5 minutes with Gray Nicolls

No company is more synonymous with cricket than Gray Nicolls. We spent 5 minutes with Jason Gray, CEO of Gray Nicolls to find out what it takes to run a successful family business for over 150 years.

For over 150 years Gray Nicolls has maintained its position as a market leader, how do you stave off the competition?

Our main tactic is maintaining the quality of our products. We pride ourselves on producing the best quality equipment in every area that we operate in.

If we talk about cricket bats for example, the raw materials are just as important as the design. We harvest our own Willow in East Sussex, England. We grow our own trees through a replenishment programme started by the company 50 years ago and still fell, season and cut the timber ourselves.

Wherever the bats are produced, England, India or Australia, they are all made from English Willow. We can confidentially say that we have full control of the production process from start to finish. It’s this quality that our customers have come to expect and this is what gives them faith in our brand.

Although more and more cheap bats are coming out of India, people know that they are getting quality when they buy Gray Nicolls.

You’re famous for product innovation and cutting edge bat design, how do you keep this innovation alive?

We keep adapting to market demands and listening to what our customers want. We’ve been lucky to sponsor some of the world’s top players who continually give us feedback; what’s working and what isn’t working. By listening to this feedback and employing some of the world’s best designers we’re able to come up with solutions and continue to innovate.

Sponsorship of top players forms a strong part of your marketing strategy; how do you spot the next Dave Warner or Cameron White? Who was the first big name you brought in?

Spotting the next big thing isn’t always easy but we have a good network around us. A lot of our players come through word of mouth. For example, if Cameron White is playing alongside a great player in Melbourne, he’ll recommend him to us. We also have a great Promotions Manager who always has his ear to the ground.

When I first arrived in Australia it was all about Michael Slater and Boony; they are the big players of the nineties and are still legends now.

Have players expectations changed?

There’s no doubt that sponsorship payments have gone up in the last 15 years. This puts us in a difficult position. The retailers are having a hard time at the moment and want bigger margins, while the players want bigger payments; we’re stuck somewhere in the middle. It’s a challenging time for the whole industry, we’re grappling with what the future holds and how we all fit in. At Gray Nicolls, it’s an opportunity for us to look for new ways to bring our product to the market.

For many, the move into rugby with Steeden, and tennis with Yonex was an unusual choice, what led to these decisions?

When we acquired Steeden in the mid-nineties, 90% of our business was Gray Nicolls and as you know the cricket season runs for just a few months over the summer. At that time we were looking for a winter sport to spread our sales out across the year.

The Steeden acquisition was ideal for us as it gave us a winter turnover with very little addition to overheads. So in fact, this kind of horizontal integration wasn’t that unusual at all.

We realised that we weren’t just specialists in cricket, we were specialists in sports wholesale, distribution and product sourcing. Not only that, but we were dealing with the same retailers with whom we’d already built great relationships.

The Steeden acquisition then led to further expansion in the sports hard-goods category. We now distribute Yonex tennis & Badminton ,Grays squash and Gilbert rugby union .

More recently we’ve made the move into team-wear which is quite a different market for us. Our UK company have been selling team-wear for a few years, leveraging off the Gilbert brand which they acquired in 2002. This acquisition was one of our more challenging as Gilbert is a far bigger brand, but with the popularity of Rugby Union in Europe, it’s proved to be a successful acquisition.

Gray Nicolls is not only an Aussie Icon but also a British icon – what is the benefit in having two operations and have you come across any challenges operating in both markets?

There have been huge benefits for us having operations in both Australia and England. When we opened our first factory in Melbourne in 1972, we learnt very early on that simply supplying an English product range to an Australian market wouldn’t work.

The two markets are surprisingly different. In terms of bats, for example, the Australians tend to prefer lighter bats whereas the English are far more traditional.

We currently have a manufacturing plant in the UK, one in Australia and a joint venture in India. Being on the ground in three countries allows us to really understand our customers in each market.

What role has being a Chartered Accountant played in your career?

Being an accountant helped me when we first started up in Australia. The accounting, tax and legal knowledge eased me into the more general business role. However, there are definitely still times when I need William Buck for specialist advice or an objective opinion. Although I don’t rely too heavily on advisors, knowing they’re always to hand when we need them is really important to the business.

You work with your brother; do you bring different things to the business?

My brother and I play very different roles in the business. He has a background of over 30 years in product and sales so he takes care of those aspects. My responsibilities lie with the financial reporting, operations and HR. Although we have quite distinct roles, they do overlap from time to time; and of course when this happens we don’t always agree. When running a family business you need to find the happy medium and compromise during those times when perhaps you don’t quite see eye to eye.

Even after 150 years, Gray Nicolls is still a family business. The key to this longevity is to keep buying out the minority shareholders. It’s important to us that the executives own the majority of the business so that we’re all working together in the same direction. With too many shareholders, it’s likely we would have been sold by now due to competing interests.

My brother and I are the 5th generation to be at the helm. There’s something pretty special about that.

Gray Nicolls has been a William Buck client for over ten years.