Like most people I interview for GTN, James Hinton wants to promote his company. He’s got a relaxed attitude to the task, though. He’s not one to push every angle. When I ask him about the recent 110th anniversary milestone, he’s reticent to make a big deal about it. When I ask him about shooting, he’s happy to admit that he’s more of a golfer. When I ask him about the business, though, it’s a different story. From early on it’s clear that he has a genuine belief in and affection for the Alan Paine brand, and it follows that he can promote it simply by telling it straight.
James has an infectious enthusiasm for Alan Paine’s history. “Three years ago Godalming museum [Godalming is where the company was founded] had an Alan Paine exhibition they spent two years researching,” he tells me. “We had a fantastic day. 160 people turned up. Three of the women who turned up were in their 90s and used to be knitters. They remembered William Paine, who was actually the founder of the business in 1907.
“After the war, Alan Paine took over the business. He was one of the first people to go on the ships to the USA to develop business. He told the story about how he lay in his bunk and smelled the diesel dripping on to his face and his main worry was whether his sample bag was being damaged. It’s a great story that always goes down well. The guy who did the research actually found out the name of the ship that he went on and saw his name on the passenger manifest. He really did a lot of digging!
“We’ve got a lot of history with Alan Paine. There’s not a lot of companies that have been around 110 years. It’s authentic and it’s great DNA for us.”
James himself was head-hunted by Alan in 1986. At the time, the company was a dedicated knitwear concern, and made around two-thirds of its revenue from private label goods for big American clothing labels like Brooks Brothers, Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue. The first few years of James’ time in the company proved difficult, as recession in the American market hit order volumes and factories had to be cut back. By the 1990s the company was in the hands of Alan’s sons Richard and Nigel, but they didn’t share their father’s entrepreneurial spirit, so they decided to sell it. Between 1994 and 2004 the troubled brand was sold again and again, until the day came when James gave a presentation on how to develop the brand to a fifth set of owners, Harris Watson.
“They came back with ‘great presentation, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to sell it,’” James recalls. “I thought: ‘Here we go again, the sixth owner in 12 years’, but they said, ‘No – we want you to buy it. We feel a little bit vulnerable with this business. You know all the agents, you know all the customers and all the clients, and if we decide to go from this business you’re left with a ship without a captain as it were.’ It wasn’t exactly the bargain of the season that I’d hoped. It’s a cliché now when people say they had to max out credit cards and borrow everything, but I really did. I was determined that this was my opportunity.”
It was an opportunity James made the most of. He’s grown the brand seven-fold, which in his book counts as “a pretty good result”.
It didn’t start out promisingly, though. In the second year after he bought the business, James lost a major American client. “It was a complete shock, as only four weeks before I’d been held up in front of a store full of people doing a training session and introduced with ‘James is part of our family’. Four weeks later I wasn’t!”
In the light of James’s heavy investment in the brand, both personal and financial, this was a major blow. In retrospect, however, he recognises that it may have been a blessing in disguise.
“What it enabled me to do was really focus on the Alan Paine brand,” he explains. “Looking back, I wonder if I had not been forced to sit down and make that decision, whether I would have still been doing too much private label business, or building up private label business, because it was quite lucrative.”
Part of the brand’s rejuvenation was the decision to expand its scope beyond knitwear. “I just felt that the brand itself needed to be a lifestyle brand to give it that 12-month appeal,” James explains. “We started to put some outerwear into the collection to complement the knitwear. The guy we would buy the outerwear from, a young man named Kam Sahota, who worked for an outerwear company, used to give us great service and was a very genuine guy. He came to me after about 18 months and said to me, ‘Look, I’m not happy where I am. I’m leaving,’ and all of a sudden it came to me that this was a great opportunity. This guy had the same passion for products as I have for the Alan Paine brand, he knew some good suppliers, some good agents, he knew the country clothing market very well. I think within an hour and a half of him telling me the news, we shook hands and we had the biggest part of a deal for him to join Alan Paine and develop a country collection.
“Kam is now a director of the company and is totally responsible for the country clothing side of the business.” The country collection is now a major part of the business, with around 300 of Alan Paine’s 700 accounts catering to that market. It’s a broad selection, taking in practical shooting clothes as well as post-shooting fashion that appeals to a younger audience whose concerns are purely aesthetic.
Through all these changes there’s one constant that James has striven to retain from Alan Paine’s heritage. He says: “The one thing that has stayed the same since I joined the business is what Alan Paine taught me when I joined. All you have in a brand is quality and that’s what he had really built the business up on.
“That’s what we’ve done on both sides of the business: offered a quality product at what we think is a fair retail price. I think the customers appreciate that. I think it has paid off.”
Family seems to be the other principle that drives James. He says that in the light of his experiences when he bought the business, he’s reluctant to use the word, but it creeps into his language nonetheless. He’s a point of continuity in the Alan Paine story, linking its present to its roots through his service in the troubled 1990s. Moreover, he values strong ties with his customers and business associates in the present day.
“I like the idea that we we are a family business,” he says. “Our customers are important to us, and they’re people so we talk directly to them. They’re not just an account number. Anything we do with them… we don’t have a huge board that we have to go back to. We just make the decisions and we work with them and we like to think that they’re part of what we’re trying to build up.”
And there’s a lot of support available. Alan Paine has set up six in-store concessions this year, with everything down to the curtains on the changing rooms advertising the brand, and is planning to do more in future. On the marketing side of things they’re always working to make the brand visible, sponsoring a variety of shoots and shooters. James recognises that reliable supply is important too, and boasts of his company’s superb stock service.
All in all, Alan Paine has come a long way, from knitwear specialist to a broad lifestyle clothing brand that takes in jackets, shirts, trousers, high-performance sportswear, 100 per cent waterproof jackets, tweeds and more. It’s not standing still either. In autumn, next year stockists can look forward to the opportunity of stocking the first Alan Paine footwear.
James has a ready explanation for his brand’s dynamism. “Our customers are confident of whatever we go into as long as it’s got the Alan Paine brand on it,” he says. “Even if it’s not something they’ve seen before they recognise that if it’s got the Alan Paine brand on it there is a level of quality assurance.
“I think that’s a nice position to be in.”