IF you’ve heard of Mike Ashley you probably only know two things about him; he owns Sport Direct and he owns Newcastle United. Oh, and he’s very rich.
Ownership of the former makes him the saviour of the people that think tracksuits are acceptable as everyday wear, while the latter divides opinion; most of it based on how the Toon performed in their last game.
However, this is not a blog post about whether he’s the saviour (or not) of Newcastle; although it’s worth mentioning that the club is one of only six Premier League teams that is 100 per cent in English hands.
I have two things in common with Mr Ashley; we were both born in the same year, possibly. I say possibly because if you Google “Mike Ashley + Date of Birth” he was either born in 1962, 1963, 1964 or 1965.
The other thing in common is that he was born and brought up in Burnham, which was one of my patches when I was a journalist in Slough.
The business that made his name (and money), Sport Direct, is ubiquitous on both the high street and retail parks across the country, and can also be found in part of mainland Europe, with 470 stores in addition to Field and Trek, Hargreaves Sports and Gilesports.
And then there are the brands that he owns, such as Karrimor which was founded in Clayton-le-Moors in Lancashire in 1946 as a manufacturer of bicycle saddlebags.
Karrimor along with Carradice, which was established a few miles up the road in Accrington in the 1930s, were for generations THE companies for saddlebags.
But Karrimor had big ideas; it grew to making rucksacks, clothing and shoes and along the way gained a reputation as an innovator.
And then in the early-1990s the still family-owned business started to let go by bringing in external finance which, naturally, wanted its say in how the company was run, and over a few year its products became watered down and it turned into more of a leisure brand. That’s venture capital for you.
And then 10 years ago it went into receivership, which is where Mike Ashley stepped in.
I know Karrimor from my early-days of cycling; its bar bags were a bit of a fashion item at one point in the 1980s, and my first serious rucksack was a Hot Rock 30*, which is still going strong although a few months ago I replaced it with a Lowe Alpine AirZone 25.
And it’s worth pointing out that at one stage in Karrimor’s VC past it bought Lowe Alpine’s distributor Europa Sport.
It’s not easy to turn a brand around; Karrimor was a market leader, it had a loyal fan base but for several years, too many years, it wasn’t innovating, it was going for the lowest common denominator.
But in the past few years something has happened; Karrimor has started to make decent stuff again.
Maybe I’m more aware of the brand through social media and from popping into Sports Direct offshoot Field and Trek whenever I’m in Ambleside; but I’m starting to take notice and, importantly, buy.
The Karrimor running clothing I’ve bought from Sport Direct is cheap and does a very good job, although the sizes can be a bit iffy, but I’ve also noticed that their shoes, and particularly, their walking boots are starting to look decent again.
They’re actually starting to look a little bit like Salomon; although I can’t say if they are as good (I doubt they are, sorry) but they seem to be heading in the right direction.
I don’t know how much personal influence Mike Ashley has on the overall quality and design of his products and brands but if he is hands-on then thank you for reviving a once great brand.
*The Hot Rock 30 is still available and it was a hard choice not to buy another one.
By Richard Hamer.