Borders rugby retailer poised to tackle much bigger share of sporting market with key deal
For the last 17 years, Fraser Patterson’s working life has revolved around rugby gear, but that is changing on the back of a deal expected to double the size of his company as it moves into bigger sporting markets.
I think people look at my size and see a few scars and assume I played a lot of rugby, so I just go with itFraser Patterson
The chief executive of Sportswise (Borders), which trades as Rugbystore.co.uk, spent the first part of this year overseeing the addition of 11,000 square feet to the company’s existing 16,000sq ft warehouse in Peebles. The extra space has become the UK distribution hub for Intersport, the multi-billion-pound buying group based out of Switzerland.
The ten-year contract is expected to be a huge boon for the Borders-based firm. With annual sales averaging around £4.5 million, it is the largest independent online trader of rugby clothing and equipment in the world, shipping merchandise to Australia, the US, New Zealand, Canada, Europe and Russia. But despite this, and expansion into “emerging” rugby nations in Eastern Europe, the market is fairly static.
“There was a certain limit as to how much we could grow,” Patterson observes. “But when you look at things like the running market, that is at least 20 times the size of rugby.”
In addition to running, Intersport also caters for fitness, swimming and football, all markets which far outstrip rugby. A seasoned veteran in sports retailing, Patterson is relishing the opportunity to tackle these new segments.
Raised in Dalbeattie, he landed his first job as assistant manager of Astral Sports in Dumfries after graduating in business studies from what is now Heriot-Watt University. He was promoted to manager after six months and stayed on after the acquisition of Astral by Olympus Sports.
An avid tennis player, he was approached in 1997 by a company called Sportline, which had the UK distribution rights for Head Sports products. He was their head of area sales until 1999, when he joined Canterbury of New Zealand as Scottish sales manager.
At that time, Canterbury had just signed a kit sponsorship deal with the Scottish Rugby Union, making Patterson the company’s key contact with the national side. He recalls those early days as an enjoyable period, even though the oval ball isn’t his first love.
“I played rugby at school, but I was more into tennis and football. I think people look at my size and see a few scars and assume I played a lot of rugby, so I just go with it,” he says.
Patterson was later appointed national sales manager for Canterbury, covering retail and team wear supply for the UK. As his biggest single account, he knew the team at privately-owned Rugbystore quite well. When co-owner Paul Graham fell seriously ill, prompting the search in 2009 for a new chief executive, Patterson was ready to move.
His timing couldn’t have been much better. While working out his notice, Canterbury went into administration suffering from poor sales in Europe and the US. It was subsequently bought over by JD Sports and today trades as part of the sports and fashion retail group Pentland.
During his time with Canterbury, Patterson was heavily involved in product-development, ensuring the kit delivered was what retailers and consumers wanted. He brought that remit with him to Rugbystore, whose roots date back to Galashiels in 1975.
Initially a single shop known as Sportswise, it expanded to seven stores across the Borders and northern England. Director Kenny Oliver – who today owns the business along with members of the Graham family – joined shortly after the company’s outset in 1977 as manager of the second Sportswise in Kelso.
The bricks-and-mortar business fell upon hard times in the early 1990s, and was scaled down till the closure of the final store in Galashiels nine years ago. However, thanks to the registration of the rugbystore.co.uk domain in 1999, the business had a thriving online presence.
Patterson credits Graham, who died of cancer in 2012, with keeping the firm ahead of the curve on technology. That laid the foundations for the current deal with Intersport – of the buying group’s 85 UK members, Sportswise is the only dedicated online retailer, making it an ideal partner to run the Swiss group’s UK retail platform.
The website went live in July, and despite some initial teething problems, Patterson says early signs are encouraging.
“We are still looking to grow Rugbystore – we are starting to do more business with some of the emerging rugby nations. But we expect Intersport to grow larger than Rugbystore within the next three years.”
Born: Edinburgh, 1968
Education: Kirkcudbright Academy; Scottish College of Textiles
First job: Assistant store manager, Astral
Ambition at school: To do something working in the sports trade.
Can’t live without: Sport is my life. It is that simple.
Favourite city: Edinburgh
Preferred mode of transport: I like driving
What car do you drive? BMW
What makes you angry? Lack of care and professionalism. I am not patient, either.
What inspires you? To be successful
Best thing about your job: It is so varied. No two days are ever the same.