Highland businesswoman has bags of talent

Winifred Sutherland
Winifred Sutherland

Each week, we ask small businesses key questions.

Here we speak to Winifred Sutherland, who owns and runs handmade handbag enterprise FreKel Bags in Dunbeath, Caithness

How and why did you start in business?

Born and raised in the remote rural Caithness community of Dunbeath, I was surrounded by self-employed people from birth. My grandfather and father were both grocers, with my father also working as a contract harvester and mechanic, so self-employment is in my blood.

On leaving school, I worked for Clydesdale Bank in Caithness and then Nairn before moving to Nairn Caledonian Cash Registers as office manageress. The birth of my son and daughter in the 1970s saw a return to Dunbeath and, once the children were old enough, to work.

I did what so many young mothers do and set up my own home-based business. In my case, it was party planning – everything from German wine and Pandora clothes to Tupperware, with which I became manager for the north.

In 1988, my husband and I bought the Inver Arms pub in Dunbeath, developed the kitchen and started selling meals. We sold the business in 2006 and I started buying up old properties, doing them up and letting them – something that I still do.

I also began working for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) as a recruiter, a job that took me all over the Highlands and islands. While I enjoyed the independence, the hours were long so last year I decided to set up my own home-based business – FreKel bags.

How did you get to where you are today?

FreKel began when I made a bag for my daughter-in-law using material and leather off-cuts. Someone else asked for one, then another and another, and so my business was born.

I officially launched on March 17 this year and as people travel so word is spreading throughout the UK. I sell through Facebook and do everything myself – design, manufacture, marketing, sales and distribution.

Some people might say I am just lucky but I put it down to learning as I have gone along, putting this knowledge and experience into practice, hard work, ambition, self-belief and researching the market.

Who helped you?

In the early years, my mother was a huge help with child-minding. When it comes to business support, I not only recruited for FSB but joined in my own right too, so that I could take advantage of the help, support, advice and money-saving offers that are only a phone call away. FSB member benefits are outstanding and all owners of smaller business should join.

What has been your biggest mistake?

Nothing major other than regretting that I didn’t start FreKel sooner. Oh, and do trust your accountant but don’t take your eye off the ball. In the 1980s, I assumed everything was fine only to be subjected to an HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) tax investigation. Today, I am automatically indemnified through my FSB membership. Back then, I wasn’t and it hurt.

What is your greatest achievement?

Other than raising two wonderful children, it’s launching FreKel. I am delighted that people love the quirky, exclusive and individually designed handbags that I create all by myself.

If you were in power in government, what would you change?

Living in the countryside is becoming harder as essential services close or move – post offices, banks, fuel stations, shops, hotels, police stations, Caithness General Hospital – the list is endless. This is hitting locals and tourists and it discourages people from moving in.

What do you still hope to achieve?

Wide recognition of and respect for my label, FreKel.co.uk

What do you do to relax?

I love gardening, cooking and listening to music.

Last year I started to develop my garden – hard work but I love pottering in the fresh air. Deer, pheasants and slugs are constantly trying to destroy it.

What are you currently reading, listening to or glued to on the TV?

I listen to Radio 2 as I can sew at the same time. I love interior design and gardening programmes on TV.

What do you waste your money on?

Clothes and shoes. Friends and I have been holding clothes-swapping parties for years, and what’s left goes to charity so nothing is wasted.

How would your friends describe you?

Probably quite mad but a worker and someone who speaks her mind.

What would your enemies say about you?

Enemies? If I have any, you will have to ask them.

What do you drive and dream of driving?

I have a Honda CRV at the moment but would love to own – even for a few months – an MK II 2.4lt Jaguar from the 1960s. I passed my test in one and would love to have another go.