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Twenty years strong

Denise and Alan Edwards have enjoyed an amazing journey together in business. Both had established careers holding senior management positions in large businesses, in the hospitality and utilities sectors, before bringing these backgrounds together to form Best Kept Secrets.

Tell us a bit about Best Kept Secrets?

Alan: In 1996 we bought Best Kept Secrets with a nominal investment and an even smaller customer base. The products sold were wax face masks and wax candles and we operated from a small workshop on a farm. The owners of the farm turned the whole complex into a Farm Park, creating an exceptional visitor centre and attraction. Best Kept Secrets thrived in this environment, establishing a retail gift shop, building on the significant visitor base. The business quickly emerged as a seven-day business, with retail sales exceeding the manufacturing for wholesale.

However, in 2001, Britain was hit by foot and mouth disease. The source of the disease was just a few miles away from our site in Northumberland and although the Farm Park was not affected, the farm closed for over three months. It was during this time Denise took on the challenge of manufacturing hand-poured scented candles. This single decision and the fall out of foot and mouth changed the direction of the company forever and forged the business today, which now has hundreds of customers nationally.

Denise: In 2010, we decided to concentrate solely on candle sales to retailers and moved away from the direct sales and the retail gift shop, and the following year Alan was appointed President of The British Candlemakers Federation (BCF) for a two-year period. The BCF brings together the leading candle makers and suppliers from the whole of the UK and liaises with its many European partners to improve standards. We received national recognition with multiple nominations at the Giftware Association's Gift of the Year awards, and participated at trade shows from Scotland's Trade Fair to Spring Fair to Home and Gift in Harrogate. Best Kept Secrets' reputation as a premium quality hand-poured manufacturer of candles was now well established and as the owners of the business, we became easily recognised at the trade shows.

In 2013, we decided to acquire the Dundee-based Thistle Soaps, makers of natural hand-made soaps. The whole soap making operation was moved to Northumberland and a new soaperie opened next to our candle-works. The two product lines complemented each other perfectly, and this helped create growth in the business as the operation expanded to meet increased demand. Then in 2015, we made a further acquisition, Sepia Fragranced Gifts. The purpose was to be able to offer customers a wider range of gifts, all geared to the strapline Seriously Scented. This has proved an extremely popular move allowing customer a one-stop-shop for all their fragranced gifts, soaps and candles, under the Seriously Scented guarantee.

How has the industry changed?

Alan: Some 20 years ago the focus was heavily on price. Imported products with their low production costs were at their peak. Since then there's been a recognisable change towards quality but at sensible prices. The brand Made in Britain is once again an important consideration for retail buyers and end user customers alike. Clearly the internet has had a significant impact on how purchases are made, but the public still like to touch, feel and smell a product. This means that whilst there may be fewer retail outlets now, they still remain buoyant.

What's key to your success?

Denise: Developing an excellent reputation for customer service, matched by an ability to produce innovative, high quality products, has driven our success. We've retained many of our original customers for over 10 years, and this has been driven by forming a long-term relationship and point of contact which is really valuable. Our ethos is very simple - provide the best possible product at a sensible price, and treat every customer with honesty and integrity. Innovation is also vitally important in business because trends change and for any business to succeed in the longer term, there must be a constant focus on the next generation of products.

What values are important to BKS?

Alan: Best Kept Secrets is blessed with a very loyal and hard-working workforce, which has been a significant factor in the long-term growth of the business. Two members of our team have been with the company for over 12 years and the age range is from a young 71 down to a grown up 19-year old. This reflects the diversity and wide range of individuals who've gelled to make a great team. We've always been quick to recognise and reward staff for their individual and collective contributions to the success of the business, which also helps massively with retaining our key team. Similarly, we have a loyal collection of UK suppliers, providing locally sourced products to the highest standard. This has ensured we maintain quality and have a supply chain which is both highly reliable and share Best Kept Secrets' focus on quality.

Tell us about your products.

Denise: The foundation for Best Kept Secrets' continued success has been the Seriously Scented candle tin range. We've both focused on extending the range and now have 60 different fragrances, so there really is something for everyone in every setting. An exceptional burn rate of over 50 hours each ensures the candles represent great value, and customers just keep coming back for more of their favourites. Classic Cotton, Freshly Baked Shortbread and Tuscan Velvet are just some of the all-year favourites. However, we're definitely not a one product company and now have an extensive range of fragranced gifts and products. Glass candles, wax heart melts, a newly packaged diffuser range, natural hand-made bath bursts, natural hand-made soap and, now, a stunning collection of fragranced gifts.

What are your favourite scents?

Denise: As a producer of hand-poured and hand-finished scented products across such a wide range, it's almost impossible to select a favourite scent. The easy answer is to say Classic Cotton, because this is the single biggest selling scented candle, but different people have different ideas about their favourites. I love Daisy Bouquet in summer and Snowflake in winter, whereas Alan likes Sweet Pea and Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh. It's just a question of taste, and the really important point is that at Best Kept Secrets, dozens of scents have been conceived and each receives the same care and attention in development. The seasons play an important part in customer's choice of scented products, so there's no straightforward answer to what's a best-selling or favourite scent.

New ranges

Alan: The acquisition of Sepia was a great coup as the business already had a reputation for innovative gifts. The product range is based around small fragranced gifts in attractive small bags and boxes, all aimed at the under £10 market. The gift range offers outstanding value and has already been a huge success for the business.

What trade shows do you visit and why?

Alan: We attend all the major UK trade shows - Spring and Autumn Fair, in Birmingham; Scotland's Trade Fair Spring and Autumn in Glasgow; and also Home & Gift in Harrogate. Trade shows are the perfect showcase for new and extended product ranges, but most importantly give us a vital opportunity to catch up with the retailers. Everyone uses the trade shows to provide insight into what products really work, and give essential feedback on our new products. We've never employed agents, and make a commitment to being a direct point of contact with every customer, so trade shows are the most important route to growing the business. 2015 was an extremely busy year in terms of product development and 2016 promises to be no different. After almost three years of acquisitions and product innovation, we intend to use 2016 to consolidate and grow our customer base of retailers in the UK, with great products, exceptional quality and the customer service, which has helped build our brand and most importantly our reputation.

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