so Classic Canes was established to supply this market.

Who runs the business?
Classic Canes is family owned and run. There are two directors: myself and my mother. My father is semi-retired now and is a shareholder.

Do the team all do a lot of walking in their spare time?
Very much so. I'm a keen long distance walker and have completed walks such as the South West Coast Path (630 miles), the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path (186 miles) and the King Ludwig Way in Bavaria (80 miles). My parents are keen walkers too and many of our employees enjoy walking in Somerset and further afield during weekends and holidays. We always take Classic Canes trekking poles, hiking staffs or thumbsticks; as well as being a good opportunity for product testing, they add immensely to the enjoyment of the walk.

What values are important to Classic Canes?
Quality and style are behind everything we do. We're not interested in cheap, poor quality products. We use the traditional forestry practice of 'coppice-with-standards'. This is a very ecologically-friendly process whereby smaller ash trees are regularly cut so they produce new shoots for walking sticks, whilst larger ones grow on for timber above. The coppicing system allows a lot of light to reach the forest floor, encouraging the growth of native wild flowers and the birds, insects and mammals that require this habitat.

Describe your product offering
The Classic Canes range comprises over 650 models of walking sticks, seat sticks and umbrellas. These range from the very traditional through to contemporary models made from acrylic, set with Swarovski crystals or vivid printed patterns such as leopard print.

What are your current best-sellers?
We sell to a very wide variety of shops, from gift shops to country clothing stores and gentlemen's outfitters. The best-sellers vary according to the type of customer, but folding canes, ladies' patterned canes, classic, everyday walking sticks and traditional hiking staffs are popular with almost all retailers.

Do you visit trade shows?
This year we're exhibiting at four, all in the UK. They are Spring Fair, BETA (British Equestrian Trade Association fair, for the country clothing customers), Autumn Fair and a fair specific to the healthcare and mobility industry: Trade Days. Spring Fair is the largest, but in recent years we've found Autumn Fair to be performing strongly.

Do you have any tips for new traders?
Do a few things well rather than dip a toe into lots of different product ranges and end up with a 'spotty' effect. If you're going to sell walking sticks, for example, you need a good range to have impact and appeal to the many different types of people who will walk through the door. Shops that look as if they are experts in the products they sell will always be much more memorable than ones that look as if they went mad at Spring Fair.

Why do your customers keep coming back?
Pleasingly, they seem to: we have a few customers that have been with us for more than 30 years and a great many that are now at 20 plus. Looking through the testimonials page on our website, the main themes are the quality and design of the walking sticks, the efficiency and expertise of the service, and that retailers seem to enjoy working with a family business where the contacts are always the same and great attention is paid to the specific requirements of each retailer.

Tell us a bit about your charitable work and your ambassadors.
Our brand ambassadors are two disabled riders who both need to use walking sticks when they are not on their horses. Natasha Baker MBE, who won two gold medals for Great Britain in the dressage events at the London Paralympics in 2012, promotes our ladies' walking sticks. If all goes well, she'll be competing at Rio, equipped with her Classic Canes Union Jack flag walking sticks.

Edward Chanin is a former jockey who was paralysed down one side in a fall from a racehorse, he's our second ambassador. He also competes in para dressage and is hoping for the introduction of para show jumping. He uses long sticks such as thumbsticks for support.

Can you tell us about any new launches?
We launch new products every spring and autumn, partly to keep pace with changing fashions and partly to ensure our customers always have something new to offer their regular customers. This autumn's new launches will include height-adjustable canes in autumn leaf colours designs and some new folding sticks with retro floral and abstract patterns.

Classic Canes
T: +44 (0)1460 75686