Go Outdoors has beaten the recession by reinventing how to serve the outdoor market. Lisa Berwin meets its intrepid founder

John Graham

John Graham, the founder of burgeoning outdoor specialist Go Outdoors, spent many of his younger years living in an old barn in north Wales.

His family moved away from the area when he was 16, but he did not want to leave his beloved mountains where he lived and breathed for climbing.

As well as the barn he spent time in old caravans and even tents, but he describes that period of his life as an adventure rather than a hardship. And by the time he reached his 20s, he says, his experiences of virtually living rough had made him extremely resourceful.

His lack of qualifications meant Graham struggled to find work but eventually he found a role that combined his passion with a way to make a living - he took a job at a specialist climbing shop.

After six years, in 1998 Graham set out to create his own specialist outdoor retail business. He wanted to open a one-stop-shop for outdoor enthusiasts in a helpful, unintimidating environment.

With business partner Paul Caplan, Graham bought a handful of camping businesses and some small stores, and in 2004 adopted the name Go Outdoors and opened a 30,000 sq ft shop in a former MFI premises in Coventry.

“We were not well known then and did it all on a shoestring,” recalls Graham. But it was well received - by 2007 the retailer had seven large out-of-town stores and in 2008 Go Outdoors received an £18m cash injection from investor Bank of Scotland Corporate.

Go Outdoors now has 23 stores and aims to reach 50 by 2013. The shops are all big superstores, catering for outdoor pursuits from camping to climbing and caving, ranging from basic kit to high spec specialist gear.

Graham puts Go Outdoors’ success down in part to his team’s passion for the outdoors, which comes across strongly on the shopfloor. “We are our customer,” he says.

He says the outdoor market is growing and there is eventually scope for Go Outdoors to have 100 stores. “The outdoor market has never been fully measured or understood,” maintains Graham. “The recession has caused many people not to go abroad. Any good outdoor retailer should have seen growth in the last few years.”

He sees no contradiction in the experience of outdoor specialist Blacks Leisure, which has struggled in recent years and underwent a CVA.

“Blacks is not a good example of a competitor for us,” says Graham. “They are a high street clothing retailer without a great deal of equipment.”

He therefore sees the Go Outdoors offer as very different.

Graham says his original vision for the business has remained through its expansion - it is now just being realised on a much larger scale.

“When I go to our Stockton-on-Tees store I smile, as this is very accurate to my original vision,” he says. “It is like writing a book and having it made into a really good film.”

Go Outdoors has begun to attract high-calibre retail minds - former Debenhams chairman John Lovering was named chairman of Go Outdoors last week. Lovering will help with the next phase of growth and there may be further investment or a float in the longer term.

There will also be a push online following the installation of a new platform earlier this year, which helped to double online sales already this year.

Having achieved 83% year-on-year sales growth and becoming a £75m-turnover business, Go Outdoors is a success story both in the way it beat the recession and for redefining how the outdoor market can be catered for.

And for Graham, who aged 18 rescued a stricken climber at 250ft up a vertical face, it has shown that life experience and a no fear attitude can translate to business achievement.

John Graham

  • Age 48
  • Children Two teenage daughters, both climbing enthusiasts
  • Hobbies Climbing, walking and camping
  • Dog Timber