You can follow your dream

SIX years ago Julie Woodard was a reluctant commuter to the City. She was in her mid-thirties, in a well-paid job working as a number cruncher in the accounts department of a large insurance conglomerate.

Victoria Hawkins

SIX years ago Julie Woodard was a reluctant commuter to the City. She was in her mid-thirties, in a well-paid job working as a number cruncher in the accounts department of a large insurance conglomerate. She hated it. Today she is master - or mistress rather - of all she surveys and her daily commute is measured in terms of hundreds of yards not miles. She also reckons she's now got the best job in the whole world.

What Julie did was follow her dream which has seen her turn one little corner of Needham Market into her own mini-Moroccan souk, which she calls Maroque, with an added twist of Rajasthan and India, known as Bhatik, thrown in for good measure.

In a nutshell, she started off by setting up an internet company from her fabulous Georgian home in the nearby high street, but that expanded to the point where she has now bought her own warehouse, which is packed full of Eastern promise with exotic pierced iron and brass lamps, goatskin and henna painted lanterns, camel-bone decorated mirrors, earthenware tagines, colourful hand-woven rugs, exotic herbs and cosmetics, furniture, throws and silk cushions.

She's a very happy bunny. “Let me give you the tour, then we'll have some mint tea,” she said, leading the way up the stairs. “This is our little corner of Marrakech...” And hey presto, somewhat Ali Baba like, she opens the door and you enter another world where atmospheric room sets give an instant idea of how the look can work.

There are fantastic lanterns, each one slightly different because they are all handmade, some suspended, others floor-standing, the biggest of which are over a metre high. Some are made of brass and others of less expensive iron, finished with an antique wash. And, yes, before you ask, she does have a Moroccan-inspired home herself where high ceilings show off the lamps to their full glory.

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“But we have been trying to get the craftsmen to make smaller versions which fit better in modern, smaller, houses - we sell some of the bigger ones to barn conversions - they suspend them up in the high vaulted ceiling and they look wonderful. And the majority of our large floor-standing lanterns I actually export to Spain, where people use them on terraces, round the swimming pool or along pathways.”

She imports rugs from Morocco, brass from Fez and, more recently, started bringing in her own soft furnishings from India. “Thing is, the Moroccan options are very narrow with furnishing, as in you are fine if you want red but the Indian ones are all colours and just really pretty and go really well with all of this.”

Originally from Hereford, she and husband Stuart, an accountant, moved to East Anglia 12 years ago with his job. “We had been up in Peterborough and then Guardian [insurance] brought us here and we loved it.”

Julie had her epiphany in 2001 when she went on holiday to Morocco. She'd been there once, 20 years beforehand and if anything found it a little bit scary. This time it captivated her completely. “Going back and travelling around we fell in love with all of it, I guess - the people, the food, the architecture, they way they lived. The houses are so different, so elegant and it was the most foreign place in the world, considering it is so close to Europe. It is just so different and we thought it was amazing.

“I didn't want to work for a corporate for the rest of my life, I wanted to run my own business. I hated my job and doing the commute every day was soul-destroying and when we went round I saw all these beautiful things that you just couldn't get here.

“When we came back, I thought there is a business idea in this and went round and tried to find importers.” That took time but she hooked up with a Moroccan family, who have been in the export business for three generations, who have a whole network of craftsmen who they work with and she has worked with them since.

“And we get a really good price because there is no middle man,” she said. “Before I started I went to a trade show and met several importers but most weren't interested in dealing with anyone setting up a website back then. Then I came across a Moroccan lady, who is the wife of this family, and that was it. Their sons run the UK end.

“I go on buying trips - terrible job but somebody has got to do it - and go over and choose things myself but being female and not speaking fluent Arabic I would pay more than I pay the importers. I just wouldn't get as good a deal if I tried to do it myself. But it's great, I go over about to Morocco three or four times a years, go round and meet suppliers, look at the new stuff, see the supply chain and the dynamics of how that works and meet the craftsmen. It's brilliant.

“I am not big enough to have a 40ft container of my own yet but I would like to. I haven't quite got the cash flow yet so I still have to haggle parts of containers, and I work with them on that, but for instance, I was due a container last week and it's still stuck in Marrakech because someone wants other stuff in it too, so I don't control the whole process yet. It has to be 'in sa Allah'; as they say - 'God willing'.

“We ran Maroque from home for about three and a half years and I was lucky in that I have a reasonable-sized house but it had taken over the dining room, the spare rooms and our hall was permanently full. I thought, if you don't have belief in your own business no-one will, so we decided to take the plunge.”

While she would have been tempted to have maybe bought her own riad in Marrakech, she says, Stuart wasn't really into that and they took the sensible and practical option - they invested in a warehouse in Suffolk instead. “It was bigger than I thought I needed and it was a huge step and we really have gone into it big time, it's another whole mortgage. Yes, very scary and like all businesses if you do have a quiet week you go oooooh.”

Luckily it's growing. Sylvia who has been with Julie for three years, started off doing six hours a week and now works four days, nine to four - and six months ago Jackie became her second employee, which means Julie has finally been able to pack up the tape gun and stop physically packing up the orders herself.

She has followed her dream and it is working for her. “I had a well paid job, even after paying for the commute, but I gave that up and changed my life. It was the first time I had never earned any money, which was really scary but I can still remember the first day an order came through. A complete stranger had gone on line and spent money - it was so exciting - and I still get a buzz from that now.”

You can drop in to Maroque at Unit 2E, Williamsport Way, Lion Barn Industrial Estate in Needham Market on weekday, 9am to 4pm or go on-line at www.maroque.co.uk and www.bhatik.co.uk

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