workingwise.co.uk speaks to Clara Challoner Walker about her career as a project and programme manager around the world and how she came to set up her natural soap company.
Clara Challoner Walker has come full circle, but with the added benefit of rich layers of experience. A chemistry graduate, she has worked in large corporate companies such as Royal Bank of Scotland and IBM, travelling the world, and is now combining her chemistry and business nous to run her own company manufacturing and selling natural soaps, shampoos, household and other personal care products.
Clara’s corporate experience began after graduation. She joined Nat West’s graduate recruitment programme on leaving university and after two years of rotating around different areas, she realised her skills lay in project and programme management, specifically working on IT changes and business improvements.
When Nat West was acquired by Royal Bank of Scotland Clara led a project that was responsible for migrating billions of pieces of data from Nat West’s IT system to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s. It was a great stepping stone for her to other RBS projects, including early work on outsourcing some of the bank’s data tasks to India. “It was very exciting being on a project from the ground up,” she says.
In 2002/3 a team from IBM came to work at RBS and they suggested Clara consider moving to IBM. It was a more technology-focused workplace, but Clara’s deep knowledge of project and programme management and her understanding of how banking worked meant she was able to bring a unique perspective to the company.
At IBM Clara worked on a broad array of projects with senior managers, in sectors ranging from insurance to oil. She worked all over the world, from the US to Vietnam where she worked on improving the transportation and traffic system in Ho Chi Minh City. Clara spent two years working in Saudi Arabia for the largest government-owned bank working on a transformation programme. She lived in a hotel during the week and rented a place in Abu Dhabi at the weekend where her husband would visit her [her children were in their 20s by this point]. It was a fascinating opportunity to live temporarily in a very different culture.
There were few women in the workplace and Clara had to be careful that she didn’t overstep the mark at work.
Seven years ago she returned and soon after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Clara decided to do something completely different work wise and set up the Cosy Cottage Soap company in 2017 after doing some chemistry experiments in her kitchen, at home. She says: “Chemistry was always something I felt I could go back to. I always enjoyed it.”
Her interest in the soap business was piqued by her cancer. “A lot of the things we put on and in our bodies have been cited as reasons we become ill. So I thought how can I build a company that offers real alternatives?” she says.
Eventually Clara moved to premises at the University of York through a connection with the NGO BioVale, which helps bio-based businesses in the North East and Yorkshire. Clara set up a website so she could sell online and began a partnership with the National Trust and other organisations. The business moved to Malton before during Covid and Clara now has 19 people on the payroll, including some sub-contractors. Some, for instance, those who wrap and make the products or do the marketing and IT work from home while others are based in the shop or run the workshops. Clara has also been able to operate the business flexibly around hospital appointments.
She says learning about how to run a business has been a challenge, particularly in today’s turbulent business world. She has had to learn about all aspects of running a business. However, she has been able to draw on all the business experience gained at IBM and Nat West/RBS.
The first product she worked on was a sweet orange soap. It took a while to get the chemistry right to ensure a stable and effective product. Clara handed out samples to several people and got their feedback. “Everyone liked it. It didn’t dry their skin. It was bubbly and it smelt of orange zest, rather than artificial,” she says.
Next came the legal processes needed to get the product to market, other fragrances and then putting her products on the market. The business has grown from there.
And then came Covid. Clara’s business to business revenue from small independent shops dried up so she built up the online business and had to compete with the likes of Tesco and Amazon, for instance, offering free postage and cutting her profit margins. Online retail grew by 32% last year. A shop was set up after the first lockdown and is beginning to grow its business [sales were up 8% last year]. The supply chain for some products has been hit by a range of issues, from the war in Ukraine to postal strikes. Energy costs are also a challenge.
To make up the shortfall, Clara and her team have had to raise some of their prices and have been looking at diversifying their income stream through soap making and candle making workshops. She has been adamant about not compromising the company’s values, for instance, by continuing to avoid using palm oil or added water in her products.
After the high temperatures of the last few summers, she and her team they are also looking to change the chemical formulation of some of their products to avoid them melting in the heat.
The focus this year is on efficiency and growing revenue through the recruitment of an operations manager and increasing the number of soapmaking and candlemaking workshops the company offers to the public, as well as the support and advice they give people wanting to make their own candles and soaps at home.
Clara notes that she has come full circle in her working life, but says that her interest in chemistry has been augmented by her life and business experience, with the emphasis being on creating a rich range of natural products that are both sustainable and healthy.
*Pic above right: Clara at work