Britain’s newly-crowned NBF Bed Manufacturer of the Year 2017 (under £10m turnover category), Duvalay makes bedding products for the home including mattresses, toppers and pillows, and shot to fame following an appearance on Dragons’ Den. The company is also known for its leisure vehicle sleep products, which include the luxury Duvalay sleeping bag. Furniture News quizzes director Liz Colleran on her background and approaches to business …

How did you enter the trade?

My husband Alan and I had a caravan, which we loved, but, due to my bad back, I had real problems sleeping in it. Alan made me a topper from a piece of memory foam – and the rest is history! 

We quickly realised that no-one else was using this domestic foam in the leisure industry. We’d done what every entrepreneur dreams of doing – we’d spotted a gap in the market. 

Who was your inspiration?

Our inspiration was our three sons, Tom, William and Declan. When they reached the ages of 14, 11 and five, Alan and I felt that the time was right for us to go into business together. Knowing we had a family to provide for made us totally determined to succeed. 

What was your career high point?

Definitely speaking to Sir Richard Branson! Our Dragons’ Den investor Hilary Devey CBE set up the meeting, and we had to go to the Virgin offices, which were in a huge glass building. He was very business-like, as you would expect, and hugely supportive of our product. 

We sent him our luxury sleeping bags, which were specially adapted for his private plane. When he said “everyone should have a Duvalay,” it was totally surreal! I had been a housewife and a mum, and now I was sat in a high-powered business meeting with a legendary entrepreneur!

… and low point?

I knew we’d created a canny product, and I felt (and will always feel) this huge burden of responsibility to maximise its potential – especially in my sales and marketing role. It’s a bit like being given a gold bar – you worry you won’t live up to such a big opportunity. 

… and the turning point?

Going on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den and showcasing our product to five million viewers! From the day we submitted our application to the day the show was broadcast, a whole year went past. 

I was bursting to tell everyone we’d got ourselves a ‘Dragon’, but of course, you can’t say a word. On the plus side, it gave us time to put everything in place for the predicted increase in orders. Lots of companies’ websites crash when the show airs, but ours didn’t!

Describe a typical working day

As a manufacturer, you have a huge responsibility to deliver your products to order and on time every single day, as so many other companies depend on you as part of their supply chain. I always make sure that production is ticking over nicely, then I spend the day in meetings, with everyone from component suppliers to customers – often looking at how, as a small family-run business, we can be leaner. 

My favourite meetings are strategic discussions, which is when we look at product development – exciting!

If you had to start over, you’d probably pursue which career?

As a child, I was a competitive swimmer (I swam my first pool length aged four), so if I had my time again, I would have loved to have been a professional swimmer. These days, I would love to sell big-ticket items – ideally, yachts! Messing about on boats and drinking champagne – it wouldn’t even feel like work! 

What date on the business calendar do you most look forward to?

The end of the month is always my favourite date, as I like looking over the accounts. I don’t like murky waters – seeing where you are up to tells you where you are going.  

What is the most important issue affecting your business right now?

Growth, and how we can accommodate it in a safe way. There are so many aspects to consider, from stock issues and cashflow to profitability and pay. If you want to get bigger, you need to ask yourself: ‘How can we do this in the most cost-effective way?’

What company do you most look up to?

I’m obsessed with mail order companies! I love looking at how slickly they present things online using video and imagery. A single sentence in an advert is all it takes to put a potential customer into buying mode – they don’t realise that their shopping habits follow the patterns of everyone else. 

We look at our back-office data and it’s like someone has turned on a tap at 9pm on a Sunday night – everyone just jumps online! 

What would you most like to change about yourself?

I worry too much. I wish I could switch off. But then, I love what I do, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

What do you enjoy most about working in the trade?

I love the fact that there are so many family-run businesses (including our own). You get to know someone and then do business with them for years – firstly, the parents, and then their children when they take over. 

Leave us with an industry anecdote please!

I could tell you all sorts – including what goes on at ‘the wall’ at the back of the room on Dragons’ Den! 

Alan and I have had some great laughs over the years, but one in particular springs to mind. I’d been gossiping in the toilets at an awards ceremony and, when I returned to the room, I realised the presenter was announcing I’d won Business Woman of the Year! I’d missed all the lovely things that had been said about me, and only just arrived in time to go up on stage – typical!