The History of Ancient Wisdom
The Very First Day - 16th November 1995
As recalled by our founder David.
It was a wet cold Thursday morning a long time before Google and Facebook, and as I laid out my market stall on a Sheffield street I was more than apprehensive about what people would think. But I was ready by eight, my humble offering laid out on that simple stall.. and stomping from foot to foot I awaited my first customer.
A few months earlier, I'd been reading a book called "Ancient Wisdom" - now out of print. The book highlighted many things that seem out of place in history - the pyramids, Stonehenge etc. At the same time I'd been researching aromatherapy. It struck me that essential oils had been used for thousands of years and ancient people must have known more about them - (healing and enchanting) than perhaps we did. So I put the two together and devised the brand of "Ancient Wisdom" slowly (very slowly, no Internet remember) I found supplies of oils. I found a potter down in Stoke who made me my own design of oil burner, and invested in a pallet load of candles.
The truth was I was stone broke, every penny and more I put into my unusual retail business. In those days no-one had any idea what aromatherapy was, oil burners were a new fangled thing and this was Yorkshire!
The first person to approach was a well built lady of colour with a broad Yorkshire accent. Picking up a bottle of Lavender oil she asked me bruskly "what's it good for lad?" Oh I said recalling my Julia Lawless quotes.. "it's good for relaxing, will help you sleep and if you burn yourself it's an amazing healing oil".
Well I can remember it clear as day.. she looked at me, took me in with big brown eyes, and in a low voice said; "You are completely bloody bonkers". And wandered off to the fruit and veg.
You can imagine how I felt. That first day I sold one lavender oil and gave some tea tree away to a spotty teenage girl. I went home and almost packed it in.
The next day, I decided I need to get my act together, and made an offer, Lavender Oil, Oil Burner and a nightlight...I piled the oil burners up in bread baskets with a sprinkling of potpourri for good measure. for £4.50. I sold my first oil burner set in five minutes... and Ancient Wisdom was born. Soon I would sell fifty sets a day and gradually found customers for my range of essential oils.
I devised a range of Fragrance Oils - I put my heart into that range working nights to get it right, I listened to customer feedback and I'm pretty sure that nice lady who rejected my lavender became a regular customer for fragrance oils.
Since then.. the company has grown, with a few ups and downs, to be an international Giftware company, we still sell Lavender Oil, Fragrance oils and Oil Burners. And also 8,000 other products to more than 70,000 customers all over the world. With warehouses in Indonesia, China, Spain, Slovakia and UK.. we really couldn't have got here without you. Customers like you have helped shape Ancient Wisdom.
If you are new to Ancient Wisdom and would like to know more.. then read on... if you have time, settle down pour yourself a glass of wine or make yourself a nice cup of tea and let me tell you the story of Ancient Wisdom and the Phoenix.
The Phoenix Effect
Yes as you read.. It all began on a cold and windy market stall in November 1995 but that journey from there to now, over twenty-eight years has not been without it's up's and downs. Not without a number of complete disasters. It's been hard-work, lots of fun but not without heartache.
Lots went wrong, mistakes were made, there was downs as well as ups. This is the story of in spite of all this how Ancient Wisdom grew up to be a strong healthy 28 year old business.
The First Phoenix moment..
Back to that market stall on The Moor, every morning I set up that stall come rain or shine and slowly developed enough trade to make it worthwhile. It was really hard work just me a one man business but I was learning, six months I worked that pitch slowly building the trade. Then one day the market manager came to see me, he said he was really sorry but the pitch I was on had been licensed to a foreign guy years before who they thought had gone back to his home country for good. But he had come back and now wanted his pitch back. Just like that - I was out of business.
That weekend I was in despair, totally depressed, all that hard work it seemed had gone to waste.
Monday morning the phone rang and it was the market manager, could I go and see him. An indoor shop was available, a big one, in Sheaf Market across town, as a consolation (for losing The Moor pitch) they could let me have it rent free for three months, it took all my money to fit it out. But from day one I was trading profitably and no need to set up in the morning, just roll up the shutters. I could afford staff and more importantly the time to develop more products and the profits were enough to fund opening more shops.
So from apparent disaster the first stroke of good luck.
The Second Phoenix
So there were shops in Sheffield market, Bakewell and Castleton, that was the early days... learning about gifts and retailing them. Sleep stones, and lavender oil. Listening to customers and finding out what they want. Meanwhile I had got myself involved with a company selling coffee to pubs and restaurants in those days.. we changed it over to giftware wholesale, with the AW brand and products. It did well, even if it was a bit dodgy here and there. There were things I wasn't happy with. (But at least here the Simmering Granules were developed).
It was a relationship that didn't last. It ended badly and I'm not sure if I was pushed out or I sold out of that company (it's a long story) but I took the AW brand with me and Ancient Wisdom Marketing Ltd was born in October 2000.
The Third Phoenix
I felt rejected and dejected, with not much to show for years of effort except, a bunch of products and the name Ancient Wisdom. From that time on I determined - come hell or high water, if we was going to do this then we would do it with honesty and integrity. Sorry..back to the story..
Starting up again with no real capital to speak of, I had to think outside the box. So I did a deal with a big international company with a large complex of warehouses in Lincolnshire. The boss was a likable flamboyant guy. I pitched my ideas to him, and he just said yeah, lets do it.
The deal was this: We did the product development and marketing, they did the manufacture, warehousing and distribution and paid a licence fee to AW. It went very well to start with, but gradually we discovered they had serious cash flow problems and weren't paying us... at the time it looked like the end, it was certainly difficult and depressing. Business was good, but basically we had no money coming in. There was a few awful months of agonising limbo.
Then disaster struck, I received a call at 3am, the trading estate in Lincs was on fire. Early that morning I drove down to see how bad it could be. I arrived to see a smoking wreck, five fire engines still hosing down the embers. Two blocks remained undamaged, one housed the offices of the company, the other amazingly - the Ancient Wisdom stock (either side had burnt down). I went to see the boss and offered him 20% of the value of the stock to buy it out... which was every penny I had and could borrow. Incredibly he accepted, and the very next day we loaded several large trucks and brought the stock to Sheffield. We found a temporary warehouse, (in an old brewery) but soon moved to Lancelot Works at Heeley. Finally we was free to trade how we liked. It was a very BIG lucky break and the forth Phoenix. Ancient Wisdom actually did rise out of the flames.
Around 2003 we started seriously importing from India, then in 2005, China and eventually in 2013 Indonesia. Offices and warehouses in China and Indonesia followed. All these milestones have come and gone, not least moving to a modern distribution warehouse at Parkwood Business Park in Sheffield in 2007..
Of course there is a lot more to this story, here left untold, but this gives you a feel for our heritage and history.
You will notice that as stories go we have had more than our fair share of disasters. But the thing I learned (and this is true of life and business) when things go very bad, if you keep the faith and integrity something extraordinarily good comes of it. This I have called the Phoenix Effect. I think and believe it only works if the underlying values are there. So many times disaster has struck, and so many times it has turned out to be the best thing ever. The Phoenix has risen, and keeps rising and actually there are many more examples than I have detailed in this short story.
Of course you maybe sceptical and say the phoenix is just a figment of my imagination, and it's all been a just matter of luck and random events. All I'm saying is when life gives those lemons, have faith, the lemonade is just round the corner. Maybe, just maybe. So take heart.
Moving forward the company continued to grow, opening new warehouses in Indonesia and Slovakia. Until in the midst of the first big wave of the pandemic in 2020 a major disaster struck the company.
This was the fifth (and by far the worst ) Phoenix
Our founder David describes what happened.
At the time I was trapped in Indonesia by the pandemic. But in Sheffield a disaster struck. An incredible unlucky train of events.
A warm July day almost a year ago someone at AW cleaned up a minor oil splash, the oil soaked rag as per health and safety was carefully binned. The bin must be (as per H&S) stored outside of the building. The bin must be lockable to avoid some smoker tossing in a fag end.. As per H&S guidance.
Six hours later a little before midnight, in that hot sealed pressure cooker bin a self combustion occurred. It probably should have smouldered and gone out for lack of oxygen, but a small hole in the plastic melted open, and a hot westerly wind that night was just enough to rouse the flame.
Due to H&S regulations IBC's of oils must be kept outside. Now a burning bin might have just burned out, but the IBC nearby began to melt from the heat. The oil escaped and ran across the carpark and under a door that contained the essential oil room, and of course it caught fire as it went. Something (probably the gas for the underfloor heating) caught fire and exploded blowing off the roller shutter doors. The wind blew the flames west through the building. First though the factory, then the main warehouse then the office block. I was in a different time zone. Early in the morning in Indonesia, my mobile is buzzing. I will never forget Tomas's tear stained face framed by a massive blaze. It's over, it's over.. Was all he could say. Within two and a half hours despite a rapid response and valiant effort from the brigade the place was burned to the ground. It was the biggest fire that Sheffield had seen for years. The whole drama from the bin combusting to the fire engines arriving to the total destruction was captured on CCTV by a high level camera in the carpark.