Mrs Wilkins' partner, Brian Knight, joined her at the start as a director of the company, giving much needed support and encouragement so that the business could be a success. But initially Mr Knight, a builder, continued in his ‘day job' in order to provide another source of income to the couple while Mrs Wilkins strove to get the new business off the ground.
For its first four years, Grovely ticked over on a modest scale, based on a portfolio of just 20 puzzles. Then came news that Mrs Wilkins' former employer, who had founded James Hamilton Ltd back in 1976, was keen to exit his business. An offer was made and Grovely duly bought James Hamilton Ltd in 2002.
The two firms joined forces to form James Hamilton Grovely Puzzles Ltd, with a combined offering of over 100 beautiful, finely-crafted puzzles cut from prints of paintings by some of Britain's best-known wildlife artists.
The puzzles depict wildlife from both the British Isles and around the globe, from the ice sheets of the Arctic to desert plains, from dense tropical rainforest to arid mountain peaks. The company maintains strong links with conservation groups and looks for artwork that captures the essence of many endangered and protected species. Close matching of artwork to original pictures mean that puzzle prints are of an exceptionally high quality and definition. The firm also provides added interest by listing the flora and fauna shown in the pictures on the base of puzzle boxes.
"Our puzzles are made to a high standard using top quality materials, including recycled cardboard, paper and vegetable glue," says Mrs Wilkins. "Using these sustainable resources we can help protect the environment. After all it's this environment that supports the wildlife in our pictures."
But despite the company's high quality products, enlarged scale and significant turnover, it struggled to deliver a satisfactory level of profitability. In December 2008, the co-founders were given an opportunity, in Mrs Wilkins' words, "to do something drastic, to do our own manufacturing". The chance came through the change of direction of a puzzle-making supplier, which enabled James Hamilton Grovely to buy up its specialist cutting machinery, as well as other stock and equipment.
It was no small task. Four 40ft low-loader lorries and over twenty 40ft ‘curtain-sided' trucks, were required to transport the gear south from Manchester to its new home near Salisbury, Dorset.
The ability to do its own manufacturing opened the way for the firm to improve its profit margins and broaden its range of puzzles to offer traditional images, as well as a children's selection, giving a total of over 350 puzzles.
It was no small investment either and, says Mrs Wilkins wryly: "It came just as manufacturing and the whole world crashed." Since the onset of the recession, we have been disgusted at the lack of assistance available to the company, as well as other small firms, when it has been sorely needed. For example, we could find no financial assistance for converting a disused barn into the business's new premises. "There were grants available to the farmer, but not to us," she says. "And because Brian got on and started work on converting the building himself, we were told we couldn't get a grant or loan because we'd already started the work."
Mrs Wilkins has little time for the Government's claims to be supportive of small businesses, especially manufacturers, exporters and the rural economy. "We're small, we're a manufacturer, we export and we're rural, but we've had no help whatsoever," she says. "It's very frustrating."
The company, which holds up to £350,000 worth of stock at any time – including raw materials such as board and glue – has also found access to finance "nightmarish", with some banks being "singularly unhelpful". It eventually raised the loans and working capital it required through a factoring firm and asset leasing firm, a route the company had not initially wanted to go down, but which has turned out to be highly successful.
The business is still expanding. Mr Knight is now fully employed in it and has recently set up a box-making line, in addition to overseeing the puzzle making. "Without Brian taking on board the new skills required for manufacturing we would have no puzzles to sell," says Mrs Wilkins. "He is the heart of the firm, I am the voice and the face." There are two other full-time staff on the shopfloor and a part-time salesperson.
It's been a hard road, but James Hamilton Grovely has gradually gained traction in an increasingly global marketplace. Today, it sells over 100,000 jigsaw puzzles a year, exporting all over Europe and as far afield as South Africa, Australia and Singapore. The puzzles retail for between £3 for a relatively simple 20-piece jigsaw up to £16 for a challenging work of 1,500 pieces. The firm also makes bespoke puzzles for private customers, and will look to expand in this area in the future.
Mr Knight and Mrs Wilkins are under no illusions about the tough task of growing the business further. "The last few years have been difficult, not least because the Government and the banks don't really want to know about small manufacturers," says Mrs Wilkins. "The only people who help are other businesses – and organisations like the Forum who provide advice when we need it."
But the couple are as determined as ever to grow and succeed. "After all, we've put a lot of time, effort and money into this business," she says.