So the sermon goes, ‘the good shepherd lays down their life for their sheep’
– but it might be harder for them to give up their hut. Especially if it’s been hand crafted from sustainably sourced British oak and comes fully insulated with a wood-burning stove or cast iron electric radiator, ready to withstand the most erratic of the British weather’s mood swings.
Established in 2000, Plankbridge have made over five hundred shepherd’s huts from their rural workshop, to ‘snug’, ‘cabin’ and custom made specifications, which have been shipped to locations around the world.
Of course their owners tend not be involved in looking after livestock. The huts are used typically as a garden office or holiday let.
Richard Lee, founder, finds a photo of his twenty-two year old self making a chair during his college furniture-making course to illustrate the company’s roots in the arts and crafts movement. “It’s not all about the end product,” he explains. “It’s about the process of making.” He describes how he sometimes arrives at work in the morning to the “cool vibe” of a mouth organ filling the 15,000sqft workshop; “It’s one of the team writing blues songs before the day starts. Why should it be any other way?” he happily contemplates.
Training at furniture designer John Makepeace’s Hooke Park college gave Lee his start in carpentry and creativity. “Hooke Park College could be anything you wanted it to be. It was the freedom we were given as makers which has led me to where I am now,” he says. The company really got going in 2007, with Lee inspired after discovering an old victorian shepherd’s hut in a field near a cottage once occupied by author Thomas Hardy.
“One hut led to another and we outgrew our workshop at home, which was on former watercress beds that have since become a wetland nature reserve,” explains Lee. “Now we’re situated in a former grain store on a nearby farm.” He says the company’s rural location is in part due to him wanting to prove a school teacher wrong. “I remember being fourteen and our teacher telling us ‘you’ll all end up working somewhere in a city one day’. But I thought, ‘well, I’m not!’ I’ve always wanted to do my own thing.”
In fact, Lee’s approaches business in much the same way as one might learn a craft. “All of it comes from experience; you’ve got to let time do its thing,” he suggests. “I use the analogy of building a house. You can’t wave a wand and suddenly the roof is on; you have to understand there is a stage-by-stage
process, much of which you learn from your mistakes. We did have a ten- year plan, which I kind of mapped out in my mind and said ‘this is where I hope we’ll be’, and we’ve achieved that. But you have to evolve along the way and learn to make changes. For example, we used to make our repeatable design huts with a known build method in the same space as our custom-made designs. Now, we make our custom made models in a separate bay because it is a different process to our standard designs and therefore takes longer to finish. You only get these insights from experience.”
Lee says his seventeen staff learn a lot from being around the right people. “It’s important to get the team dynamic right, so these days when I’m looking for new employees I deliberately go for attitude more than what might appear to be a relevant background,” he says. “Our recruitment process is me trying to get the right mix of quirkiness and the right attitude; there’s no formula. We have an apprentice here because I met his father in a supermarket and he explained his son was looking for work, and after a three-month trial period he really settled in and is a highly valued member of the team. Two of the chaps we have at the moment have come over from France, and we’ve also had three boat builders who have all bought their niche abilities and have showed us how we could do things in different ways.
“One of our makers can’t measure with a tape, he’s numerically dyslexic, but he’s one of the most skilled makers I know. You can’t have people being written off for not being able to do something; I’ve always been more interested in what they can do rather than what they can’t.”
While Plankbridge are in an appropriately rural location for what they make, it would be a mistake to describe the presentation of the company as having a rustic tone. Their website describes1 the products as having ‘heirloom quality’, that they have been built with ‘traditional craftsmanship for contemporary living’.
And there’s something Lee has in common with the founder of Microsoft. “Public relations and marketing has been a priority from the outset, says Lee. “We sat down as a team with a PR consultancy and had a brainstorm where we selected our core values, which must never change as we evolve. I agree with what Bill Gates said: ‘If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations’. I’m a great believer in PR and I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t invest in it. Good marketing is everything, and good PR means communicating an understanding of us and what we’re doing in a succinct way.”
Looking back, Lee says he wouldn’t have done anything differently. “Sometimes you have to get it wrong to know what to do right,” he muses. “I can’t say I would change anything, because then I wouldn’t be where I am today. Then again I wouldn’t go back and do it all again, because why would you? It’s true that you learn more from your mistakes, and what I would say is act on your instincts quicker – just because you’ve got your doubts about something, that shouldn’t mean you then wait to make a change.”