Former scientist draws pattern for business success

A former cancer geneticist has used her meticulous eye for detail to set up a business that has grown out of the garden shed and into its own retail outlet – and could now go global thanks to a new e-commerce site.

Catriona MacGeoch (58) launched Sula Furnishing in Balquhidder 10 years ago after returning to Scotland to raise her two children and be closer to her mother.

Having always had a passion for Harris Tweed and upholstery and having had a scientific career of 20 years, Catriona decided to launch a business that would not only provide her with greater flexibility but meet the growing demand for the handmade products she had been making as a hobby.

After setting up a cutting table in her garden shed, and attending a Business Gateway Stirling roadshow in 2006, the City & Guild qualified upholsterer opened her own shop selling a range of handmade products made by herself and by a range of local craftspeople.

She said: “I’ve always loved Harris Tweed and would collect material every time I visited my mother on the islands. When I returned to Scotland in 2001 I initially began making cushions to sell at local shows and ran upholstery workshops – which I ended up doing for 13 years. At the time Harris Tweed interiors were unique and interest in what I was making grew very quickly by word of mouth. Demand was such that I knew I needed somewhere more appropriate than the garden shed so in 2012 I moved into part of the former Kingshouse Hotel building where I still have retail space and a workshop.”

She added: “The business has grown year on year and I was able to take on my first employee in 2013 who deals with my website, social media, invoices and estimates, freeing up my time to concentrate on refreshing furniture and making interiors for individuals, estate houses, hotels and B&Bs. I’ve even made Harris Tweed accessories for two Land Rover Jaguar concept cars that were displayed in New York and Beijing.

Right from the start Business Gateway and STEP has given me invaluable help, initially helping me launch my first website and they also planted the seed for an online shop which we are now looking to develop over the coming year. Their workshops in tax and HMRC helped me get to grips with aspects of running a business that I had never dealt with before, and they provided assistance, including helping me secure a grant, when I was looking to open my shop.

Colin Clark, Business Gateway adviser, said: “Catriona produces unique, bespoke interiors that have furnished homes throughout Scotland and abroad – including a chalet in France. Over the years we’ve been able to provide start up assistance and advice on how to capitalise on the popularity of her products. We are on hand as and when Catriona needs further advice, particularly as she has the potential to open up new avenues of trade thanks to her updated website.”

After gaining her degree at The University of Glasgow, Catriona studied for her PhD in Stockholm before working for Imperial Cancer Research, now Cancer Research UK. During her time as a cancer geneticist she was part of the team that helped identify the breast cancer gene.

She said: “When I left school there weren’t design courses available as there are now, you chose from more mainstream subjects, so I opted to study science. Lab work had to be meticulous as women were basing life changing decision on the results we got, so perfectionism and an eye for detail were essential. These two traits have transferred well into my new career.

“Launching a business in my late 40s was daunting but it felt like, and was, the right decision for me. I love being creative, getting hands on and producing furniture and interiors that customers will enjoy for years. 2015 is going to be an exciting time for us as we look to develop the business further, which includes using to enter new markets.”

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