OF all the businesses set up in Yorkshire’s back bedrooms, living rooms or sheds, few can have had as tangled or as emotional a history as Rohan Design.
In the nearly 40 years since it was founded by a young couple around a kitchen table in Skipton, it has seen moments of marital happiness, commercial innovation and rapid growth as well as separation and tragedy.
Throughout it all Sarah Howcroft, who set up the business with her husband, Paul, has been there and her love for the Rohan remains undimmed. Together the couple developed a new look in outdoor clothing, with the heavy tweed and wool breeches worn by walkers a thing of the past.
Rohan’s lightweight and waterproof designs becoming the essential gear for everyone, from the Sunday stroller to the extreme climber, and their jackets were worn by mountaineer Reinhold Messner when he made the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978.
Throughout this up-and-down history, Mrs Howcroft’s attachment has remained constant, despite the fact she and Paul were forced to sell the business, after Black Monday wiped out plans for a flotation in 1987. The banks got cold feet and the couple opted for an outright sale to Clarks. Since then it has changed hands again, and for a period was backed by venture capital and private equity, before chairman Colin Fisher and the Cann Trust took control in 2007.
After improving the product range, simplifying its management set-up, restructuring its balance sheet and converting £4.3m of loans into equity, today’s owners have been credited with preserving its identity.
Rohan’s difficulties did not immediately vanish, however. Like many other retailers it was hit by the recession and it made a £400,000 operating loss in 2009.
Now it is growing again. Mr Fisher, today the executive chairman, steered it to a £384,000 operating profit last year and took turnover to £17.9m, up from £15.7m in 2009. It expects to turn over £28m this year on the back of like-for-like growth, store openings and increased internet sales.
Rohan is no longer based in Yorkshire but is still has a presence here with stores in Leeds, Harrogate, York, Beverley, Shipley and Long Preston. It has 61 nationwide and plans to take this to 81.
Today Mrs Howcroft is more than just an interested spectator. She runs Rohantime, a website dedicated to the brand which allows customers to exchange views as well as carrying news of branch openings, outdoor events and a flashback to garments past.
“We are harnessing all those old emotions and the real values of the company and what the customers feel about the company,” she said.
The site is more than a fans’ forum, however. It is a place to remember the life of Paul Howcroft, who was killed in a road accident in 1993. Although by that stage the couple had separated, the bond between them had obviously remained.
They had moved to Skipton in the 1970s after meeting in Scotland. They chose the market town because it was close to the textile industry in West Yorkshire, the cotton mills of Manchester and the hills of North Yorkshire and the Lake District. Both were in their early twenties and Mr Howcroft had given up his job as a research chemist so he could play a part in the enterprise. The couple only had capital of £70 but it was enough to give them a start, even if it meant living hand-to-mouth. “There was no loan capital in those days for start-ups,” Mrs Howcroft, 62, said.
“In the early years we ate cheese rolls and very little else. We had no money at all but our enthusiasm and passion flooded it.”
They found a small house which they were able to buy for £1,000 and set about bringing modern designs and materials into their field.
Nylon began to be used more widely and brought in a series of then radical ideas, such as stretchy climbing breeches in blue and green with black knee patches.
Some of the firm’s designs caused a stir in the traditional world of walking and climbing but, in 1980, Sarah explained her approach to the Yorkshire Post, saying: “Just because the clothes look good doesn’t mean to say they are not practical.”
Outdoor types obviously agreed as the business grew quickly. One of Rohan’s first designs, which were often devised while on walks, was the salopette, a bib and brace garment for climbers which used ideas from skiing clothing.
The Howcrofts found a Leeds firm which wanted to get involved and won an order for 70 salopettes. High-stretch breeches, known as striders, as well as jackets and trousers all followed.
“We needed to grow quickly because the demand was outstripping the shops,” Mrs Howcroft said.
“We went into mail order and that was a ground breaker for the outdoor industry. The growth then was very, very quick – 100 per cent a month in the early 1980s.”
Stellar growth rates continued throughout the 1980s and as it did cash flow became a concern, prompting Rohan to consider other means of funding, including going public. When the markets crashed in late 1987, however, just days before a float, the Howcrofts were left with massive bills and, under pressure from the banks, a sale became the only option. Paul Howcroft stayed on for a short time but Sarah departed.
“It was an incredibly painful time for us,” she said.
“The skills that Paul and I had from running Rohan were attuned to Rohan as it was. It was very idiosyncratic. I realised over the years that the skills of sole traders and partnerships are so different from other companies.”
Sarah recently returned to Rohan, however, to work on its social media side.
“We were ready to bring her back,” Mr Fisher said. “She was in exile but she is a very talented lady. It has closed the loop.”
Today Mrs Howcroft has a good relationship with the business, describing Mr Fisher as an “open and frank” man with whom she can work. And what of her long journey with Rohan?
“I look back at it with tremendous pride. It is not the company it could have been had Paul and I stayed with it but it is still a tremendous brand.”
Raising the temperature on trading
THE soaring temperatures seen in the spring, and again this week, should boost trading at Rohan – once outdoor enthusiasts return to the high street.
Retail director Ian Palmer said: “The fact that we have got hot weather is encouraging people to go outdoors and discouraging people from shopping. Footfall in shopping areas is lower. Hot weather means more people will spend more time out on the moors.
“We like the fact that people are getting outdoors because it is one of the things we encourage people to do. What they all want are light clothes.”
Oipolloi and Nigel Cabourn released a 30th anniversary collection of Rohan-inspired clothing in 2005. Today the chain’s stores are a mixture of franchises and the wholly-owned with many of the franchisees being drawn from Rohan’s customer base.
The entry cost is a £19,750 fee and then franchisees normally spend between £30,000 to £60,000 on a shop fit. Rohan provides the stock.