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160 yrs of BLACKS.

Updated: May 14


Formerly known as ‘Blacks of Greenock’, with a catalogue branded ‘The Good Companions,’ the company was founded in 1863 on Clydeside, Scotland, to make sails during the great days of the British Empire.

Blacks Outdoor Retail Ltd. is a retailer headquartered in Bury Lancs, UK, which owns the British outdoor retailers Blacks, Millets, Ultimate Outdoors, George Fisher, Graham Tiso and GO OUTDOORS.

Blacks is the largest outdoor retailer in the UK with stores nationwide. Today this UK retail high street store, https://www.blacks.co.uk/a, is owned by JDSports plc, which is 58% owned by Pentland, a private company. see detailed summary at the end.

This blog contains valuable marketing lessons for today's leaders and marketers.

It also contains some surprises for today's lightweight gear makers and users. In the 1930s, a complete kit comprising a tent, sleeping bag, stove, and utensils weighed only 4.9kg!


This information on BLACKS is based on our book (Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose);

ISBN 0-9704143-5-8   ‘Invisible on Everest; Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003)  and further unpublished materials, collections, and interviews, supported by the personal experience of Mike Parsons, who was both a retailer buying from Blacks and a supplier as Karrimor.  Alan Day, formerly a well-known outdoor figure and a buying director for Blacks through the late 1980s, was most helpful in our research. He started his working life in Jackson and Warr Sheffield ( who were acquired by Blacks, see story).

Mike quote: I lived and worked through the period during the 1950s when the family store C.H.Parsons, 'The Outdoor Shop', was buying a wide range of products from Blacks, and later as a Karrimor, I was a supplier.


The Black’s 160-year story is split for easier understanding into 8 key phases.

  1. 1863 -1920s. How the original sail-making business survived using new production technologies and moved into the camping products market, inspired by a visit to the USA.

  2. The 1920s. Blacks’ early competitors and how they compared and competed.

  3. 1930 'the big order'. The order Blacks received from the Icelandic government for the Millenial celebration helped create Icelandic tents and eiderdown sleeping bags, which made their reputation.

  4. PRODUCT PASSION phase; from the 1930s onwards, with the Icelandic products as the core, the Good Companions catalogue became the ‘marketing magic’ showing the ‘product passion’ . The business model of manufacturing and selling directly through their stores and catalogue was remarkable in its modernity. 1

  5. 1960s. Early acquisitions of ski and climbing gear retailer Jackson and Warr and tent competitor Camtors.

  6. The late '60s saw the market evolve rapidly, creating difficult choices in strategic market directions: into family camping, led by the French brands, headed by Andre Jamet, or the rapidly developing outdoor self-propelled market, newly named backpacking.

  7. 1967. How Blacks became a plc by the reverse take-over of Benjamin Edgington plc.

  8. 1970s. The financial orientation and acquisitions phase and the loss of the product passion.

  9. The current ownership of Blacks and the subsidiaries existing in 2024


1. 1863-1920s How the original sail-making business survived.

Thomas Black founded a sailmaking and chandlery business in Greenock, Scotland, in 1863. 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 there would be no market for sails, and whatever they made would be done by sewing machines rather than by hand!

By 1904, the second Thomas Black was inspired to move into tents after his trip to Kansas City, USA, where he saw a firm making canvas marquees with sewing machines and decided to change Black’s product and production methods. He also observed that other UK businesses, including Benjamin 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.


Blacks installed sewing machines, replaced male 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. 


2. 1920s. Blacks’ early competitors in the camping market.

 

Picture left - Camtors 'ITISA tent, 1929.   


The Scottish Mountain Heritage collection has the Camtors story.


Apart from long-established heavy tentage and marquee firms like Benjamin Edgington, the important competitor was the Camp and Sport Co-operators ( a co-op set up by the Supplies Department of the Camping Club of Great Britain), whose trade mark 'Camtors' was registered in 1924. Camtors opened a factory on Grays Inn Road in 1926 and a branch office and showroom on China Lane, Piccadilly, in Manchester in 1929.


Crawford Black set about occupying the cheaper end of the mountain tent market and was also quite simply more successful at marketing. In addition, by 1937, Blacks were prepared 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.


Camtors’ first and most enduring innovation was the 'Itisa' tent, developed in 1919. This lightweight, single-pole tent weighed just 1lb 3 oz ( lightweight pundits, please note this is 1919, and the tent weighed less than 500g!)  and was the perfect tent for the growing number of pedestrian campers of the interwar hiking craze.

Blacks eventually took over this company in the early 1960s, but its products were already dated and faded rapidly.






3. In 1930, the company supplied 4,700 tents for the millennium celebrations of the Icelandic parliament.


The Icelandic tent became an iconic product for a long time, alongside the ‘Icelandic’ brand down sleeping bags.

This down sleeping bag series dominated the UK marketplace until the mid-60s, when the incoming new generation of hands-on mountaineer manufacturers created a new generation of products using the newly emerging nylon fabrics, which were lighter, softer, and more compressible than the cotton/down Icelandic bags.



quote from the graphic on the left;

'The 'Icelandic' is filled with genuine Eiderdown, the identical warm, soft breast plumage that the Eider ducks use to line their nests.'





4. The Good Companions: the ‘marketing magic’ and ‘product passion’ phase.

First Good Companions Catalogue, 1931

The Black family were enthusiastic campers whose first outdoor living experience 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, selling them through its ship chandlery business. As the camping craze gathered pace during the 1920s, Blacks expanded and opened showrooms in Glasgow and larger manufacturing facilities at Greenock. Blacks became a limited company in 1923 and opened its first London premises on Grays Inn Road five years later.











4. Blacks and the products which made their reputation


1931 Arctic Guinea tent, see right


1930. The Icelandic Government ordered 4,700 tents, marquees, beds, and bedding for the



14,000 visitors expected at the Millennial Celebrations of the opening of their Parliament. The tents supplied later became known as the ‘Icelandic’ tent. They also began manufacturing a range of ‘live eiderdown’ sleeping bags. (They were not the first UK firm in sleeping bags; Manchester-based Robert Burns began five years earlier but disappeared. )



Blacks Sleeping Bags

Source:1933 Thomas Black and Sons ( Greenock) Limited Good Companions Catalogue, p. 3             

name of bag

rolled dimensions

weight

price

Icelandic eiderdown bag

9 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches

2lbs (0.9kg)

47s 6d

(£2.37p)

inflation-adjusted =

£120.80 today

Special super-down lightweight

12 inches by 6 ½ inches

2lbs 8 oz ( 1.15kg)

35s 6d

(£1.77p)

inflation-adjusted =£90.20 today

Feather-down

14 inches by 7inches

4lbs 6 oz 

28s 6d

(£1.42p)inflation-adjusted =£72.20 today


In the 1920s and 1930s, Blacks developed several lightweight tent designs, including the ‘Good Companion’, the ‘Guinea’ and the streamlined ‘improved Tinker‘ ( Mike Parsons. "all my early cycle camping in the 50s and 60s was with a Blacks Tinker tent' ) designed specifically for wild camping to rival the Camtors ‘Itisa’. The lightest of these was the Guinea Minor ( which 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 in 2010.)


These kits undercut Camtors, although 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 (the word used for backpackers before the late 60s) weighing 11 lbs (4.9kg) and including the following items: a rucksack, ‘Itisa’ tent, featherweight groundsheet, four section bamboo poles, stub plate, 24 five-inch Duralumin pegs in a wallet, down-filled sleeping bag, Primus stove, water bucket, washbasin, a 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). 

  






1937 Blacks Catalogue

 

These, along with their mountain tents, allowed them to enter the specialist expedition market – both polar and Himalayan, which they exploited in their advertising.






Blacks' strategy for building a broad customer base was quite subtle, for there was a variety of kit to meet the differing depth of consumer pockets. There were cheaper alternatives to Bergans rucksacks or the high-priced






Grenfell jackets were made in Burnley, Lancs UK, by

Haythornthwaite before Ventile was

invented during WW2 by the UK MoD).

Grenfell had overtaken Burberry for mountaineering expedition wear by the 1930s.





5. Early Acquisitions.


Opening in the late 1950s, Jackson and Warr had two retail stores, Sheffield and London. They were perhaps the earliest stores in the UK to combine ski and mountain activities with camping to create vital seasonal sales and cash flow balance. Many retailers in the industry successfully followed this business model, but Blacks, despite multiple attempts, were less successful despite buying J&Warr. Ski sports and alpine mountaineering activities were becoming more open than exclusive activities for the upper classes. In a sense, they were models for the next generation of outdoor retailers and consumers.  


This Jackson & Warr partnership was a good combination of outdoor skills and know-how, John Jackson being the skier and Ted Ward the mountaineer. However, the business and John Jackson suffered an early setback when Ted Ward disappeared in the late 1950s on an expedition in the Himalayas. ( Ward’s ice axe was found by a Japanese climber in the early 2000s and presented to J. Jackson at the Alpine Club premises in London. Amazing!)


Jackson and Warr were acquired by Blacks in the early 1960s, followed by Camtors. The new company became Camtors, Jackson, and Warr, but the ‘Itisa’ brand faded afterwards. 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 businesses and retire. City Camp and Sports Birmingham, Nottingham Camp and Sports, and Scouts Shop Stoke were among these. John Jackson became Blacks Group's 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), which is now known as the OIA Outdoor Industries Association.


The 1960s saw the acquisition

This phase had a very modern business model. It manufactured and sold its products directly to consumers via a well-distributed catalogue and its own retail stores, which offered good service and even newly created hire purchase facilities.


Quote, Mike Parsons. Karrimor owner/innovator, 1960-96.

‘In the early 1960s, supported by around 24 retail stores, this 220,000 circulation catalogue was the outdoor industry's powerhouse. Indeed, it WAS THE INDUSTRY.



As Karrimor, I had to ensure my products were in their stores and, most importantly, their catalogue. When the Good Companions' catalogue was discontinued in 1965, its circulation



was 220,000 pieces p.a. I then created my own Karrimor 120,000-piece version using the new printing technique of web offset.




 



6. 1967 How Blacks became a plc

 1968 Catalogue

1965 Black's Group staff, picture by Alan Day





Benjamin Edgington, a much older company than Blacks, now enters the picture. 

Despite the family camping boom from the late 1950s, Benjamin Edgington plc, a company dating back much further than Blacks, were still small and growing slowly. Although they imported French family frame tents, they were still a very old business, with Whymper and Mummery tents in their catalogue. (Whymper designed this tent in the 1860s, and it had a sewn-in waterproof groundsheet made of ‘McIntosh’ rubber-coated fabric, invented shortly prior. This confounds some modern brands claiming they invented the sewn-in-groundsheet.





The Whymper tent went into production with Ben Edgington by the 1890s alongside the

Mummery tent and was still listed when Blacks took them over. 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 the principal Edgington shareholders nudged them into getting taken over, and this resulted inBlacks, already much bigger, doing a reverse takeover: the CEO master-minding this was Robin Duthie, who on finalisation was depicted as ’the champion’ on the Sunday Times business news front page.


From then onwards, the company gradually, step by step, lost its product passion due to 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, and taking the right option was difficult.

 

7. Where to go next: family (car-based) camping or outdoor self-propelled?

 The Beginning of Family Camping[/caption]


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, which took up lots of floor space. The public was still enamoured with the motor car; bicycles were ‘non-u’, so the bike market collapsed post-1955.



Meanwhile, after the successful 1953 Everest first ascent, 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. Still, they had a hands-on feel that what they needed for their activities was what other like-minded outdoors folk also wanted. Mountain Equipment by Pete Hutchinson, Karrimor by Mike Parsons, Saunders Tents by Bob Saunders, Ultimate Equipment by Bill Wilkins and the slightly later 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 startling new word, even revolutionary at the time.


1967 Catalogue showing Karrimor Whillans Alpiniste (below)


By the 80s, the UK started to follow the USA in losing its passion 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 all areas. But they were very small operations and very diverse (and hence, these upstarts were ignored), and the camping market was big and understandable and protectable. This period had only a very small number of speciality 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, all 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 USA ( founder of Snowlion USA) now  Odyssey Sourcing Co.  He put Jean-Luc Derclaye ( formerly Trak France, nordic skis)  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.


An overseas operation was set up in Ogdensburg, northern USA and Ottawa, Canada, in 1958. Ranald Brown took over the management of this operation in the 1970s, followed by John McDonald in the 1980s and into the 1990s. However, selling even the best UK gear in North America was tough, let alone the Black's offer, which was becoming rapidly dated.


1984 MERGER! 

Blacks plc merged in 1984 with Greenfield Millets plc 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, and sell-offs, which fitted with how a PLC could behave by using shares for acquisitions, leaving products to others. In other words, it leaves product development and innovation to the lower levels of management while senior people do the ‘real work’ of M&A ( mergers and acquisitions).


Twelve years ago, on 6th January 2012,  Blacks Leisure Group plc went into receivership, and the viable assets ( several brands, amongst which Blacks, Peter Storm, and Eurohike are the key ones) were purchased by JD Sports (JDS is a plc of almost £800m sales which are 57% owned by Pentland ( a private company) who is also the owner of Berghaus.  .

So, a new journey began in 2014, with a tough journey ahead even when relieved of debt and overheads. Their Millets stores were always the first price point with its ‘happy’ but downmarket fascia. Still, with middle-price point merchandise, it was weakly positioned against, e.g., Mountain Warehouse with its high-tech fascia but low-end/first-price point own-brand merchandise.


Further Acquisitions. The list is extremely long, but of particular note is the acquisition of

Go OUTDOORS for £112 million in November 2016. Four years later, in June 2020, the company pushed its subsidiary into administration. Then, it bought it back from administrators, with the creditors losing much of their money.


BRANDS OWNED BY JDS/Blacks

  • Peter Storm– clothing and footwear.

  • Technicals – (withdrawn in 2012 but relaunched in September 2014)

  • Eurohike – equipment, rucksacks and tents.

  • Blacks – equipment.

  • Northridge - Clothing


To complete this story,

Pentland Group, a private company, is the majority shareholder of JD Sports, (and JD has 24 subsidiaries) which operates 2,420 stores across 19 territories. Wikipedia

Other Subsidiaries of Pentland: Speedo, Berghaus, Pentland Brand PLC,

The company was founded in 1932 in Liverpool by the Rubin's and made its big breakthrough by investing in Joe Foster and his Reebok company as it 'took off' in the USA running market in the 80s.

Number of employees: 50,000


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