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Mark Jones Is The New Chair Of The GA’s National Committee

Due to a week of train strikes, the GA’s AGM may have started a little later than scheduled last Wednesday (8 May), but it was ‘house full’, as members of the Association, along with many familiar gift industry faces, battled travel issues to make it to Federation House, the GA’s HQ in Birmingham.

Gisela Graham’s commercial director Mark Jones was confirmed as the new chair of the National Committee, taking over from Buy-From’s founder Louise Welsby. Stephen Illingworth, co-owner and ceo of Widdop & Co, is the new vice chair.

Above: From left to right: The GA’s ceo Sarah Ward with the National Committee’s chair Mark Jones and vice chair Stephen Illingworth.
Above: From left to right: The GA’s ceo Sarah Ward with the National Committee’s chair Mark Jones and vice chair Stephen Illingworth.

“As I pass the baton to Mark I am confident in the direction and future of The Giftware Association,” stated Louise. “The foundations we have built — from Gift of the Year growth to the educational and digital enhancements — are solid, alongside the unwavering passion of our members and the dedicated support of the GA team. Our industry is poised for even greater achievements, and I am eager to see where the new leadership will take us,” she continued. “With a commitment to nurturing talent, embracing innovation, and fostering a supportive community, the future of the giftware industry is undoubtedly very bright.”

Louise also praised Sebnini’s co-founder and managing director Gert Schyberg who stepped down from the National Committee after 15 years of service. “It has been an honour to be an officer alongside Gert for the past four years,” she emphasised.

Mark Jones told “My role as chair is to support the GA’s ceo Sarah Ward and bring my expertise to the wider industry. We will also be looking for new members of the National Committee, fresh faces who will strengthen it. For example, it would be good to have representatives from the gift industry’s smaller manufacturers an designers. My focus for the next two years will therefore be to strengthen the National Committee and to increase membership.”

The next chapter for the Giftware Association began with a line-up of insightful speakers taking to the stage.

Among them was Langs’ Keith Edmondson, who took delegates through his career at the company, where he started out as a temp in the warehouse, prior to going to university, becoming joint managing director following a management buyout three weeks before lockdown in 2020.

He said that what he’s learned over the years is that understanding people and their situations is half the battle. “Also, you can’t do everything,” he pointed out.

Above: Langs’ Keith Edmonson.
Above: Langs’ Keith Edmonson.

Highlighting the importance of good people was also a key focus for James Arnold, founder of award winning financial services company Birchstone Markets.

“In a commoditised world, service and quality of people are two very important factors in financial services when delivering FX risk management, cash deposits and commercial finance,” he stated.  “The way people operate and their values are the most important thing and are our number one asset,” he emphasised.

Above: James Arnold, Birchstone Markets.
Above: James Arnold, Birchstone Markets.

The morning session ended with Retail100’s co-director Anna Berry, a former buyer at the John Lewis Partnership for over 33 years, talking about her career trajectory with the department store, and how it’s evolved since setting up consultancy Retail100 with three former JLP colleagues. “We have great skill sets in business and now work collaboratively with various companies. Between us we covered every department store category and are very open and honest about what we can do for businesses.”

Above: Anna Berry, director, Retail100.
Above: Anna Berry, director, Retail100.

Lunch was followed by an afternoon panel session, facilitated by the GA’s ceo Sarah Ward. The line-up included Mark Jones, Stephen Illingworth and Gert Schyberg, alongside the GA’s Chris Workman, Alina Massod Aziz and Victoria Louise.

Having received the King’s Award For Enterprise: International Trade in 2023, Gert Schyberg took attendees through the company’s journey, offering advice to other businesses thinking about applying. He also offered expert advice to brands looking to branch out into private label, something Sebnini did in 2010.

Meanwhile, Mark Jones was asked how brands can derive value from omnichannel retailing. “Omnichannel gives a company scalability, and opportunity to extend its reach,” he commented. “It also controls a company’s presence online, but the challenges include every platform having a different way of working and managing data. Therefore you have to get your platform right.”

Having recently opened an office in China, Stephen Illingworth was asked about doing business in the Far East. “In 2024, it’s very easy for people to say stop buying from China, but nothing matches the efficiency, speed, scale and quality level that is the Chinese way of working. India is good, as is Turkey and Poland, and Portugal for ceramics. However, in today’s cost of living crisis, China is still the best at providing quality product at the right price. And although we’ve opened an office in China, at the other end of the spectrum, we are also growing the manufacturing side of the business at our HQ in Manchester.”

Asked about sourcing and ethical practices, Stephen advised companies to be cynics. “There is no question that is a bad question to ask a supplier,” he stated. “Take people a lot less for their word and never be afraid to interrogate them.”

Speaking about her role as the GA’s head of membership, Victoria Louiseemphasised that the Association exists for the benefit of members, to support their businesses. “We have an expert available in every single area. All businesses have different personalities, challenges and questions, and the knowledge people can garner from the Association and our members is invaluable.”

Highlighting the growing importance and influence of the Gift of the Year competition, the GA’s marketing and PR manager Chris Workman explained: “brands that do well are those that ask me lots of questions before entering. It’s very much about companies thinking about what they are creating. It’s also been a huge benefit to entrants, and to retailers, to have the Gift of the Year’s live judging at Spring Fair,” he added.

Chris also stressed that the Association’s education side, which is there to help both members and non-members. “There is so much covered on our website, from HR to marketing and Tik Tok. A lot is free, and it’s a resource we offer to everyone to use. We are always on the look out for gaps to fill too.”

Asked what makes a good sales team, Mark Jones said the team was only as good as the effort a company puts into it, and the type of person they employ. “Always look for hungry people who will drive the business forward,” he advised.

Above: Louise Welsby and Mark Jones
Above: Louise Welsby and Mark Jones

Louise Welsby stressed the importance of companies owning their brand purpose. “It’s vital,” she underlined. “Consumers are looking for meaning in their purchases which is critical. It comes back to the ‘why’. Why are we doing what we are doing? You have to connect people to the reason for the journey to make customers connect with the brand in a meaningful way. And from purpose comes profit.”

She also stressed the importance of LinkedIn as part of a company’s business strategy. “It is about people, it’s about you and your brand. It encourages conversation. Everyone on it wants to grow their community and it gives people a purpose and a voice. It’s a very multi-faceted platform and opportunity.”

During the AGM, Sarah Ward reminded attendees that along with marketing and PR manager Chris Workman and business development manager Alina Masood Aziz, all three would be putting on their walking boots to take part in the Cardgains 17.5m Sheffield Round Walk charity challenge on Thursday 27 June – It’s Not Grim Up North – which is hoping to raise £35,000 for mental health charity Mind.

“A target of £750 has been set but we are confident we can achieve more with the gift industry’s support,” said Sarah. “The final amount raised will be doubled by the British Allied Trades Federation (BATF), so please donate generously.”

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 Top: The panel discussion at the GA’s AGM last week. From left to right: Chris Workman, Louise Welsby, Gert Schyberg, Stephen Illingworth, Victoria Louise and Mark Jones.

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