Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…TRAGEDY LEAVES HUGE HOLE IN BUSINESS AND COMMUNITYPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Wednesday, November 2nd 2015
The Williams’ Family – A Personal Retrospective by Harry Knowles, Chief Executive, Furness Enterprise
THIS is the article that in my worst nightmares I never thought I would be writing. A tragic accident in Tanzania has claimed the lives of Alan, Jill and Sue Williams, the entrepreneurial founders of Colony Candles, along with a close family friend, Debbie Winn.
The Williams’ developed the Colony Gift Corporation in Furness from scratch to an operation with a £20m plus turnover employing some 300 people. Alan in particular working with Furness Enterprise and key partners was also instrumental in persuading Blyth Industries to operate a new candle factory, CCW in Furness employing over 100 people.
The Colony Gift Corporation, manufacturing a wide range of candles, was the first business I visited when I joined the recently formed Furness Enterprise organisation in 1991. Those were even more challenging times than now with many thousands being made redundant at the Barrow Shipyard and no certainty as to how the Furness economy would survive.
In my first meeting with Alan Williams I was immensely impressed with his energy, vision, and determination. He was very clear about how, having achieved £2m turnover, he was going to drive the business to over £20m turnover and conquer European markets. I felt then as I feel now that it was people like the Williams’ who would determine the future economic success of the Furness area.
The Williams’ started Colony with an impressive business background. Alan and Sue owned a successful employment agency based in the Midlands. During a 5-year period they took the business from a single modest office to a prosperous organisation consisting of four branches employing up to 200 temporary staff.
They then moved to owning and operating the Aynsome Manor Hotel in Cartmel, turning a modest guest house into one of London’s leading country house hotels. They were joined in this venture by Sue’s sister, Jill, who previously had been a head teacher.
Colony was originally set up in 1979 initially selling imported scented candles from the USA. Alan used to tell the story that it was because it could not get a good supply of the right type of candles for his Aynsome Manor Hotel in the UK that triggered him off to develop a candle business of his own. His view was always that, though Colony manufactured scented candles and sold these along with other table top accessories e.g. candle holders, what made Colony successful and distinctive was that they marketed a ‘life style’.
Eventually the Williams’ sold Colony to Blyth, a major US candle company, and subsequently left the business to pursue new interests, some of which Furness Enterprise were involved in.
Alan in particular became a shareholder in some key local companies like e-directory.co.uk and became a patron of a major Furness Enterprise programme ‘Building an Entrepreneurial Culture’. All three Williams’ along with Debbie Winn were working on a major new venture when they were tragically killed.
I have given the summary details of the Williams’ business successes which were very significant. It is much more difficult to put into words their personalities.
Alan Williams was a great bear of a man with huge energy, an intense personality and a massive sense of humour who loved business.
He was proud of his council house background. His educational qualifications were, he said, an O-level in woodwork. Highly intelligent, he could be impatient with those who did not share his passion for his business.
He was modest about his own abilities and refused to see himself as special. His favourite phrase was “The harder I work the luckier I get”. He was not a corporate man and critical of those who surrounded themselves with ‘corporate trappings’.
When he left Colony for a time he wanted to use his undoubted expertise to advise other businesses. I was personally keen to see him launch a new career on the public speaking circuit. However doing not saying was his style and his real love was making business happen. I regarded Alan Williams as a Richard Branson character, larger than life.
Sue Williams was the creative powerhouse in Colony. She developed their highly successful product ranges with flair and imagination. She had a great warmth of personality. She was keen once she left Colony to develop charitable activities particularly for the NSPCC and she used her creative flair in developing a hugely successful charitable ball for the NSPCC this summer.
Jill was possessed of a high intelligence and was a member of MENSA. She came over as quiet and reflective. Like her sister Sue, she had an intense interest in cricket.
You usually saw the Williams’ together and together they made a formidable team with their different complimentary personalities and strengths. Working together they developed a formidable team of people at Colony who worked for the Williams’ not the company.
I could not finish this tribute without mentioning Debbie Winn who was very close to the Williams’. Debbie had been with Alan for several years. She was from Liverpool and had all the characteristics of natives of that great city. She had a great sense of humour, was very business savvy and blessed with a warmth of personality. She also will be greatly missed.
The destruction of the Williams’ through this tragic accident will leave a huge hole in the Furness area’s business and community life. They were unique and irreplaceable.