Family run butcher's Haigs managed to reignite a passion for their business

When it comes to thinking of new ways to raise the profile of family business, Haigs, Julie Haig has an impressive track record. In 2014 the fresh food business harnessed World Cup fever by creating a different sausage for each country taking part, generating social media engagement and increased footfall into the shop.

When Simon Cowell told an unlucky Britain’s Got Talent contestant 'There are certain things that don’t go well together, like sticking a bowl of strawberry ice-cream with a sausage', Haigs jumped on the opportunity. They tweeted the reality show their intention to make a sausage containing ice cream, attracting local press involvement, and generating priceless publicity for their small business.

Despite a lack of formal marketing or business training, Haig clearly has a skill for spotting PR opportunities and she took the time to discuss how she's continuing to develop her skills.

'Doing the quirky stuff gets you noticed. You have to be different. You have to be current and stay tuned in to what is going on.'

Haigs is a family business established in 2007 by James and Julie Haig. It is a specialist award-winning food hall situated in the heart of Aberdeen city centre, specialising in fresh meat, fresh fruit and veg, bakery and pies.

Initially, Haig had very limited involvement in the business. 'I had a full time job as a broadcast monitor but agreed to do the books in my spare time to support the business,' she explains. 'Then I got made redundant and was flung in at the deep end working in the shop.'

In 2011, in search of a bigger business opportunity and keen to move back to Scotland with their young family, the husband and wife team decided to invest in an empty retail unit in Aberdeen.

'Looking back it was ambitious,' laughs Haig. 'We sold the Coventry shop, packed up our refrigerators and everything else, and drove up the motorway with strong winds buffeting the high-sided vehicles. The new property was at least 10 times bigger than our shop in Coventry and spread across two floors. It took us 2 months to get hold of the keys and then we had just 6 weeks to do a complete refurbishment.'

From the beginning they knew they wanted to do things differently. 'We decided we didn’t want the usual over-the-counter approach. Other butchers thought we were mad but we wanted to target people buying pre-packed meat in supermarkets rather than customers already buying meat from local butchers.' They installed a viewing window on the second floor so customers could still see where the meat was coming from, if they wanted to. This also had the benefit of reducing cross contamination from staff handling both money and meat.

'The first two years were hard work. We were on the shop floor every day telling customers about the origin of our products and giving away samples of our products to taste. There were times when we wondered if we had made the right decision but slowly over time the business grew and we now employ 16 people, sell a wide range of fresh food produce and offer a mobile shop service too.'

Help to Grow: Management

Haig heard about the Help to Grow: Management Course taking place in Glasgow and then received an email from Robert Gordon University offering the course closer to home. It felt like the right time to invest in her leadership skills and the future of the business.

'Everything I do for our business, from marketing to finance, I taught myself or learnt on the job. I didn’t get the chance to go to university but the experience of teaching my son during lockdown, and watching my daughter doing a business course at university, reignited my passion for learning. I really wanted to do some learning for myself but the business had to benefit too.'

Haig started the Help to Grow: Management Course at Robert Gordon University in January 2022.

'The course was a lot better than I thought it would be. It was really interesting. I was worried that I wouldn’t have the ability to do the work, and that I wouldn’t have the time between existing business and family commitments, but the course fitted around my work more easily than I expected. Sessions with peers were timetabled on a Monday when we’re quieter in the shop and because RGU gave me all the dates in advance, I was able to organise cover for Wednesday afternoons in advance.'

'The Help to Grow: Management Course was really good. The lecturers at Robert Gordon University are really passionate about their subject but they were also really understanding of the fact that every course participant was also responsible for a business I learnt a lot from the course but it also reinforced that we were doing a lot well already.'

Inspired business marketing

'Going on the course made me realise that I had become focused on the day-to-day running of the business and wasn’t dedicating as much time to marketing as I had in the past. We had been active on Facebook for a while but it wasn’t achieving the same reach as it used to.'

Inspired by the marketing module in week 5, Haig invested in some radio ads with local radio show Original FM and then spotted another golden opportunity for PR.

'I heard a DJ moaning about pies on the radio and acted on it straight away. I persuaded one of the radio station staff who regularly visit our shop to take a Haig pie into the radio station. We got 7 minutes of them speaking about our pies on local prime time radio. The DJ test-tasted our pastry and gravy. You can’t buy that type of marketing! This led to a lot more people coming into our shop. The Help to Grow: Management Course made me start thinking about this type of quirky, promotional activity again.'

The confidence to diversify

Haig quickly put what she had learnt from the Vision, Mission and Values module into practice by evolving the slogans in use around the business into keywords communicating their mission. A local graphic designer was commissioned to create signs with these keywords to display around the shop.

The biggest impact came, however, with a brand new product range launched in May 2022. 'In a business like ours it’s essential you keep diversifying. We had been thinking about adding a food-to-go section for a while but were nervous about making the investment.'

Haig firmly attributes the Help to Grow: Management Course with giving them the confidence to take the plunge and start offering take away products including cooked meats and salads at lunchtime.

'The course gave me the confidence to go for it. I put what I had learnt about marketing strategy and the 4 Ps into practice. People tell us that our prices are low but we aren’t cheap; it’s the right price for a product we make ourselves. Because we are making the product, we can price competitively. The timing of the launch was perfect with people returning to work after lockdown and looking for a tasty lunch. It has been really popular, really successful.'

Through this diversification, Haigs has been successful in attracting a new segment of clients who they hope will come back after work and buy fresh meat to cook at home. The new food range also includes cakes made by a local baker so Haigs has been able to help other businesses to find new markets for their products too.

During the Help to Grow: Management Course, all course participants receive 10 hours of 1-2-1 mentoring. This includes support to develop a Growth Action Plan tailored to the challenges and opportunities of each business. 'Completing a Growth Action Plan during the Help to Grow: Management Course provided Haigs with the increased confidence to plan for the next 10 years. As a result we have a signed a new long-term lease on our premises.'

A network of support

In addition to the academic staff and the 1-2-1 mentor, Haig found the support of the other small business leaders on the course really valuable. 'I shared my ideas about the new venture with my peers on the course and they all encouraged me. I just thought what is the worst thing that can happen?' Incidentally, Haigs has also started selling honey produced by one of the small business leaders in his spare time. 'The honey is very popular. We also use it for a chicken dish in our food-to-go range.'

Haig concludes, 'the course has opened up a number of opportunities for our small business. We are hoping to take on a 6-month placement student from Robert Gordon University who will help us achieve a lot more on the marketing front. We are also going to get a lot from my relationship with the peers and the alumni events. I’m really looking forward to what the Help to Grow: Management Alumni Network can offer.'

'On a personal level, I have applied and been accepted for a BA (Hons) in Business Management with Robert Gordon University. The course is online so suitable to fit around my existing business commitments. Without the Help to Grow: Management Course, I would never have known about this opportunity, or had the confidence to apply. It’s really amazing what the course can lead to, it has given me the confidence to know that I can achieve my dream of getting a degree.'

Find out more about Help to Grow: Management here.

Written by Kristel Jarvis, Head of Marketing and Communications at the Small Business Charter.

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