Small Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Going for growth - Leanne Holdsworth, Return to Sender

This week, Small Business editor Caitlin Sykes talks to business owners about growth aspirations.
Leanne Holdsworth, a founder and director of Return to Sender.
Leanne Holdsworth, a founder and director of Return to Sender.

Leanne Holdsworth is a founder and director of casket maker Return to Sender.

What are your aspirations for growth in your business this year?

The first thing to say is that 18 months ago we had two percent of the national coffin market. We currently have eight percent of that market, and by the end of 2016 we're going to have 12 percent. We started this business very much as a niche casket maker, so for us that's been big growth.

What's put you on that recent growth path?

We worked quite closely with [business growth centre] the Icehouse to find ways to create step change in the business. We have a real difference we want to make in the world; we want every family to have the opportunity to have an environmentally considered casket and one that reflects the kind of life they lived.

That's the idea we had nine years ago when we started the business and we were doing that in a very small way, so we were looking at ways we could expose our ideas to a much larger group. The way we did that was by creating a partnership with our largest client - Davis Funerals - who bought a 50 percent stake in the business. Now all of their caskets are Return to Sender, and the partnership has given them a practical way of putting their money where their mouth is in terms of caring for the environment. And partnering with a well-regarded and traditional funeral home has given us more credibility in the market.

Do you also sell your caskets through other channels and, if so, what are some of your strategies for growing those sales?

We do - we sell our caskets all over the country to any funeral home that wants to offer their families those choices. We're looking at some quite creative ways of using the media to promote our products at the moment and we're also looking at working in partnership more. There are a number of organisations that are supportive of people being able to plan ahead and who also see the value in ensuring people have the kind of farewell they really want. So we're thinking more broadly about how to partner with those organisations rather than working in isolation.

Also we have our toes in the water in two export markets - Australia and the US. The work we've done so far has shown there's quite a big opportunity for us to do the kind of thing we've done domestically in other markets.

On the flip side to those opportunities, what are some of the constraints you're dealing with in terms of growth?

One that we face is communicating with the end user before they're in a rushed position. Communicating with the end user at all is hard when you're not a retailer, because you're relying on the channel pretty much to be your sales representative. They really need to deeply understand the difference you're trying to make in the world, so a big part of our job is education.

We're also wanting to encourage people to have conversations early enough so they think their decisions through. We're working quite hard on a pull strategy at the moment, looking at creative ways of engaging with the end user, which if it's successful will mean people will walk into a funeral home and say 'we'd like a casket that really reflects mum', or 'we'd like a casket that has a small environmental footprint', or 'we'd like a Return to Sender casket'.

What the biggest lesson you've learnt about managing growth effectively in your business?

Something we've done a lot of is use people who know a lot more than we do. You only know what you know, and there's so much that you don't know that you don't know. We've received an awful lot of value from experts and from doing things like entering awards and utilising external facilitators.

It's also been important for us to generate a team that shares the vision and are passionate about the difference we want to make in the world. There are 11 of us in the team now and 18 months ago there were two-and-a-half. As we've grown our team, we've grown a real strength of purpose, which I think helps us articulate that more clearly to the people who use our products.

- NZ Herald

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