105 Baker Street
Blacks Leisure Group plc is one of the United Kingdom's leading retail sportswear and sporting goods groups and is that market's largest specialty outdoor retailer. The company operates nearly 450 stores under seven company-owned and managed retail chains: through its Sports & Fashion division, Blacks runs the 152-store First Sport chain, the 24-store AV chain, first introduced in 1997, and the company's newest store concept, Pure Women, the company's first attempt to target specifically the women's sportswear and sports fashions category, introduced in 2000. The company's other major division is its Outdoor division, featuring the company's original store format, Blacks Outdoor, with 43 stores, and boosted by the company's acquisition in December 1999 of U.K. outdoor sporting goods leader The Outdoor Group--which brought Blacks Leisure the 199-store Millets chain of family-oriented sporting goods stores and the higher-end Air and youth-oriented Free Spirit retail chains. That acquisition, which added more than 400,000 square feet of selling space, cost Blacks Leisure more than £50 million. Blacks Leisure is cutting back on a third division, Wholesaling, which, after the sale of the company's Fifa UK license back to Italian parent Fifa International in 2000, is represented by the company's U.K. concession of the popular O'Neill sporting goods and sportswear label. Most of the company's O'Neill-related sales come through sales to third-party retailers, but also through its own retail chains and two company-owned O'Neill branded retail stores. Blacks Leisure has been led since 1989 by chairman and chief executive Simon Bentley--who missed most of the 2000 fiscal year after being hospitalized by a skiing accident. Blacks, which posted revenues of nearly £208 million in 2000, is traded on the London stock exchange.
From Adventurer to Manufacturer in the 19th Century
Thomas Black's adventurous background led him to found the company that later became one of the United Kingdom's leading retail sporting goods and sportswear companies. Born in 1836, Black was already a veteran sailor by the beginning of the 1850s. His experience aboard various British merchant vessels gave him not only a share of adventures--including a brush with pirates in the Greek Islands--but also skill as a sail maker. In 1853, Black joined with others of his ship's crew members to make the journey to Australia, where Black spent two years mining gold during that country's gold rush. With the gold he discovered, Black returned to England--now as a passenger, not a crew member.
Arriving back in England in 1856, Black had not yet slaked his thirst for adventure. His next journey took him to the then-Spanish Guinea, in Africa, where he acted as an ivory agent for Laughland and Brown of London. Black's African adventure soon was ended by illness, and Black returned to the United Kingdom, where he took up the sail maker's trade in Glasgow.
Married in 1861, Black moved to the port city of Greenock on the Clyde, where he set up his own sail making business. The British dominance of the seas provided for a bustling shipbuilding industry--and high demand for Black's sails. Toward the end of the century, however, the shift to steamships brought about steady declines in the sail making industry.
Black died in 1905, leaving the flagging business to son Thomas Black Junior. The younger Black, who had had his own youthful adventures in California, had not only inherited his father's business but his sail making skills as well. But with the end of the great sail making era, Black needed to find a new outlet for the company. While in California, Black had discovered a growing new pastime, that of camping. The lead from sail making to tents seemed natural for the company, which promptly turned its production to making a variety of bell-type and large-scale marquee tents. During the First World War the company helped supply tents to the British military, filling orders ranging from field hospital tents to a canvas hangar for the British army's dirigibles.
At the end of the war, camping became a growing leisure activity in the United Kingdom. Black, who was then joined by his two sons, quickly seized on this trend, turning its production to lightweight tents suitable for the leisure camper and becoming one of the first to enter the market. Retail sales steadily became an important part of the company's activities, particularly after the opening of two new showrooms in Glasgow. The company also began adding to its catalog of camping-related items, expanding its Greenock showroom by the beginning of the 1920s. The company changed its name to Thomas Black and Sons (Greenock) Ltd. in 1923.
An important step for the company was the opening of its first London store, on Bury Street, in 1928. The company's success quickly led it to move to larger quarters in the city, before later making London the company's corporate home. When Thomas Black Junior died in 1930, son D. Crawford Black took over the leadership of the company. During the years leading up to the Second World War, the company scored a number of marketing coups that helped build it into one of the United Kingdom's most important tent makers and camping good suppliers. Backing the company's growth was the appearance of its first printed catalog, called 'Good Companions,' in 1931. The company also achieved renown for a number of events. One of these called for the company to supply nearly 5,000 tents, as well as provisions to bed 14,000 people. Another came in early 1933 when the company supplied camping gear to adventurer Jock Scott--known for his treks, such as one from Greenock to Cape Town, South Africa, or his walk from San Francisco to New York.
World War II saw the company once again turn its production to support the United Kingdom's war effort, manufacturing canvas tents and gear for the military, while also producing sleeping bags--including ones used by Winston Churchill. The company faced disaster in 1941, after a bomb destroyed its Greenock production facility. The company quickly set up temporary quarters and was back in business within a month of the bombing. After the war, the company inaugurated a new manufacturing plant, now in Glasgow, in 1948.
A Retailing Leader for the 21st Century
Blacks was well positioned to take advantage of the growing ranks of camping enthusiasts, as the adoption of new and modernized production techniques freed up more leisure time for more people. In 1953, Blacks broadened its retail capacity with the purchase of City Camp and Sports Ltd., which helped the company extend its activities to the national scale. By the end of that decade, the company was increasingly international, with rising proportions of its sales going to Africa and North America. To support its expansion, Blacks opened its first foreign subsidiary in Canada in 1958. The company added warehouse and distribution facilities in the United States in 1962.
Blacks went on an extended acquisition drive that helped the company take a leading position in its U.K. markets. Among its acquisitions were those of Jackson and Warr Ltd., bringing Blacks a line of ski equipment, in 1962, and, in 1967, the reverse takeover of Benjamin Edgington Ltd. That company had been a longtime rival to Blacks' tent-making business, and the merger of the two companies' operations created one of the leading European tent makers--and official tent makers to the British crown.
In the 1970s, the company merged with Milletts, adding that company's 19 retail stores, which were converted to Blacks stores. The growing importance of retail sales to the company was highlighted by the creation of a dedicated division, with the company's retail name changed from Blacks of Greenock to Blacks Camping and Leisure Ltd. in 1975. Less than a decade later, following the 1984 acquisition of Greenfields plc, the company once again changed its name, to Blacks Leisure Group plc.
The 1980s saw the company step up its retailing arm, while also moving into the wholesaling field. The company, which had long targeted the specialist sports market, made its first entry into the general sporting goods market in the mid-1980s, acquiring two sporting goods chains: Howard, based in northwestern England, and Sullivan, based in Liverpool. These acquisitions, made in 1987, were followed quickly by those of Teesside Sports, MC Sports, and West 8 Sports, based in London. Yet the company soon was faced with the need to bring a single face to its new type of retail network. In 1988, the company moved to sell off the Howard and Sullivan properties and instead to concentrate its efforts on the Teesside and West 8 stores. These were regrouped under a new retail sporting goods concept, called First Sport. At the same time, the company boosted its specialist sports retail sales with the acquisition of Alpine Sports, a retailer of ski and outdoor equipment, in 1988.
The first First Sport store opened in August of 1988. The company quickly converted its other retail sporting goods stores to the First Sport format. At the same time, Blacks was developing an interest in wholesaling, acquiring the license to then-popular brand LA Gear in a joint venture in 1988, before acquiring the U.K. distribution license to growing Italian sportswear brand Fila in 1989 and the O'Neill brand in 1991. The company acquired other distribution contracts in the early 1990s, such as the soccer footwear and accessories brand Quasar, fashion brands such as Skechers and Karl Kani, and womenswear's Miss Sam.
The disastrous economic situation of the late 1980s and early 1990s in the United Kingdom quickly caused Blacks' fast-growing empire to wobble. The company was forced to shed a number of money-losing operations, including most of its wholesaling activities, while restructuring its aggressively expanding First Sport chain. The company also invested in its infrastructure, improving its warehousing and distribution facilities and incorporating a new computerized inventory system, while also boosting its training initiatives for its retail staff. Now led by Chairman and CEO Simon Bentley, Blacks slowly rebuilt itself into the mid-1990s.
The company changed the name of its Blacks Camping stores to Blacks Outdoor in 1994 in order to capture more fully the wide range of the outdoor leisure market. The company refitted a number of its Blacks Outdoor stores; at the same time, the company decided to focus its specialist retail efforts on the United Kingdom's city centers, leaving the extra-urban market to rivals such as JJB Sports and JD Sports and closing a number of stores. Blacks' retailing interests were also rapidly expanding to include sportswear and other fashions. In 1995, the company inaugurated a new retail concept, AV, which featured so-called 'active lifestyle' brand names. The AV concept caught on quickly, allowing the company to boost the number of AV Stores to 26 by the end of the century.
With the company's sales once again rising steadily, jumping from £68 million and 83 stores in 1996 to nearly £147 million and 183 stores in 1999, Blacks decided to step up the pace. In August 1999, the company acquired Sport Shop (Fife) Limited and its 28 Scotland-based retail stores for £1.1 million in cash. At the end of that year, Blacks took a giant step when it bought up larger rival The Outdoor Group Limited, which brought the company its 199-store chain of Millets sporting goods stores, the largest chain in the United Kingdom, as well as 24 specialist stores under the Air and Free Spirit signs. The acquisition led Blacks to reorganize its holdings into three new divisions: the Sport & Fashion division included its First Sport and AV stores, and the new Outdoor division included Blacks Outdoor, Millets, Air, and Free Spirit. The third division, Wholesaling, continued to include the company's licensed activities for the O'Neill and Fila brands.
Bentley was forced to sit out most of the 2000 year after a skiing accident left him hospitalized in January 2000. Under an acting chairman and CEO, Blacks set out to absorb its newly expanded empire. The company also initiated a new retail concept, the Pure Women store, featuring women's sportswear and fashions. At the end of the year the company sold off its Fila license back to Italian parent Fila International, which was preparing a major international expansion of the brand.
Returning to work in January 2001, Bentley was faced with sluggish sales due to a mild winter season, as well as a slower-than-hoped-for pace of merging the company's existing operations with its newly acquired holdings. Meanwhile, analysts, long skeptical of the chances of sustained growth for the booming--and rapidly consolidating--sporting goods and sportswear retail sectors, continued to warn of market slowdowns. Blacks Leisure remained confident nonetheless, particularly as its spread of retail holdings gave it a well-balanced position from which to enjoy its leadership role.
Principal Subsidiaries: Blacks Outdoor Leisure Ltd.; Blacks Retail Distribution Ltd.; First Sport Ltd.; The Sports Shop (Fife) Limited; Sandcity Ltd; Blacks Investments Ltd; The Outdoor Group Limited; The Outdoor Groupo (Trading) Ltd.
Principal Competitors: adidas-Salomon AG; Debenhams plc; Harrods plc; JJB Sports plc; John Lewis Partnership plc; Selfridges plc.