The Belleek Group

billThe Celtic Market is on display today in Lombard, Illinois as buyers and sellers connect. Recently we spoke with Bill Follett of The Belleek Group about himself, his business and the Celtic Marketplace.

What are your own roots? 
Three Follett brothers arrived in Salem MA from England in 1627. All other maternal/paternal lines are similar, maybe a dollop of Dutch and French. That said, the generous people of Belleek have made this Yank an honorary Irishman.

What is the company’s history and mandate?  
The heritage of the Belleek brand is rich. For nearly 160 years, individuals in our historic pottery have been hand-crafting a fine porcelain with unique characteristics that made it very recognizable, sought after, collectible and also, functional for everyday use. The history of Belleek and western Fermanagh were and are intertwined – the discovery of minerals that existed nearby which could be used in the manufacture of pottery and a man’s vision to use them to provide a livelihood for the people of that area is a powerful story and, remarkably, it is still full of vigor today. Belleek, along with our Galway Crystal and Aynsley brands, like so many mature brands, must remain relevant to an audience consumed by tech and casual living. To that end, our mission today is to provide more functional pieces, beautifully designed, that any demographic will want to use in their homes. More dinnerware, entertaining items, home décor and holiday…in traditional and contemporary designs, will keep Belleek going for the next 160 years!

What are your core products? 
Key categories are dinnerware, tea/coffee products, barware, holiday decorations, artisanal/iconic baskets, decorative items (candlesticks, frames and lamps), gifts for special occasions and jewelry.

How do you differ from the competition?
The vast majority of our lines are made-in-Ireland by hand. Our products are unique because they are developed by our own design team. Each brand has a wonderful heritage.  If you look at most other established brands, the original factory is gone,  product gets stamped out by machine in some far-away part of the world. It’s less special, quite different from what they made 50-75 years ago. As for the Celtic market, we are sought after by collectors and our newer, more functional items are very well priced to appeal to a younger audience. If a 30 year old comes into the store, our retailer partners can show him/her our mugs, frames, wine glasses, charming Christmas ornaments and many more well crafted items at great prices. Add to that the heritage designed into our products, all ages will appreciate this, it adds so much value.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the Celtic marketplace? 
More challenging. There are less Irish/Celtic-specific retailers than there were 20 years ago. That said, the ones that survive are strong and there is more opportunity to be a destination, a unique place for a gift. Merchants have to be uber-creative and market to a younger audience. They need to hold events, write articles to local media, be active daily in social media, have strong online presence, get involved with local organizations…do anything and everything to be relevant, to make people want to shop with them, to come in for the textural experience of a wonderful, special store – what you can’t get on Amazon. Stores need easy parking, in and out quickly and offer a “won’t it be fun to experience the store” atmosphere. Sounds like a lot to manage…it is. It’s not as straight-forward as when my grandfather operated retail stores in the first half of the 20th century….

What can be done to overcome the current challenges in that marketplace? 
We all have to increase our game – every day, every year, do something that will make people take notice. You can’t take anything for granted. We all have to reach out to a wider audience. We have to make ourselves of value. We all have to think from the consumer perspective (e.g.: Why would I go to store “x” to buy that?). Investments in online (from active retail to tools to telling a story….don’t just throw it out there – engage the target). These are just words, theories, at the end of the day, you need good product and a compelling way to bring it to a person and make them want to buy. All the B-school jargon can’t make that happen. We, the vendors, have to work with our retailers to get the message out there, to be heard among all the noise…no easy thing.

What are your future plans for the business? 
More functional items, more unique items, more development in the important product categories, more alliances that tell our story to a broader population.

How else are you involved with the Celtic community there? 
We provide trophies for GAA, football, golf and more sporting events throughout Ireland.  A Belleek basket is the gift given to heads of state when they visit Ireland.  From US presidents to G7 leaders to Queen Elizabeth….they all received Belleek. We also provide trophies for the iBAM awards in Chicago and to many other organizations in the US. Giving Belleek or Galway Crystal, with all the romance of the brands and the designs on the product is the quintessential gift for Irish/Celtic giving. We want to do more, each year, to continue this important bond.