East Lancashire businesses celebrate 20 year partnership

Blackburn-based eBusiness UK is celebrating 20 years since it first provided its web development services to Altham-based First Tunnels.

The two companies have been creating ecommerce success together since before most organisations even had their own website.

Today, First Tunnels is a leading manufacturer of polytunnels, which are similar to greenhouses but covered in specially designed polythene rather than glass. The company counts the NHS, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Alan Titchmarsh and, more recently, Jeremy Clarkson as customers.

Early ecommerce pioneers

In the early years, the company sold a full range of garden products, from slug pellets to garden gnomes, as well as the polytunnels which became its specialism.

Managing director Sean Barker joined the company as its first employee, working one day a week, before joining full-time when he graduated from university. He later bought out the business from his partner in the mid 2010s.

He said: “Back when we started, the internet was still novel to a lot of people, and not many companies had websites, but I had studied Business Information Systems and the internet was something we were using every day and saw the potential for.”

After receiving funding to go ahead and build their own site, Sean said it was “exciting” to see the first online orders roll in. But a full range of products was too unwieldy, it took too long to compile the company’s print brochure and it was difficult to compete against B&Q, Tesco and Woolworths for regular garden items.

So the decision came to whittle down its offering and to specialise in polytunnels. First Tunnels soon became a leader in its field, crediting the website as a key part of this success.

The number one sales tool

“Our website is our number one sales tool,” says Sean. “Whether it’s an order received online, or browsing which leads to a phone order, it’s played a huge part in our growth throughout the years.”

Now the business employs 30 staff, and has enjoyed double-digit growth every year in recent history.

The company acquired new land on which it built its bespoke home just before Brexit was confirmed. Though prices of raw materials quickly increased as a result, so did demand from customers who wanted to begin growing produce on domestic land.

The Covid-19 pandemic soon followed. This created an upward spike in demand, both from hobbyists who began growing their own fruit and veg at home with their new-found free time, as well as those who saw food shortages as an imminent danger.

First Tunnels sales grew from £2.5m in the previous year to £6m. The ability to make sales online kept the company’s order book full, though such rapid growth was difficult to manage at first.

Sean says: “It’s not easy to find new staff, source raw materials or find extra shipping capacity out of nowhere, especially during a pandemic, but we met the challenges head on and we’ve done great.

Bright future

The company has now acquired land to build new, even bigger premises which will accommodate the increased levels of demand.

Throughout the journey, eBusiness UK has been a trusted partner, providing website and ecommerce expertise which harnessed the best available technology of the time to keep First Tunnels at the forefront of the industry.

The original website was upgraded and added to for many years until a brand new site was built in 2017, which resulted in an immediate 20 per cent increase in sales over the following months.

“Our website has been invaluable to our success and eBusiness UK has been a great partner throughout these 20 years,” said Sean.

The eBusiness UK team showed their appreciation to Sean and the team with a custom-baked celebratory cake which was delivered in person.

Latif Kothia, eBusiness UK director, said: “In the 20 years that we have been working together, we have seen many incredible advancements in web technology, and First Tunnels has grown and evolved significantly. To serve a client of this calibre for two decades is testament to our ability to adapt, learn and stay ahead of the competition.

“We’re proud of the relationship we have built with First Tunnels and with such a bright future ahead of them, we very much look forward to helping them achieve even greater things.”