Bridgnorth paper firm that came from one woman's childhood passion

She’s disarmingly pleasant. Lisa Forde is both charming and straight. She’s a lady with her eye on the prize who’s managed to live out her dreams.

Lisa Forde from Tree of Hearts, Bridgnorth.
Lisa Forde from Tree of Hearts, Bridgnorth.

The award-winning businesswoman from Bridgnorth started her company in 2004. She’s survived the usual slings and arrows that derail so many entrepreneurs, demonstrating resilience and remaining focused during good times and bad.

And as the world starts to emerge from Covid, her businesses – Dotty About Paper and Tree of Hearts – are flourishing like never before. Those businesses specialise in cool stationery that’s a little bit posh. Her team shows care and attention to detail in coming up with innovative design and using quality products so that wedding invitations, greeting cards and other types of stationery are the best in the market.

Lisa started her business in 2004. She had a market stall in the centre of Bridgnorth and for some years was worried that things wouldn’t work out. As her business comes of age, celebrating its 18th birthday, it’s grown steadily and now employs 16 people.

“We originally began as Card Gallery, in 2004,” she says. “I’d always wanted to set up a business and I felt the time was right in terms of my life and the opportunity that was there for creating cards and invitations. It was the classic story of starting in the back bedroom of the house.”

Card Gallery, as it was then called, started trading from a market stall under the Arches in Bridgnorth High Street on Fridays and Saturdays. Lisa wanted to find out what people wanted, what they liked and what they were prepared to pay. She started to build a website when e-commerce was in its infancy and the rest is history.

“We started to sell invitations, more than cards, because there was a real market there for special occasions stationery for weddings, birthdays and christenings.

“As a business model it worked better to sell in bulk. We used to make them; I used to make them, then we had out-workers making them for us. We’ve always worked hard to design everything in house and print everything and provide really good customer service.”

Initially the business was just Lisa. Then it was Lisa and her mum. Now it’s a team of 16 as well as Lisa’s husband, who keeps the company’s books.

E-commerce was the game-changer. “We built the website and sales started to grow because we could spread the net much wider.

“I was passionate about paper and stationery but when I got married in 2002 the stationery I bought was very over-priced and the quality was poor.”

Lisa’s plan was to change all that, giving her customers cards and invitations that matched the sense of occasion that their event promised to provide.

As the business gradually grew, she started a new company called Tree of Hearts, which focused on the wedding market. “We wanted to become a more dominant player in the wedding market. We wanted to be seen as a wedding specialist. We felt that having a separate brand that was purely weddings could give it focus. So we did that in 2012. The Card Gallery became Dotty About Paper, which was a better name for what we were and the fun element of the products we were supplying.”

Tree of Hearts took off and has grown and grown. It features on the first page of Google when people type in the correct search terms while Lisa has been able to sell to a local, national and international market.

As the business has become more established, her role within it has changed. She’s gone from being hands on in the business, where she’d set up processes and work with every supplier, to having a more strategic role. “We want to run a happy ship and have a happy team and have quality products. That’s what we set out to do.”

Dotty About Paper and Tree of Hearts has offices at the bottom of Cartway in a Grade II Listed building, with two properties joined into one. There are two pubs nearby – which is handy when Lisa’s team needs to hold an, erm, ‘business meeting’.

It’s not just business that has driven her work, however. As a child, she loved paper-based products. She enjoyed reading, she liked nice pens, she enjoyed writing cards to people and seeing the glee they’d get as they opened them.

“When I got started, it was a combination of things. I’d always wanted to run a business and I’d always been passionate about paper. I felt there was a gap. There was a lot of scope in terms of what we could go into.”

Lisa’s drive is the quality that’s helped to propel her business forward. She worked in travel prior to starting her own company, having worked in travel and completed a degree and an MBA. Her work in travel took her across different sectors of business, from the commercial to HR and from product buying to customer relations. “That gave me a good foundation. When you start a business, you have to have so many different hats at different points in time. It was just something I really wanted to do. My husband is an accountant and he’s now come into the business on a full time basis over the last few years.”

Not that running her business has been easy. Things seldom go smoothly, irrespective of the determination and commitment that Lisa brings to her work.

These days, the happiness moments are seeing staff flourish. “To me that’s really rewarding. I like to see the team flourish and grow. It’s about what everybody does as a whole, rather than what I do. There are stresses and strains as you grow a business. You have to be very resilient, particularly during the harder times. You have to look after yourself. I go to the gym, I keep fit, I try to eat and sleep well so that I can be on good form and give my best to the business. If I didn’t it wouldn’t work so well. We try to look after the team and make sure people are in the best place.”

Perseverance has been another of the personal qualities that has helped Lisa to stay the course. She didn’t imagine in those days of selling handmade cards under the Arches in Bridgnorth that she’d have grown a successful business and made a life from it. She’s thrilled, however, that she’s done so.

“I suppose I’d never have envisaged that we’d become what we’ve become but at the beginning when it was really tough to sell to people and companies, there was an amount of confidence that I’d have to show, even though I didn’t necessarily believe it would work. Over time I’ve achieved what we set out to do. It’s given me confidence. I’ve actualised what we set out to do.”

The internet has been the biggest fillip, giving her the opportunity to compete against the big boys and allowing her small, homegrown company to challenge firms that have greater resources. “I’m not sure I imagined it would have been possible to do this when I began. We were up against people who were much bigger and were better resourced. But the internet has given us access to customers and that’s changed everything.

“For the first couple of years it was a real struggle. I didn’t know how I’d keep the momentum going. I had kids, a marriage and to fit it in and run it as a business – not a lifestyle – was hard. They weren’t low times but they were tough times. We haven’t had any real lows but it has been hard. Covid was tough, too. The rug was pulled out from under us and all the weddings and parties stopped, which meant our market fell apart. We had to furlough staff and I went back to the shop floor and started doing things that I’d not done in 10 years.

“But we’ve got some great people on board and that’s what’s kept us buoyant. We take apprentices on with a view to keeping them and several of the people have stayed with us through that. We’ve got team members who’ve been with us for more that a decade.”

The key is having fun. There are those two pubs just around the corner from her offices and her largely-female team feels like a family, with people all getting along.

“It’s the best we’ve ever had. Having survived Covid we’ve got confidence that’s based on what we’ve done, rather than raw self-belief.”

And what would the Lisa Forde of 2022 say to the one of 2004 who started out on this road? What are the lessons she’s learned – are there things that she’d have done differently?

She laughs. “I’d say stick at it. Starting a business is hard whoever you are, but you have to stick at it because it’ll be worth it in the end. Lots of small businesses find it hard to maintain it for various reasons and some can’t stick at it. But if you have the passion and determination to see it through, then things will come good.”

That’s been the story of Lisa’s business – and she’s thrilled about that happy ending.

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