GORILLAS, elephants and zebra aren’t the kind of wildlife you normally expect to find in Holmfirth.
But that’s all changed since Rob Hart roared into town and set up shop in Victoria Street with his venture, Lionhart Boutique.
Life-size sculptures of jungle animals, sheep, cows and dogs are just part of his quirky collection of home accessories. There’s also unusual furniture, candles, mirrors, statues, clocks and ornaments of all kinds for sale as well as wallpaper and lighting.
It’s the animals “parked” outside his shop, though, that get heads turning with the locals and coach parties sampling a drop of Summer Wine.
“We had seven coachloads of visitors one day from as far away as Dorset,” says Rob. “One of them was a farmer, who saw my sheep and decided to buy one. This man has hundreds of real sheep, but he wanted another to put outside his front door!”
Since the shop opened less than two months ago, business has been more than brisk. “We open seven days a week and I work all seven days,” says Rob. “And from five-past-nine on the day we opened, it has been phenomenal.
“I stock the shop with everything I like – it’s an extension of my personality – and hoped that other people might like it. Luckily, everyone else does! I wanted to set up a business and give real old-fashioned customer service. Because I’m enthusiastic and love the products, people come in and ask to see me – and go out having bought something that’s a little bit exclusive.”
Rob hails from Derbyshire, but made Holmfirth his home after marrying Kara Woodhead, daughter of the late Hervey Woodhead. Hervey was something of a local legend who built the Old Bridge Hotel and Hervey’s Wine Bar as well as hundreds of Holme Valley houses.
Sadly, Hervey died some years ago and Rob says: “I wish he had been here to see what we have achieved. I hope he would have been proud of me. I certainly want to carry on in his tradition.”
Rob worked for 15 years selling IT consumables, such as printer ink and cartridges, for a business owned by tycoon Sir Philip Green, the man best-known for heading the Arcadia Group of retail chains, including Bhs, Dorothy Perkins and Top Man.
When Sir Philip sold the IT concern, Rob decided to leave. “He was great to work for,” he says. “The firm had offices in Hemel Hemsptead, Leeds and Bradford and I covered the country. I sold to a lot of government contracts and went through all the tender processes.
“When I started out, they gave me 12 staff and within 18 months I had 104 staff and I became sales director,” says Rob. “But I left when Sir Philip sold the business. Sometimes, it’s not the business, but who you work for that’s important.”
The experience left him with a talent for selling, a can-do attitude and a willingness to work hard.
In fact, hard work was nothing new to Rob. “I was born in a children’s home in Derbyshire,” he says, quickly adding: “Only because my parents ran it! Later, they moved to Lightcliffe and I went to Crossley Porter Grammar School – now Crossley Heath.
“My parents became self-employed bakers, running Harts of Halifax, so I was always around business. I’m one of four boys and when we each turned 13 we had to work to earn our pocket money. We worked in the bakeries or the bakery shops or took a paper round. It’s still a family business.”
Rob also worked for the Halifax Building Society for some time, so it’s only fitting – but entirely coincidental – that Lionhart Boutique occupies what was once the Holmfirth branch of the Halifax. The shop boasts three floors packed with an Aladdin’s Cave-worth of wonders. Rob sources many of the unusual objects from India, China and the Middle East, but is also supporting local artists by selling their works.
“I have employed three part-time staff and once they are into the swing of things I will be able to have a few weeks off,” he says. “I have done a lot of advertising and marketing. We had 15,000 people in the town for the Holmfirth Food Festival and I had people out there leafleting.
“A lot of marketing has been directed at Lancashire and North Yorkshire and advertising in the up-market magazines. Holmfirth attracts people from Manchester and Saddleworth and I intend to go a little further afield to Cheshire and Derbyshire.”
Rob’s business is already a keen participant in local life. He is main sponsor for Brass Factor, the brass band competition, and is working on joint marketing initiatives with other retailers.
The demise of Last of the Summer Wine has left some wondering how Holmfirth can continue to attract the tourist trade, but Rob says: “Holmfirth doesn’t need to reinvent itself. It needs people to take a chance, like I have. When I took this shop five months ago, there were five empty shop units in Holmfirth. Now they have all been taken up, which is great.”
He says: “The shop took eight weeks to refurbish. It had been empty for quite a while. At the open night, we had 200 people. I opened on Friday, September 14, and since then I haven’t stopped. I am re-stocking three times a week and on Saturdays and Sundays there are three of us working. Some traders still close early on Wednesdays – but my Wednesdays are as good as a Saturday.”
Says Rob: “I have had a really positive welcome. Everyone has been complimentary.”
His success may seem at odds with the general economic climate – particularly the gloom surrounding retailing. But Rob says people will always seek out something different to give their home a distinctive touch – be it a chrome horse’s head on the living room wall, a lion’s head for the front door or a zebra-striped sofa for the bedroom..
“Most people are proud of their homes and like living in houses with nice surroundings,” he says. “You spend a lot of time at home and when you are tired after a hard day’s work it is nice to sit back in a comfortable environment.”
Rob is working long hours at present, so he could be forgiven for mistaking home for the office in the basement of his shop! “I’m working from 8am to well after midnight sometimes,” he says. “I even found myself firing off e-mails to my suppliers at 1am and simply slumped back in the chair. I was too tired to get up – even though work is only half a mile from home!
“But I like doing family stuff with the children, Grace and Xavier. We live at Upperthong in a house built by my father-in-law with a coach house annexe. We have a nice big field to ride our quad bikes in and we love walking with our dogs. We have two border colllies as well as a rabbit and six chickens. We also have a holiday home on the Yorkshire coast. That’s our bolt hole by the sea.”
But you know Rob will remain committed to his business – and keeping Holmfirth firmly on the map – because of the buzz business gives him.
“We have had people from Australia, Canada, Scotland and Cornwall,” he says. “We have sold lamps to Canada and, of course, sheep to Dorset. It’s all about supply lines and customer service.”
And he adds: “It’s people and the ‘busy-ness’ of business that keeps me going.”