The Inside Story

FATHER AND DAUGHTER LAUNCH KLAYLIFE, AND BRING HOPE TO AN AFRICAN COMMUNITY

“You wouldn’t imagine that a clay bead has a personality of its own but believe me it has. Each and every bead is so charming and unique, you can actually see fingerprints on them and that’s what people are obsessed with.” Phillip Jones

Phillip Jones was ready for retirement. He was excited about the next chapter in his life. He had been working in the food industry for over 30 years, for one of the major food distribution conglomerates. It was time. But when his daughter Kerri came to him about a business idea, his longtime retirement dreams suddenly took a backseat. He went from retiree to joint founder of a start up in the space of a week! 

Kerri had been working in breakfast radio. Her day started at 3.30am and was high pressure. She was constantly stressed and tired. She knew she wanted to start a family one day and felt if she owned her own business she would have the freedom to have a family and a successful creative working life. But she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

One day she was scrolling through Instagram, it was just when Instagram had started to emerge, and she came across a clay beaded chandelier on stylist Karissa Fanning’s blog called THE LANE. The chandelier was from South Africa, handmade by women in a community struggling to support their families with HIV.

“I was so taken by just how stunning the piece was. I’d never seen anything like it. I tried to track down the original company but they didn’t have an Instagram account. All I had was their name. We were due to go back to South Africa anyway to see my Gran. (Phillip had emigrated to Australia from South Africa in 1989.) So I asked my Dad to try and track down this company,” shares Kerri.

It turns out that the lady behind these beautiful chandeliers lived in the heart of Kwazulu- Natal, formerly known as Zululand. Kwazulu-Natal is quite a rural part of South Africa but a very creative hub. She had started making jewellery using the clay beads and when the demand became so high, that’s when she began to work with the local community. They had a local HIV centre with a lot of women looking for work, so she employed these women and taught them how to roll beads.

“We connected, through a contact of mine located in South Africa. Even though South Africa has a massive population of over 50 million people, its strange how well connected people are. As we were going back for my mom in laws 90th, we agreed to meet with Merewyn, the lady behind the beautiful craft. Besides Merewyn being very creative, she is a women of faith, really kind, caring and charitable. We told her we wanted to import her products into Australia and build a brand. And that’s where it started five years ago,” explains Phillip.

Kerri worked with our new supplier/partner to create a product range that was right for Klaylife, with the chandelier as the hero piece. She was adamant that she wanted a real point of difference and didn’t want bulky and chunky beads in the products. She had a vision for an elegant range and created their own direction, including a very unique Klaylife colour range. Kerri’s philosophy was to have less products but ensure each product was exquisite.

“We don’t believe we’re selling light fittings, we believe we are selling art”, says Kerri.

Each piece is numbered and handmade by a particular lady or a group of ladies. Phillip and Kerri always try to share who the maker is behind every piece they sell. The products are authentic and each product has a story.

When the father and daughter team first embarked on this journey they discovered that the electrical side of the products were not stringent enough for the Australian market. The Klaylife products are now ERAC approved (Electrical Regulatory Australia Compliance) and there was a great deal of time and money spent working with the South African team to get to this point.
Unfortunately Klaylife have to deal with lots of local importers bringing in cheaper, inferior products from abroad that are not up to the standard or quality of theirs. These products come in from many Asian counties without the required electrical compliance. These products are made from wood or plastic and have no safe fire rating. “If something were to happen by way of an electrical fire then the owner would not be covered by insurance”, explains Phillip. Some importers just bring in the light shade and expect the customers to deal with the electricals. This is both a pain and very expensive. Klaylife, on the other hand has a nice point of difference in that the collection is carefully guided and curated by Kerri but also each and every product is compliant and of the highest quality. “Ultimately one gets what one pays for,” says Kerri.

One of the beautiful things about the Klaylife product is that they are handmade and aren’t perfect. The team likes to talk about the fact that you are buying something that is “perfectly imperfect, or imperfectly perfect”.

“You wouldn’t imagine that a clay bead has a personality of its own but believe me it has. Each and every bead is so unique, that you can actually see fingerprints on some of them and that’s what people are obsessed with. The wooden replicas just can’t create that sort of texture,” says Phillip.

Phillip and Kerri are also very active in working with their customers. They are always careful in who they partner with to sell their products. Their partners must have the will and desire to share the beautiful story with conviction. They must love the brand. 

I’m interested to know if Phillip’s alternative retirement is everything he hoped for?

“It’s just a small business and we deal with a lot. Kerri’s got a whole load of stuff that she deals with and I’ve got a whole load of stuff that I deal with. Of course I am passionate about what we are doing but cant say I love every aspect of the job. There’s some painful stuff, like breaking up cardboard boxes and putting them in the bin,” Phillip complains. 

“He has come full circle”, Kerri pipes in. “As a youngster he started his career in the warehouse and now he is back in the warehouse! He definitely does the less fun stuff.”

They divide up the roles. Kerri guides the company creatively and does the sales and Phillip deals with the rest.

“She lets me get a sale occasionally, the complicated ones,” grins Phillip. We have a lot of clients in the US, Europe and many other parts of the world and if the orders are of a complex nature, I will handle them. Recently we had an order for 8 massive pendant chandeliers measuring 3.8m each. We had eight staircase voids to fill that needed something quite special. That’s an enormous chandelier! We had a month to get that order made. It was all systems go.”

“What’s your creative vision for the company?” I ask Kerri.

“For me it’s all about handmade, nothing shiny, it’s earthy but high-end. Our look is minimal. We have an African feel without being cliché. We might have a simple zigzag in our patterns, which is quite subtle. There’s a rawness,” explains Kerri.

Phillip and Kerri are consciously moving into a very eco-space.

Phillip remarks… “Kerri is on to me all the time about no more plastic, no more plastic, I don’t want any more plastic.” 

Klaylife is moving away from bubble wrap and into a far more sustainable form of packaging. It’s not necessarily cheaper but it’s better for people and for the environment. 

Both Phillip and Kerri agree that they had a unique start. They didn’t start off with a hardcore strategy and marketing plan. They just started it all on gut instinct. Phillip was trying to retire and Kerri was trying to start a family. 

Kerri shares that… “It wasn’t about wanting to take over the world but something magical did happen. We’ve got a beautiful product with a beautiful story and we’ve invested in some beautiful imagery, and the word has spread. We’ve even hit Hollywood. Patrick Dempsey has three. Chris Hemsworth has one.” 

“Oprah has sixteen in her home… no, no I’m just pulling your leg,” laughs Phillip.

Oprah would be seriously impressive! But then, these pieces are so stunning it wouldn’t be such a surprise.

A FATHER AND DAUGHTER TEAM

“I couldn’t do it without Dad’s skill set in just the finances, let alone everything else he does. Everything needs to be priced and there’s so many layers with importing and with the containers. Dad has that very sensible experience, that’s just not my brain. I couldn’t do the logistic side of the business and compliance and the warehousing. And also he deals a lot with the team in South Africa,” says Kerri.

And what does Kerri bring to the table? “Not lunch,” laughs Phillip.

“I do Uber Eats very well”, smiles Kerri.

“I think Kerri’s single-minded approach to what we stand for has been her greatest attribute. She also has a very good sense of style. I’ve always thought she gets it from me but perhaps not. I was told what to wear today for this shoot!

“I remember as a kid Kerri was never about getting ten tops, she wanted one good top. It was always about quality not quantity. She was very clear on what she liked and I think she’s brought that to this business. She can be a bit argumentative sometimes, but she does stick to her guns. I respect that. She comes from a background of detail. Attention to detail has been very important in the finished product” explains Phillip. 

THE DREAM FOR THE FUTURE

Both Kerri and Phillip express that the business needs to stay fun for them. But it also needs to contribute in looking after the community they help support. They do feel that they are making a difference to a whole lot of people in South Africa. It’s not about handouts, it’s about job opportunities. Although they don’t own the factory in South Africa, they do help to employ many poor and often disenfranchised people that live on the banks of rivers in mud huts. Klaylife contributes to ensure that all of the staff employed are paid above the award wages to help them create their own economies. Kerri and Phillip get over to South Africa twice a year to visit. “We do try to do the right thing with the team by supporting their needs wherever possible. We contribute towards bonusues and incentives and the broader welfare of the employees.”

Phillip shares with me that one of their employees was murdered six weeks earlier. So they sent over money to the family. They’re not going to retire on it but it’s certainly going to help tide them over.

WHAT’S IMPORTANT?

“Creating balance in my life is very important for me, managing the kids and this business is my goal. I know what unhappiness looks like and that was the 3am wake up call for breakfast radio. As much as I love radio, there’s no balance in that,” Kerri tells me.

“For me it’s all about my grandkids. My happiness is contentment within my family, taking the time to enjoy them. And that’s the same with Klaylife. We want to be sustainable, taking a little bit longer to do things right, enjoy the process and get better results.” says Phillip.

KERRI’S ADVICE ON BUILDING A BRAND
Be careful not to burn out. I’ve always been a very hard worker so I am not suggesting being lazy, just working without the stress. A lot of the pressure is self inflicted. I read Arianna Huffington’s book. She had a massive burnout when she worked around the clock and then she collapsed out of exhaustion. Now she’s all about working smarter and having balance, and you get better results. I agree with that.

KERRI’S APP LIST TO INSPIRE

“I couldn’t live without my Zendesk, Shopify, Xero and Trello app. We work almost entirely off the cloud and e-commerce software”

Words: Emma Scott
Photography: Lauren Bamford

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