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Interview: Kim Cattin, founder of West Barn Co

Five years ago, make-up artist Kim Cattin was working on a photoshoot for an international fashion magazine but was struggling to create a new look – brushed up, fluffy, natural eyebrows – which was different to the favoured Instagram trend of the time. Kim wanted to use an old Hollywood trick of using soap to keep the brows in place but there was nothing in her extensive kit bag she felt she could use safely, and she didn’t want to use hand soap on clients’ faces. So, along with mum Donna, she decided to invent Soap Brows. Once Donna had settled on the formula, after months of experimenting in her kitchen, the pair launched West Barn Co – named after Donna’s home – from an industrial estate in Meadowfield. Three years on, and having outgrown that base, the company has just moved to impressive new headquarters on Mandale Business Park, on Durham’s Belmont Industrial Estate, where batches of Soap Brows, and other products in its extensive range, are flying out of the glass-frosted doors. Colin Young went to meet the pair, and Kim’s twin sister Kirsty, to learn more about one of the region’s entrepreneurial success stories.

There is a tree trunk with two swings attached in the middle of the office.

Next to the spotless, shiny white and silver laboratory is a large wooden table, covered in tiny white and brown boxes which are being meticulously batch-coded and filled with white pencils and small tins labelled Soap Brows.

The chit-chat and laughter from the half a dozen ladies round the table – ‘the entertainment’ as one of the team, co-founder Kim Cattin’s gran Gwen, calls it – is as quiet and calm as the music from the speakers above.

This is West Barn Co; a hidden oasis in the middle of the maze on a Durham industrial estate.

It looks like the most pleasant place in the world to work.

While warehouseman Tim feeds the table with a range of goods from the lab conveyor belt in his shorts and t-shirt, the rest of the 27-strong team tap away at their desks or in working rooms, while down the corridor, in the studio opposite the kitchen, Rachel and Dean put together the latest West Barn Co weekly podcast.

And then there’s the tree.

A huge trunk, from a timber merchant in Durham, floor to ceiling, with branches, fake leaves and two swings, one of which Kim happily takes to for the photo shoot.

She says: “When we first moved in here it was like a bunker; breeze-blocked walls, no lights, nothing. It was like an indoor car park.

“We designed the whole thing with a team and told them we wanted an indoor/outdoor zone, so they designed a fake tree, but we didn’t like it because you could tell it was fake.

“We wanted an actual tree; sometimes you just need a real tree.

“So we approached a timber merchant we knew – Waggott Bros, from Meadowfield – and when he came and we told him what we wanted, he thought we were absolutely mad.

“Dominic, (Donna’s son and Kim’s brother) designed something to go round a pillar, Waggott Bros then jigsawed the four pieces of the trunk together and made a bench from the inside of the tree, which is part of this chill-out area as well; it weighs half a tonne and we had to roller it in, old-school style.

“When he’d finished, he was absolutely over the moon with it and asked us to send him some photos.

“He said he’d never do it again but the construction company we used asked for his contact details because they have had a few clients asking for indoor trees and they were really impressed with it. We’re innovators!

“We have a huddle every morning, we have lunch here every day, team building, host networking events; we wanted a chill-out zone away from the main office but in sight with a more relaxed feel to it.

“We didn’t want it to feel like a common room or lunch room, but a place which feels part of the whole office and vibe.”

Kim and her team, including Donna, Gwen and twin sister Kirsty, moved into Waldon House, on Durham’s Mandale Business Park, at the start of the year – opening a beauty clinic next door for good measure, with pods offering massages, relaxation treatments, exfoliation, facials, fillers and botox.

“It joins the two aspects of the business nicely,” says Kim.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it is expanding quickly already.”

Kim, who is originally from Sunderland, and was educated with the nuns at St Anthony’s Girls’ School, quit her A levels in drama, law and psychology to study musical theatre at Newcastle College.

She says: “I just walked out one day near the end of my first year, which was very out of character.

“I was always quite shy and timid, but I had fire in my belly somewhere.

“I didn’t like it, didn’t enjoy it and I wanted to do performing arts.

“I absolutely loved it. It was really strict – food diaries, four-hour dance classes, which wouldn’t stop until you’d got it exactly right – but we had some of the best tutors; one is in Broadway now and another is in the West End.

“It was a two-year course and we – because Kirsty joined me as well – got a real taste for that world.

“Towards the end, most of them were applying to go to London but for some reason I didn’t want that career. I felt I’d done that. It’s not a secure career and you’re done and too old by the time you’re 25/26.”

Uncertain what the future held long-term, the twins made ‘the best decisions of their lives’.

Kim headed for Kenya to teach for six months while Kirsty went to China for four years, working in PR and events for a major corporation, which remains her role in the company today. 

“It was something I had always wanted to do,” Kim says.

“I’ve been a twin all my life and we went through everything together, so Africa was my chance to find out who I was in myself and have my own identity and space and personality.

“So I decided to go to the other side of the world to get one. And it was the best thing I’ve ever done.

“The culture there has it right. I discovered that we are spoiled in the west, and I learned the valuable lesson of how to appreciate everything around us.”

Kim, who was 19 at the time, says one day stands out which changed her as a person, and has helped build her business, and the ethics around it.

She says: “I was at my desk in the school and Joyce, one of the students who was about seven, had fetched some water from the well and brought it to me.

“And it was really heavy – a real nightmare to carry and quite a trek.

“So I was very appreciative and gave her a tiny boiled sweet – the size of your pinky fingertip – and she ran up to the top of the garden to her other friends to show them it, and I thought, ‘here we go, they’re all going to come down for a sweetie now’.

“They were laughing and giggling, and I waited for them all to come down, but they didn’t.

“I watched her. She sat down, put it in her teeth, crushed it and shared it with her four friends.

“To me, that was a really pivotal moment.

“I didn’t give the others a sweet because I’d realised that’s what made them all happy.

“That’s the lesson I learned.

“It was a real eyeopener for me, and I still tear up when I think about it.”

And that is confirmed…

“The whole trip changed me as a person,” she adds.

“It changed my mindset, which is a powerful thing.

“There were a few little moments like that, that cemented the person I wanted to be in life and how I wanted to bring up my child, and how I run this business now; the importance of being able to be happy no matter where you are in the journey, and not making my goals financial.

“My goal is to make this a happy environment. That culture is really important to me.”

Kim and Donna initially set up their own shoe company on her return to the UK – and after it expanded and a spell in London – she trained as a make-up artist in Newcastle, London and Belfast, and quickly earned a very good reputation in the field, working for fashion magazines, at weddings and London Fashion Week.

She says: “I wanted to move into TV and film, but it does get monotonous and although I did more training and was travelling a lot of the time to jobs, I had a desire to help people, so decided to do my nursing training.”

She qualified as a nurse, worked in A&E in Gateshead but continued with the make-up artistry.

“I did have a plan – some bank nursing alongside the make-up because TV and film is not a secure job,” she says.

“You do a season and then nothing for long spells, so it’s like being a freelancer. Then, in the second year of my training, Donna and I set up this company.”

They can’t remember the Eureka moment when they knew they needed to invent the new product for eyebrows, but increasingly found it simply didn’t exist.

She says: “I qualified in 2019 as a registered nurse and we’d set up the business two years earlier.

“I couldn’t find anything in my kit but, I’d studied the history of the industry, and in the 50s they used a bar of soap to style moustaches or eyebrows because it can really set the hair. I remember thinking it would be really good if we could do a soap base but make it a cosmetic, but I had no idea how to do that.

“Thankfully, Donna got formulating in her kitchen – she had already studied cosmetology and had been home formulating moisturisers for friends and family – and we decided we just had to make this product.

“Soap for eyebrows – Soap Brows – all made in her kitchen.”

Kim created a website, mainly to launch to make-up artist friends and colleagues. By December 2017, even without marketing, sales took off.

“The feedback was incredible,” she says.

“People kept telling us they wanted more, and I said, ‘we have to do this properly’.

“And I knew, once we had the product, that it would be huge.

“I knew we’d outgrow the unit at Meadowfield within three years. It was like sardines in a tin by the end. We had to work in shifts because we were so squashed at times.

“We hadn’t done any advertising and sales went through the roof straightaway, so I came up with a PR strategy – just gifting to other make-up artists and friends in the industry – and it just blew up and went very big, very quickly.

“We didn’t spend a penny on advertising in the first two years. We had incredible organic growth to start with, and had some incredible support from leading make-up artists to the stars, which was amazing.

“I remember one of the leading make-up artists Nicola Chapman Haste using it live on Instagram and I was really nervous, thinking, ‘please like it, please like it’ – she’s got more than half a million followers.

“And then straightaway, she said, “I wish I’d done this.”

Once the likes of Michelle Keegan endorsed Soap Brows, Kim knew she was on to a winner.

Today, the West Barn Co reach extends to more than 60 countries.

Harrods, Liberty London and Urban Outfitters are stockists, it has featured in Vogue, Byrdie, Glamour, Grazia and Refinery29 magazines, and more celebrities like Billie Eilish, Zendaya and Kendall Jenner have used its growing number of products too.

Kim adds: “Everyone has assumed we are American.

“A lot of our customers are from the US, and we have a lot of clients who are LA make-up artists, plus LA is the place where every influencer seems to live.

“But we are proud to be from the North East and we want to push that – and tell the North East we’re here – just round the corner in Durham.

“There is this misconception that if you want to be successful, you have to move to London.

“We want to change that.”

West Barn Co is continuing to grow – unlike the tree.

West Barn Co

June 10, 2022

  • Ideas & Observations

Created by North East Times