1st March 2023
IT’s a freezing, frosty, early March morning, yet spend a few minutes with James Long and Jo Iles and there’s a warm, welcoming light in the world.
Let’s be clear James and Jo’s business ambitions burn bright. They have expansion plans which would excite any entrepreneur. But they are doing it all in the right way – the ethical way – and bringing with them the supportive community from the place they now call home.
London, Hong Kong, Cleator Moor might not be everyone’s obvious career journey. But with respective recruitment and teaching careers in two of the world’s most vibrant cities behind them, family circumstances brought James and Jo to Cumbria.
Like many who fall in love with Cumbria it was a holiday trip to the Lake District that sparked their own business venture.
As visitors, they couldn’t find a suitable gift which was designed and manufactured in the county that they felt was sufficiently ‘of the place’ – hence the Lakeland Lights Company was born.
James and Jo had spent some time in Iceland and found the scenery, the place, the people of Cumbria suited them in a similar way.
They were no strangers to dark winters and lighter summers, and they set about creating candles and scents which would embody Cumbria’s unique locations.
That’s why you will find a candle named after the Cleator Moor community, alongside such Lakeland icons as Crummock and Coniston, and Whitehaven, Whinlatter and Wasdale.
James and Jo use the most environmentally friendly methods that you’d expect from a couple so in tune with the landscape around them. Their candles are handmade in small batches using the highest quality natural ingredients. They also have a story behind every candle.
Jo, brought up in Southport, and James in Peterborough, have travelled and lived all over the world.
Their varied work and life experience have given them a perspective of UK and worldwide business that, when it comes to Lakeland Lights, helps them make objective, strategic decisions while also protecting the authentic place brand they have created.
They started with three products in 2019 – Buttermere, Whinlatter and Honister. Three years later they have 25 scents and Lakeland Lights candles are in 35 outlets across Cumbria, mainly in independent businesses who have been mutually supportive.
That further expansion ambition is never far from the surface. They long since found out their kitchen wasn’t big enough to keep up demand. They now have a bespoke production operation in Phoenix Court in Cleator Moor.
James said: “We heard about the Towns Fund investment coming to Cleator Moor and it made us think that this would be a great place to be and to start a business.”
It was an astute business move. The Cleator Moor Town Deal Board, with the support of Copeland Borough Council, was successful in its application to the Government’s Towns Fund last year which resulted in an award of £22.5m, and an additional £18.4m secured from match funders, for four exciting projects in the town. In January this year a successful bid by Copeland Borough Council to the Government’s Levelling Up Fund also resulted in a further £20m being awarded for the development of the nearby iSH Enterprise Campus at Leconfield, only about half a mile from Lakeland Lights’ front door. Cleator Moor is definitely a community on the up.
But long before the investment for the area was confirmed, Jo and James said it felt like home.
Jo said: “We immediately felt part of the community here and everyone has welcomed us. There’s a real kindness and warmth to the people here. Basing our business in Cleator Moor was absolutely the right thing to do.”
The West Cumbria community supported them from the beginning, buying their products at local markets and retailers. And it was that community support which was to prove so priceless, and a lifesaver in many ways, to James and Jo during the pandemic.
“When 90 per cent of your business is wholesale for the retail market, and those retail outlets are shut for the best part of a year, and you are a new business, you know you are going to need something special to survive and come out the other side,” said James.
Jo stresses what a tough time it was for any start-up: “Because we didn’t have two years of accounts history, we had no access to furlough, self-employment benefits or any other government support schemes during the pandemic.”
The couple did receive grant funding from Cumbria Chamber of Commerce to revamp their website and they quickly pivoted to an online business with kerbside delivery drops within a 10-mile radius. The community of Cleator Moor and surrounding area backed them so much that their car was full of candles every day!
“By the end of lockdown, thanks to the community’s support, we had switched to a 60% wholesale, 40% website business which was much healthier,” said James.
They also had to completely change their supply chain in everything from fragrance to wax, glass to boxes.
Quite an environment for their daughter Robin to arrive into in June 2021. Now 20-months-old she looks very at home by the kitchen table where so many family-owned operations have their business discussions.
In October 2021 and committed to being a Living Wage employer, James and Jo took on their first recruit, Emily Bryan, from Ennerdale, who started out as a workshop assistant and is increasingly taking more responsibility in the manufacturing process
Jo said: “Emily has been brilliant for us. We want to employ more people. We are passionate about bringing manufacturing and industry back – in a new way – to this part of the world.
“People think there’s nothing made in Cleator Moor anymore. It feels good to be playing a role in changing people’s perceptions and options about the town.
“Cleator Moor is a very positive place to be. We feel very fortunate to have found this place. It’s a home away from home and we want the community to be proud of what we are doing here.
“It gives us a real sense of pride that people really value what we are trying to achieve here. That’s where the satisfaction comes from.”
For Christmas 2022 James and Jo chose to give back to the community which has been so supportive to them by donating 10% of their profits from their special Robin’s Brow candle to 365-marathon man Gary McKee’s charities – Hospice at Home West Cumbria, and Macmillan Cancer Support. So far £1,000 has been donated to the cause.
They have also started 2023 with exciting expansion plans which have to stay under wraps for the time being. Definitely a case of watch this space. You get the feeling James and Jo’s business story has only just begun.