Living the good life
By John Woodhouse
Janet Phillips's creative side saw her become a big-time entrepreneur in the free market Utopia of Hong Kong. Then one day she realised what she'd actually created was "a monster". The 62-year-old mum-of-three tells John Woodhouse how she quit the skyscrapers and rediscovered her true self on a dilapidated North Staffordshire farm
"I burnt all my power suits," says Janet Phillips. "Now I'm back to my hippy clothing!" Janet's the woman who, seduced by 'adventure', quit teaching, shipped out to Hong Kong, became the Oriental queen of scented gifts, and then suffered the terrible realisation that somewhere along the way her whole raison d'être had been drowned beneath a sea of admin. Her life reads like a primetime mini-series. One suspects, though, that if Julia Roberts came knocking at her farmhouse door, unless she wanted some homegrown wool or a loom, she'd be sent packing.
It all started for Janet when she had a mid-life crisis 20 years too early. "I was teaching in a comprehensive," she says, "and then you sort of think after a couple of years 'actually, is this it for the rest of my life? Am I going to be working to buy a second hand car and trying to pay a mortgage? Or could I just go and have a bit of an adventure?'."
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The answer came when her then husband was dispatched to Hong Kong to work for a power company. Two months later, Janet followed, only for her husband to be immediately sent back to the UK for six months. "So then I'm left in Hong Kong on my own. I'm like 'what do I do now?'."
The answer was simple: "I've got no choice – I've got to get on with it."
At least when it came to being stranded in Hong Kong, Janet had chosen an exciting time. "You're talking 35 years ago," she says. "Hong Kong was just starting to grow and it was booming."
Janet herself was a "novelty", reinforced even more when she shipped her trusty Mini out. "I used to drive round Hong Kong among all these great 40ft lorries," she says. "People used to toot their horns and wave at me. Everyone else is driving round in Mercedes with air conditioning. It's nearly 40 degrees and it's a bit warm in my little biscuit box on wheels! It died over there and went to its little grave."
An artist at heart, Janet found part-time work teaching at the French International School. "I was teaching art and craft in French in Hong Kong," she laughs, "and I failed my French O-Level three times!"
She filled her spare time making a pictorial record of her new surroundings. "When you've been somewhere a while people say 'don't go down there, stay away from that bit'. But I didn't know, so I just went – this mad woman with her sketchbooks and her camera. It was good because I saw it through new eyes. And when you see something through new eyes you bring a lot of new emotion to it.
"It was important to me to record the old Hong Kong," she adds, "the fishing villages, the ancestral halls, the temples. This was all disappearing and in its place were skyscrapers and the river concreted either side. I drove round recording it all."
She'd put on exhibitions and sell drawings. One whole collection was bought by an anonymous buyer – who turned out to be Hong Kong government. They wanted to put them on the Governor's Christmas card. "And I thought that's a good idea – why don't I put my drawings on to stationery?"
You could say the idea took off. "Suddenly there was this mad Englishwoman with all these creative cards. By the time it gets to Christmas you're packing 10,000 packs of cards, 10,000 packs of notelets.
"Then I started thinking 'if I can do this with cards, what else can I supply in? What else don't they have?' At the time I'd gone from my purple hippy stage to my Laura Ashley country girl. So I started bringing in lavender and pot pourri, making sachets in my spare room and selling them to a gift shop. And then I plucked up courage to go in and see a Chinese buyer at a Japanese dept store. I needed a name for the company and I called it Scented Delight – I did a pastel drawing of a big vase of roses and that was my logo."
In the heat of Hong Kong, the snowball kept rolling.
"One weekend it'd be Chinese New Year so I'd go in and do a special display, reds and golds, then it's Valentine's Day, then Easter. It all sold, and in the end they gave me 13 department stores, some in China and also all over Hong Kong.
"From coming in with a two kilo bag of pot pourri in my hand luggage we're now talking about bringing in 20ft containers – scented gifts, fragrances for candles, all sorts."
Janet travelled across the region, displaying, and helping discover new outlets for her wares – even (accidentally) a brothel – and exhibiting at high-class horticultural shows. "That's what I've always really loved about Hong Kong," she says. "You have an idea, you start it, and it blossoms. Back here we have regulations that can quite often stifle creativity in a business."
W hile being an ex-pat wife was an increasingly common occurrence in the city, Janet wasn't one for the lifestyle that went with it. "Most ex-pat wives play tennis, go shopping, or to the beautician," she says. "My best friends were the girls I worked with."
And it's that connection, that love of grassroots creativity which caused her, one day, to stop in her tracks. "The whole thing just exploded," she recalls. "And you wake up after about eight years and you just think 'it was an exciting ride to get here, but I've actually created a monster'.
"'I'm a creative person so I love doing the designs, love doing displays, but actually I'm paying people to sit in my warehouse to dry flower arrangements, to pack all this lovely stuff. What am I doing? Import/export, bank stuff, invoicing'."
Add illness to the mix and Janet's mind was made up. "I'd had three children out there, she says, "and I'd been running my business and I think the stress just got to me. I became ill. I remember waking up in hospital (Janet had a hysterectomy), having had this huge cancer scare, and you just think 'I'm actually going to change what I'm doing. I don't want to be here. This is the ultimate rat race. My husband is building power stations all over China and never at home'. So I left him and came back with my three kids."
She headed home a year before the handover of Hong Kong sovereignty from the UK to the Chinese government in 1997. Her bolthole was a Derbyshire cottage – "I'd always kept it so if something went wrong I had somewhere to come back to". But the question then was, 'what now?'.
"I'd been out in Hong Kong for 20 years," says Janet. "I originally went for two as an experience, thinking then I'll come back. Two years, I just forgot the nought on the end!"
After such a long time out, Janet felt being a schoolteacher wasn't an option. "I wanted to go back to doing my own work again," she says. "I was doing floral work, making big papier-maché sculptures. I'd have stands at flower shows, craft shows, all over the place. I was trying to do that with three kids. I remember setting up at Harrogate one time and the phone goes – 'can you come back because Chris has just broken his collarbone playing rugby?'. Trying to do that with three kids on my own was difficult."
A solution popped up in the form of a rundown farm at Bradnop, near Leek. "I'd met David (her second husband)," she explains, "and he'd been in industry and wanted out. He just wanted to walk away. And we said 'let's literally go off into the sunset and find somewhere we can farm and do this with'."
'This' is the Threshing Barn, where Janet runs numerous craft courses – spinning, weaving, felt-making, paper making, dry flower arranging, dying, knitting and crocheting, rug making and many more. It also has a shop stocked full of craft materials and fabrics, including the wool from the couple's own sheep, and even beef from their rare breed red Dexter herd, "instead of buying your horsemeat from Findus".
But it hasn't been easy. Lower Lady Meadows Farm needed an awful lot of work. "We were really short of capital to do something like this," Janet reveals. "We found this place purely by accident. We'd come into Leek to look round the antiques shops, went past the estate agents, and there it was. Two old girls had lived here and it was derelict. Someone had bought it, started work, but never finished.
"We walked in on the Monday evening to see it and on Tuesday morning we put an offer in. We literally walked round the corner into the courtyard and thought 'this is lovely, this is perfect'. I didn't need to know there were no floors and electricity to know it would work.
"But it was hard. Out here it was just a hovel. You ended up having to dig out 18 inches of horsemuck downstairs."
It seems Janet the entrepreneur has again hit on something. "The whole craft industry is very buoyant at the moment," she says, "because people are struggling. They're thinking 'instead of buying it, I'm going to make my own'.
"People aren't spending their money on going on holiday or moving – they're spending it on constructive leisure time. It's the same with people wanting to make their own clothes. Before it had this rather old-fashioned image. Now spinning and weaving are the new rock 'n' roll. You've got this whole knitting culture. People yarn bombing in the cities. It's a very, very buoyant industry."
Through her courses, Janet hopes she's inspired others to take the plunge into business. "In life it's not just what you take," she says, "it's what you give. I think a lot of people have become so selfish that they don't do that. For me, I'll encourage other young creative people."
But Janet, who has also worked as a mentor for the Princes' Trust, and met Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace, admits it's not every creative person who can run their own business.
"Sometimes creative people can be very dippy and don't work out the bottom line," she says. "But I think a positive attitude helps. I always think 'be positive'. I could have said at the beginning of the year, 'two weeks snow, nobody came, everybody cancelled'. But no, I used the time to design new products."
For sure, this is a woman who knows her own mind. "The one thing that is going to sell something is passion," she says. "I decided if I'm going to do this, then I'm going to do it properly. A lot of people start businesses by stealth but I said 'no, I want to be open to the public, I want this as my workshop, I want to teach my classes here'.
"I sleep very little, she adds, "four to five hours a night. And I do this most evenings – because this isn't work , this is me designing or making samples, and the day it stops being fun . . ." Indeed Janet does wonder if "maybe life's got another adventure for me".
Only time will tell on that front. Whatever, I doubt it'll involve a Mini. That's just no kind of farmyard vehicle.
For more information about Janet's business got to www.threshingbarn.com