Interview: Marine turned businessman Tommy Kelly on taking climbing and skiing brand Jöttnar to the next level

It's nearly five years now since I first interviewed Royal Marine-turned-businessman Tommy Kelly for The Scotsman. The former Stewart's Melville and Napier University student had just started a company called Jöttnar, working in partnership with his friend and fellow Marine Steve Howarth '“ an experience he described as 'building the plane while you're flying it.' Their plan, cooked up while out on manoeuvres together in Arctic Norway in 2005, was to launch a range of high-end outdoors gear that would function more effectively than the MOD-issued kit they were wearing at the time, and which would appeal to people who '“ like them '“ took their climbing and ski mountaineering seriously.

Jottnar gear is tested to destruction by a team of mountain professionals. Climber and skier Tom Coney, pictured in the Alps, is a recent recruit.

After leaving the armed forces, the duo did some intensive research into materials and manufacturing processes and then launched their first few products: a technical climbing jacket, a pair of bombproof salopettes, a down jacket and an insulating mid-layer. They knew the outdoors gear market was already overcrowded, but their strategy was to focus on a few core designs and make them as good as they could be. As Kelly put it when I first spoke to him, there were to be no “branded laptop bags and dog-walking jackets”.

Five years on, and the plan seems to be working: the business, which is headquartered in Cardiff, has grown steadily, as has the product range, which now consists of 21 highly functional pieces, 14 for men and seven for women.

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The development that looks like being the real game-changer in the Jöttnar story, however, came last year, when the company attracted a seven-figure investment from venture capital firm Venrex and Finance Wales. This cash injection will enable Kelly and Howarth to grow the Jöttnar team and also to increase stock production, to the extent that they hope to be able to make serious inroads into the lucrative North American market from this winter. A completely revamped range, Kelly tells me, is now in the pipeline.

The brand caters for ski mountaineers as well as climbers PIC: Hamish Frost

But for Kelly, now 42, encouraging numbers on spreadsheets are only part of the picture – positive feedback from customers has also helped convince him that he and Howarth are on the right track.

“I think it was 2015 when I bumped into a guy in the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe who was wearing one of our mid-layers,” he remembers, “and to hear him absolutely raving about how good this thing was was just absolutely brilliant.

“When you’re hearing that from somebody who’s just been up on the hills wearing a piece of gear you’ve designed yourself, and that he’s paid for with his own money – it was just a real validation of what we’d been doing.”

Right from the start, Jöttnar has been a business obsessed with feedback. They may only have had two sponsored athletes to begin with, but in climbing guide Mike Pescod, based in Fort William, and ski mountaineering guide Alison Thacker, based in Chamonix, Kelly and Howarth knew they had two people who would be out in all weathers, day in day out, testing their creations to the limit.

Climber and BASE jumper Tim Howell is another recent addition to the Jottnar team PIC: Hamish Frost

“We ask them to go out and just destroy our prototypes and then report back,” says Kelly.

Perhaps the biggest change in the Jöttnar business model came in 2016 when they stopped selling via outdoor gear shops and started selling exclusively via their website. Partly this was to give them more control over pricing, but, says Kelly, it was also to do with that all-important feedback.

“What you forego in opting for the quick distribution that comes from selling through retailers is the control of the touchpoints where the customer comes into contact with the brand,” he says. “We felt that what we were losing was our ability to interact with customers and really take on board customer feedback.”

Of course, if you’re going to make yourself an online-only company, you run the risk of becoming invisible. To guard against this, Jöttnar has built up a respectable social media presence, and there’s also a sub-section of the website called Legends where Kelly and Howarth publish the kind of aspirational mountain adventure stories that wouldn’t look out of place in a magazine like Sidetracked.

“What Legend does is allow us to expose a bit of the heart and soul of Jöttnar,” says Kelly, “in a way that an e-commerce website otherwise wouldn’t allow you to do.”

They’ve made some impressive new additions to their pro team too: Pescod and Thacker have now been joined by mountain guide Mark Thomas, BASE jumper Tom Howell and ski mountaineers Tom Coney and Tom Grant.

So over the next few seasons Jöttnar prototypes will be thrashed, smashed, battered and shredded in some of the most extreme situations and unforgiving conditions imaginable – all in the name of progress.