Adapt and Thrive: Interviewing Britain’s Small Business Heroes. Meet Cornelia James

How PayPal supported Cornelia James with the transition from in-person trade shows to becoming an online brand 

During our adapt and thrive series, we have interviewed some of Britain’s brightest independent businesses to hear how they’ve adapted and thrived through lockdown and beyond. This week we met Andrew Lawson, Managing Director and Co-Owner of Cornelia James.

Hi Andrew, can you tell us a bit about your business? 

We are a family-run British business based in a small village in Sussex – I am proud to say that the third generation of the family has recently joined the team. We are a very small business - based in a flint building that used to be a cattle stall - and everyone takes on a variety of roles, from manufacturing to retailing.

The original Cornelia James was my wife’s mother. Cornelia was a refugee from Vienna, and she founded the company in 1946, just after the war. The whole country was rationing, and it was incredibly hard to buy clothes, so Brits were looking for inventive ways to differentiate their outfits. As such, gloves became a popular choice and a terrific fashion accessory. Cornelia spotted this trend and quickly jumped on the bandwagon by hitching up alongside the biggest designers.

In 1979, Cornelia James was awarded a Royal Warrant – a mark of recognition for companies that supply goods to the royal household and a symbol of excellence that is recognised all over the world; it has been a huge help in promoting our export sales.

Who is your business aimed at? 

Over the years, gloves have become something of an exclusive fashion accessory and we do make quite a lot of ‘high fashion’ items, but, in fact a large part of what we do is designed for everyday use. All our cotton and Merino wool gloves are treated with a textile technology that is designed to inhibit the growth of bacteria and enveloped viruses on textile surfaces. They are also excellent for UV protection. Cornelia James gloves will appeal to anyone who wants to be well-dressed and admires high quality workmanship. Our gloves are made to last – perhaps even a lifetime of wear!

Can you talk us through some of your biggest milestones to date? 

Shifting our focus from in-person, physical retail to becoming an online brand. We used to have salesmen on the road visiting big department stores, we showcased our gloves at trade fairs, and had 600 retail accounts in the UK alongside dozens of international accounts. But as the demand changed, we’ve managed to successfully adapt and pivot our business approach.  

We first launched our website in 2004, but it was in 2010 that we moved Cornelia James exclusively online. The internet has changed the way our business works, but it gave us a more personalised opportunity to interact with our customers. As mentioned, we now have international customers across the US, Europe, China and Japan. Being online has enabled us to reach a broader audience and forge a unique connection with these customers. Even though the shopping experience isn’t in-person, we still strive to provide a bespoke, high quality experience with express delivery complemented by a handwritten note. 

How has PayPal helped you reach these milestones? 

We started working with PayPal in 2006 for purchases made through our website. Now, approximately a third of our payments volume goes through PayPal. Our customers find PayPal easy to use and it has the added benefit of being an internationally recognised and trusted way to pay. PayPal has also bolstered international sales as it allows customers to pay in their local currency.

We’ve also used PayPal Working Capital to enable us to take out a loan for future sales. One year, this helped us to build up stock during the quieter months. It was very convenient and simple to apply online and not have to go into a physical bank. 

How was your business impacted when the UK went into lockdown? 

I’m sure our initial reaction to coronavirus was similar to other businesses - fear and trepidation. We initially had people working from home, but the manufacturing was complicated due to the different machines needed at various stages of production and manufacture. Needless to say, we made it work and production didn’t falter. 

What changes did you make to continue trading during this time?

Once guidance was clear, we set up screens between machinists following distancing guidelines and ensured everyone was wearing a mask. We also set up sanitising stations throughout the workplace. We were so grateful to be able to safely have staff back in the workplace.

Being an online business already played to our advantage. We witnessed demand growing by 32% during the pandemic and we had to take on more staff to meet an increased demand. We suspect this is connected to the fact that our collection of gloves is enhanced with HeiQ's silver-based anti-viral technology, HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03. This is a silver and vesicle-based technology developed by Swiss company HeiQ, and it is designed to promote the rapid breakdown of viruses and microbes on contact. The treatment is applied to the fabric in the mill after dyeing and does not affect the look or feel of the fabric. 

How did PayPal support you? 

Our implementation of PayPal as a payment method made it possible for us to continue to take payments online throughout 2020 and enabled us to continue processing international orders during a challenging year. 

What does the future look like for your business?

We are excited by this new burst of growth and demand for high-quality gloves, and we aspire to become a truly global brand. It may seem like a niche product, but we believe gloves will never go out of fashion. There is still a long way to go with gloves!


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