On Friday 6th January 2012, Blacks Leisure Group plc went into receivership and the viable assets ( several brands, amongst which Blacks, Peter Storm, Eurohike are the key ones) were purchased by JD Sports (confirmed 9th Jan on Monday afternoon) JDS is a plc of almost £800m sales who are 57% owned by Pentland ( a private company) who is also the owner of Berghaus. Anticipated sales had been c£160m by the year end of Feb 2012 (of which Millets should have made up half, Blacks stores 42% and other fascia the balance.) However, half year losses to end August were £16m.
So a new journey began in 2014, one which will be tough even when relieved of debt and overheads. Millets was always the first price point with its ‘happy’, but down market fascia, but now with middle price point merchandise, it is weakly positioned against e.g. Mountain Warehouse with its high tech fascia, but low end/first price point own brand merchandise.
Here’s wishing the company well on that journey, the UK outdoor industry needs a successful and financially healthy Blacks and Millets.
So whilst the journey continues, here is the story of the first 160 year odyssey for Blacks.
This information on BLACKS is based on our book ISBN 0-9704143-5-8 ‘Invisible on Everest; Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003) and further unpublished materials, collections and interviews. This history was originally on our old website Innovation for Extremes which we closed down in 2014 when Outdoor Gear Coach was launched.
We have also published a timeline, showing a gear innovation timeline alongside company history dates and of course mountaineering achievements.
The Blacks story is split into what we perceive to be 8 key phases.
Thomas Black founded a sailmaking and chandlery business in Greenock in Scotland in 1863 and this craft firm made hand-sewn sails for the neighbouring port of Glasgow. Even in the 1860s the coming of the sewing machine and steam shipping meant that, without changes, the firm’s days would be numbered. However sewing machines did not diffuse widely in industry until the late 1880s when the use of electric lighting increased the feasibility of sewing in factory conditions.
By 1904 the second Thomas Black recognised that without diversification the firm would fail. His inspiration to move into tents came from America, on a trip to Kansas City, where he saw a firm making canvas marquees and decided to change both Black’s product and production methods. He could also observe other UK businesses, including Benjamin Edgington and S.W. Silver. Edgington had built a reputation and good business volume by supplying marquees for royalty and tentage to the military, explorers and mountaineers. As this story unfolds you will see how the two eventually came together in 1965.
Black installed sewing machines, replaced craft workers (who had been sewing sails by hand) with cheaper female labour and began producing large tents for the army and for functions, in competition with firms like John and Benjamin Edgington. Inevitably business boomed during the First World War, when the firm supplied a range of tents and other large canvas items.
The Black family were enthusiastic campers whose first experience of outdoor living was in North America. Back in Scotland the family – including future inter-war Chairman Crawford Black – regularly spent their summer holidays under canvas. As with so many outdoor retailers and manufacturers, this gave them both an awareness of the potential commercial opportunities of camping and an understanding of their customers. The firm began manufacturing lightweight tents after the First World War and these were sold through their ship chandlery business. As the camping craze gathered pace during the 1920s, they began to expand and opened showrooms in Glasgow and larger manufacturing facilities at Greenock. Blacks became a limited company in 1923 and opened its first London premises in Grays Inn Road five years later. Crawford Black took over the company in 1930 – the same year that the company supplied 4,700 tents for the millennium celebrations of the Icelandic parliament. (It was from this event that the help and inspiration came for the ‘Icelandic’ brand down sleeping bags (this down sleeping bag series dominated the UK market place right through into the early 1960s, when they were replaced by the incoming new generation of hands-on mountaineer/manufacturers).
This phase was indeed an incredibly modern business model, a modern manufacturing facility in Scotland, making own brand, with a very well distributed catalogue supported by own retail stores which offered good service and indeed even offered hire purchase facilities.
‘In the early 1960s, this catalogue, when supported by around 24 retail stores, was the power house of the outdoor industry, indeed it WAS the industry. As Karrimor I had to ensure I had my products in there. When the Good Companions catalogue was cancelled in 1965, its circulation was 200,000 pieces p.a.’ Mike Parsons. Karrimor owner/innovator, 1960-96.
ITISA tent, 1929Even though there were relatively few outdoor brands, Crawford Black did not have the market to himself. Apart from long established firms like Benjamin Edgington, an important competitor was the Camp and Sport Co-operators ( the successors to the Supplies Department of the Camping Club of Great Britain) whose trade mark Camtors was registered in 1924. The society had opened a factory in Grays Inn Road in 1926, offices and show rooms two years later and a branch office and showroom in China Lane, Piccadilly in Manchester in 1929. A new factory was subsequently built in Acton in 1931, so Grays Inn Road closed and in many ways this marked the peak of Camtors’ activities.This company was taken over by Blacks in the early 1960s but its products rapidly faded away.
Camtors’ first and most enduring innovation was the Itisa tent, developed in 1919. This lightweight, single pole tent weighed just 1lb 3 oz and was the perfect tent for the growing number of pedestrian campers of the interwar hiking craze. But since it was awkward to put up, it was unsuitable for mountaineering. In the 1930s they also made a range of rucksacks, based on Bergans Norwegian designs with the slightly jarring names of ‘ Camwegian’ and ‘Torwegian, and several types of sleeping bag.
Camtors’ established market in the Camping Club of Great Britain and Ireland made it potentially quite hard for Blacks to break into the outdoor trade. But it was no accident that the firm became synonymous with the hiking and camping craze and Camtors did not. Crawford Black set about occupying the cheaper end of the mountain tent market and was also quite simply more successful at marketing. In addition Blacks were prepared, by 1937, to offer easy terms (aka hire purchase) which were consistently rejected by Camtors.
Camtors were no match for this kind of sophisticated marketing and their advertisements were lame, defensive and traditional in comparison as this 1935 example illustrates :
‘For a quarter of a century we have resolutely maintained an uncommonly high degree of quality in the manufacture of equipment for camping or mountaineering. By doing so we have achieved a high position in the esteem of those who cannot afford to be other than good judges of equipment.’
In 1933, almost certainly after supplying tents for the Icelandic millennium celebration alerted them to the eider colonies of eastern Iceland and to the delights of ‘live eiderdown’, they began manufacturing a range of down sleeping bags. They were not the first UK firm in this market- this was reserved for Manchester based Robert Burns five years earlier. But their sleeping bags became more widely known through their catalogue. Prices reflected the weight-to-warmth ratio and the degree to which they could be compacted, and of course the expensive eiderdown bag was easily the warmest and lightest bag in the range, see below.
Name of Bag Rolled dimensions Weight Price
|Icelandic eider down bag||9 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches||2lbs||47s 6d
inflation adjusted =
|Special super-down lightweight||12 inches by 6 ½ inches||2lbs 8 oz||35s 6d
inflation adjusted =£90.20 today
|Feather-down||14 inches by 7inches||4lbs 6 oz||28s 6d
( £1.42p)inflation adjusted =£72.20 today
1933 Thomas Black and Sons ( Greenock) Limited Good Companions Catalogue, p. 3
In the 1920s and 1930s, Blacks developed a number of lightweight tent designs including the ‘Good Companion’, the ‘Guinea’ and the streamlined ‘improved Tinker‘ which was designed specifically for wild camping to rival the Camtors ‘Itisa’. The lightest of these was the Guinea Minor ( which actually cost 12s 6d (62p) rather than a Guinea 21s 0d ( £1.05p) and weighed 3 ¼ lbs. (For comparison £1 in 1930 is equivalent to £51 n 2010.)
The combination of modern factory technology, a growing market accessed through clever marketing, and declining raw material costs ( especially for textiles) during the Great Depression, enabled Blacks to manufacture own brand outdoor gear – primarily tents, rucksacks and sleeping bags. They sold these alongside a growing range of other branded gear and a slot in a Blacks catalogue, even in this period, was important to some key manufacturers. Of these, easily the best known and most prominent was the Norwegian company Bergans – producers of best quality rucksacks in the interwar period.
Blacks strategy for building a broad customer base was quite subtle for there was a variety of kit to meet differing depth of pocket. Alongside Bergans rucksacks or the high priced Grenfell jackets, there were cheaper alternatives but without any suggestion that one was inferior to the other. Customers were not stigmatised with any sense that one piece of kit was the poor relation but ‘individual likes and dislikes vary so widely that we can do no more than merely suggest suitable outfits for the lone camper’. These kits both undercut Camtors though they had the undoubted edge on weight. In the same year Camtors had advertised an ‘Eleven pound’ Kit which was :
‘a special ultra-lightweight outfit for pedestrian campers, weighing 11 lbs and including the following items : a rucksack,’Itisa’ tent, featherweight groundsheet, four section bamboo pole, stub plate, 24 five-inch Duralumin pegs in a wallet, down filled sleeping bag, Primus stove, water bucket, washbasin, canteen of aluminium saucepans and frypan, knife, fork, spoon and tin opener in a wallet, Bandalasta plate and mug, butter box, tea infuser, one large and one small provision bag, a lightweight down pillow and a condiment box for pepper and salt….The total cost is £7 16s 0d (£7.80p at today price equiv = £397).
there are pictures to follow here from us.
Follow Link Blacks Guinea Tent
Opening in the late 1950s, Jackson and Warr had 2 retail stores, Sheffield and London. They were one of the very earliest stores which combined ski and mountain, a vital seasonal sales and cash flow balance: neither sport could provide alone for a business. This was a formula which many retailers in the industry successfully followed, but Blacks, despite multiple attempts, less so and indeed their snow focused outlets have often been a problem.
This J&W partnership was a good combination of outdoor skills and know-how, John Jackson being the skier and Ted Ward the mountaineer. The sport was coming out of a period of being available to only the better-off classes, e.g. Lunn offered ski holidays only to public schools, and was opening up to a more diverse class of people via a wider range of travel companies. However John Jackson suffered an early setback when Ted Ward disappeared in the Himalayas in the late 1950s. ( Ward’s ice axe was found by a Japanese climber in the early 2000s and was presented to J. Jackson in London at the Alpine Club premises in London, amazing!)
J&W were acquired by Blacks in the early 1960s, followed by Camtors and the new company became Camtors, Jackson and Warr, but the ‘Itisa’ brand faded away thereafter. There were also many retail acquisitions which made the trade feel they were being swallowed up but nevertheless it allowed many business owners to sell their business and retire. City Camp and Sports Birmingham, Nottingham Camp and Sports and Scouts Shop Stoke were amongst these.
John Jackson went on to become Blacks Group marketing director for many years and in early semi-retirement took on the CEO role of the trade association COLA ( Camping and Outdoor Life Association). Alan Day, who started working life in J&W Sheffield, went on to become a very well known figure in the outdoor trade as buying director for Blacks, through into the late 80’s.
Despite the family camping boom from the late 1950s, Benjamin Edgington plc were still small and growing slowly. Although they were importing French family frame tents they were still a very old business, having Whymper and Mummery tents still in their catalogue at this time. (Whymper designed this tent in the 1860s and it had a sewn in waterproof groundsheet made of ‘McIntosh’ rubber coated fabric which had only just been invented. However, it didn’t go into production with B.Edgington until around the 1890s together with the Mummery tent. They had a handwritten testimonial on their wall from Stanley in the 1850s, ( yes he of ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’) saying how well the tents stood up to equatorial rainfall.
One of their principal shareholders nudged them into getting taken over and this resulted in
Blacks, already much bigger, doing a reverse takeover: the MD master-minding this was Robin Duthie, who was depicted as champion on the front page of the Sunday Times business news. From then onwards the company gradually, step by step, lost its product passion as a result of multiple factors including market and technology changes together with the financial reporting and performance needs of a plc. But the road ahead had a large fork in it and taking the right option was not easy.
Family camping had become a significant business and it was the French who led the way: frame tents which had inner tents with sewn in groundsheets and zip entrances, and camping gaz which changed the nature and image of camping from its Boy Scout with bruised knees image, to something much more acceptable to a housewife having ever more home comforts. But both Blacks and Edgington were now importing French tents, a totally new scenario and also these tents took up lots of floor space. The public were still in love with the motor car, bicycles were ‘non u’ and so the bike market had collapsed.
Meanwhile something else was going on, climbing and alpinism were opening up to the working class population, and Joe Brown and Don Whillans became folk heroes by the late 1960s. Step by step, small upstart new manufacturers ( with arguably much lower manufacturing skills than Blacks) were set up, but they had a hands-on feel that what they personally needed for their activities was what other like-minded outdoors folk also wanted. Mountain Equipment with Pete Hutchinson, Karrimor with Mike Parsons, Saunders Tents with Bob Saunders, Ultimate Equipment with Bill Wilkins and the slightly later the climbing hardware guys, Troll, Wild Country, DMM et al. New magazines sprang up with activist editors and one of those, Peter Lumley, persuaded his publisher to come up with start-up sponsorship money to start the Backpackers Club: ‘backpackers’ being a word which was startlingly new, even revolutionary, at the time.1967
Catalogue showing Karrimor Whillans AlpinisteThe nation started to follow the USA in losing its love for the motor car (which became a means of transport, not merely a class symbol ) and self propelled activities started to emerge. Sleeping bags designed for mountaineers needed to be quite different from those for car bound customers, so new innovative products emerged in this and all areas. But they were very small operations and very diverse (and hence these upstarts could be ignored) and the camping market was big and understandable and protectable.
This period had only a very small number of specialty stores, whereas entry price-point stuff, e.g. ex-Army gear was always bought from one of around 4,000 ( yes 4,000! ) Millets branches under six slightly different trading names, presumably
branches of the same original family.
8. THE FINANCIAL ORIENTATION PHASE AND THE LOSS OF THE PRODUCT PASSION PHASE.
In this period the factory in Greenock (first set up in 1948) was sold to TNF but was not initially successful until TNF was bought by Bill Simon of Odyssey sourcing co and he put Jean-Luc Derclaye in as MD, who with lots of garment experience and with Chris Watts of First Ascent as UK sales, this was the foundation of TNF;s success in Europe, well before VF Corporation ( the current owner came on the scene)
Andrew Mitchell Group, AMG, which became known as VANGO in 1967 was also sucked into the Blacks Group for a period with Gary Moodie serving as MD of the whole group for a period. ( We await more exact info on this from the Moodie family).
An overseas operation was set up in North America, Ottawa Canada in 1958 with added warehousing in 1962.
Ranald Brown took over the management of this operation in the 70’s to be followed by John McDonald in the 80’s through into the 90’s. However selling even the best of UK gear in N America was tough let alone the Blacks offer which was becoming rapidly dated.
The company merged 1984 with Greenfield Millets only to discover a massive hole caused by currency shifts resulting in the need to close many G Millets shops overnight. The Stock Exchange took many years to recover confidence again in Blacks.
In 1985 Blacks changed its name to Blacks Leisure Group and so began a long string of mergers, takeovers, acquisitions, sell-offs which fitted with how a plc could behave, by using shares for acquisitions, leaving products to others. In other words, leave product development and innovation to the lower levels of management whilst senior people do the ‘real work’ of M&A ( mergers and acquisitions).
The story of the ongoing transactions is now best told by looking at the following website links.
List of key dates in Blacks history http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Blacks-Leisure-Group-plc-Company-History.html
Blacks website : https://www.blacks.co.uk/about-us
The following wikipedia links provide additional company tracking information: