Go Entrepreneur - the rise of the UK’s largest outdoor sports retailer

— 27.10.15

by Simon Spode

The Management School recently hosted a fascinating evening with John Graham, the founder of GO Outdoors as part of the MADE Festival 2015.

John took the audience through his story, from a nomadic lifestyle sleeping in barns, derelict caravans and bus shelters, whilst taking casual labouring jobs to fund his passion for climbing, to establishing GO Outdoors as one of the UK’s largest outdoor sports retailers.

After years of living to climb, a job in a specialist climbing equipment store ignited his interest in retailing. John had identified a gap in the market for the retail of outdoor clothing and products across a wide range of sports/ interests, and researched the products that customers wanted but which couldn’t be supplied at that time. This led to him buying out Sheffield’s Camping and Caravanning Centre (or ‘CCC’ as it was known to locals) in 1998 with co-founder, Paul Caplan.

John’s vision was to create a store to help as many people as possible to have fun and adventure in the outdoors – core principles that remain at the heart of the business. A strong customer ethos, led to staff on the shop floor having a knowledgeable, positive, helpful attitude. Integrity was to be uppermost, with staff not up-selling and recommending only what the customer needed; whether that is a £5 product or a £500 product.

John quickly expanded CCC to three stores and developed the concept which would soon become GO Outdoors. The first GO Outdoors opened in Coventry in 2004, and this summer the group opened its 53rd store in Hull. The stores epitomise John’s vision by offering the UK’s widest range of outdoor equipment at the lowest prices, all served by a friendly team of outdoor enthusiasts.

He also gave the audience the benefit of his experience as both an entrepreneur starting out, and as owner/manager as the company grew. This included the need to project positive leadership that people will want to follow, providing decisive management and the value of buying in the best people you can afford to support your business, whether they are staff or external specialists such as lawyers.

Commenting on the event Ian Proctor, head of external relations at the Management School said; “John provided an interesting insight into what it takes to grow a business, and the leadership skills required throughout the various growth stages of the company. It’s a credit to John that despite the size of GO Outdoors these days, his original ethos and vision remains just as strong across all the stores as when he began the business.”

Prof Andrew Simpson, Associate Dean for External Business Advancement within the Management School added; “John took us through a fascinating journey with passion and enthusiasm. He identified the key elements of his success, often with much self-deprecating humour, never afraid to show that he wasn’t perfect. But overall his passion showed through, whether for climbing or business."


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