Alice Wingfield Digby, 31, founder and CEO of Wingfield Digby London, the only luxury retail brand to handcraft real feathers into its designs. Alice’s unique, nature-inspired products are stocked in 40 stores nationwide (including Fenwick and Highgrove), at leading events across the UK and from their thriving e-commerce site. The brand is popular with celebrities and royalty alike; Wingfield Digby even popped up at a private sale by invitation of HRH Prince Charles at Clarence House last year.
Alice’s eye-catching gifts are continually commended by interiors experts, leading lifestyle magazines & country networks. Notably, Alice’s Real Duck Feather Photo Frame was named ‘Product of the Year’ by House and Garden magazine; her other home accessories have featured in Country Life, Country & Town House and FT How To Spend It. Alice thoroughly enjoys collaborating with fellow family-run, luxury British brands and Royal Warrant holders; which has to date resulted in successful campaigns with the likes of Rococco Chocolates, Tusting, Huntsman, Ettinger and Nyetimber.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Having begun the business from the kitchen table and grown the business slowly, I have performed pretty much every role within the company. That experience gives me incredible insight into the challenges and excitements of each role. That understanding and in-depth knowledge enables me to lead in a very insightful way, also to be extremely appreciative for what each person does.
How has your previous employment experience aided your current role?
My previous role in online marketing has given me first-hand experience of the power of online, both social media and search engine marketing. Through amazing advances in technology in the past decade, it is possible to tailor marketing based on customers’ preferences and interests. Aside from the technical experience, it was also a small start-up so we faced many of the challenges that we ourselves are going through now. It is very interesting seeing the challenges from the other side of the table.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your current role?
Being selected as an upcoming British Brand and being asked to exhibit at Clarence House at a private event by invitation only of HRH Prince Charles was a huge honour and definitely a highlight.
Another highlight was getting into our first department store, Fenwick’s in 2017. Going from the first point of contact, to products stocked on the shelves, is often a lengthy journey requiring strong relationship building and a tremendous effort from the whole team. When it finally happens, it’s an amazing feeling. I feel it is really important to celebrate all the highs and enjoy the journey.
As an entrepreneur, there is a different challenge every day, that’s part of what I love about it. We have experienced phenomenal growth over the past 3 years, with the sales doubling some years. It can be hard to predict when growth will exceed expectations, as well as being great news, it also leads to many logistical challenges. Getting large orders to far flung destinations, having enough staff to get to all the events as well as keeping on top of day to day customer needs.
In addition to the rapid growth spurts, an additional challenge is the seasonality of the business. Like many retail gifting brands, the latter part of year leading up to Christmas sees a large proportion of our annual sales. We stock over 40 stores, in addition to over 40 days of events and experience exponential growth in our online sales during the last 4 months of the year. To accommodate this demand and to maximize the opportunities this presents, we hire a lot of extra staff for the festive period. Despite the additional man power, the team never-the-less feel very stretched. Keeping communication and morale up whilst everyone is very busy and tired can be a challenge. A chain is only as good as its’ weakest link, in the same way it’s important to each member of the team is supported, appreciated and well managed. As you can imagine this is an annual challenge but also hugely rewarding.
What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
For women looking to start a retail business, you will be in good company. There are some fantastic female retail founders, lots of fantastic role models in this industry.
Whilst this can be a more flexible career path, allowing you to fit the work around family or other commitments there are a few things to consider. A retail business that requires holding stock of products will mean challenging cash flow at times. Each year as the business grows you will need to buy larger quantities of stock to fulfil the growing demand, this can mean profits need to be reinvested into the company. This can be eased by making product in small batches and pre-selling but if you are requiring a salary during the first few years, you may need to consider taking investment or working part time to supplement your income.
In terms of launching a product or range, my advice would be to get your products in front of people to get feedback. The best feedback is whether customers will buy or not. Don’t take on large stock quantities and big expenses too early on. Avoid spending where you don’t have to. Often people feel they need to spend tens of thousands of pounds on a website – in my opinion this simply isn’t true. Do research and find ways of doing things yourself or find better value freelancers to help.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?
It is important to keep learning no matter what stage you’re at. Whether it’s reading, podcasts or mentors – there’s a wealth of knowledge available, learn from other’s relatable experiences and get encouragement throughout your journey.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It can be tough, particularly as retail can be so seasonal, so it’s essential to capitalise on the busy gifting times. There are definitely times of the year when the balance is heavily weighted towards work, I have learned that I can’t do everything so I have to clear my diary to ensure I get enough rest and time out. To balance it out though I ensure at quieter times of the year I do shorter days and take more time off. As a rule of thumb, I don’t work after 9pm, which helps my mind to switch off and also helps me get a good night sleep.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Preconceived and outdated ideas of women, in particular, related to performance after having children. Of course, having children is a life changing situation, I became a mother last year and it is the most amazing experience. However, like many women, I love my job and have worked hard to get here. I believe employers should work with mothers, understand their personal goals and allow flexibility on hours and days worked. Each situation should be assessed on the individual not preconceived ideas.
How can we encourage more women to start their own business?
By creating more mentoring schemes, showcasing more female role models and encouraging flexible working which allows people more time for working on their own projects.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I would have loved a mentor throughout the building of my business, but there hasn’t been a specific person. I have sought out advice on key areas from a variety of people as the business has evolved, which is always a good option.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Queen Elizabeth, she’s lead by example, been consistent and has devoted herself to the role which undoubtedly has required self-sacrifice for the good of the country. She’s a phenomenal leader and an inspiration to us all, still working tirelessly into her 90’s.
From a business perspective, I admire Jo Malone as a leader not only for enormous global success with her namesake brand, but also for her encouragement to other women in business and her openness about her personal journey and challenges which lead to the ultimate success of Jo Malone and latterly Jo Loves.
What do you want to professionally and personally accomplish in the next year?
This year we are keen to continue growing our department store stockists within the UK as well as working on our strategy for launching in the USA. I am also working on several beautiful new feather-filled homewares to add to the range this year, including mirrors with layers of feathers around the frame and hurricane vases with feathers encased in the glass.
One of my personal targets this year is to get going again on my sewing machine again, I have a few projects for home to get working on.
What are the top three tips you can offer to an entrepreneur starting out?
My first tip would be to have a realistic financial plan for yourself personally and for your business for the first few years. Secondly, be persistent, people are busy and it can take a few attempts to be heard and for people to give you a chance. Thirdly be creative, think outside the box and find ways to set yourself apart from the crowd.