Established in 1883, William Evans is one of the UK’s few remaining independent gunmakers. Its name does not exactly bring to mind semi-automatic M4- type tactical rifles. But as new MD James Cox tells Helena Douglas, things are changing.
William Evans has a long history. The company’s namesake learnt his craft working for James Purdey & Son and Holland & Holland before setting up on his own in 1883. By 1896 the backbone of William Evans’s client list had been established, most notably officers in the Guards Regiments, who ordered sporting guns and rifles to take with them on their postings to various parts of the British Empire.
The craft of making ‘sporting guns’ developed under the Victorians and Edwardians when game shooting became popular. As a consequence, demands on gunmakers’ skills were high as the sport attracted shooters who wanted individuality in their guns, high quality engraving and the best of materials. Today, William Evans still manufactures bespoke premium shotguns, hunting rifles and double rifles in small quantities. However, unlike the other London shops, it carries numerous other brands and also holds an extensive range of second hand stock.
Given the company’s traditional history, the wall of its stand at the CLA Game Fair certainly raised a few eyebrows. But this clearly pleases James Cox, an energetic Canadian, who took over as MD in May 2012 after being brought in initially as a business consultant. “I absolutely love the culture, history and tradition of William Evans,” he explains. “But tactical-style rifles are now very popular, they are fun and they are a big market. You can’t hide from reality, and the only way the shooting sports are going to grow is to keep them fun. So we as a company have to embrace that and make that part of our direction. While you will not see an M4 rifle in London, it is front and centre in Bisley.”
James, who also owns two firearms range and shooting academies in Canada – The Shooting Edge and Target Sports Canada – became involved in William Evans thanks to his connection with its majority shareholder. “I originally came on board last June, initially as a consultant, to help the ownership push the company in the right direction. Long story short, soon after that I became MD. As my businesses in Canada are operating fairly smoothly now, I wanted this challenge, and given the history of William Evans I could not resist. I spend one week a month in the UK, but I am a big believer in Skype, email, and especially in using the phone, so I am in constant contact with my team.”
The first thing James did was write a company manual that he handed out to William Evans’ 20 staff members at a barbecue at Bisley. “We all sat down and read the manual together. After analysing the business I determined that it was lacking a coherent culture, it was lacking direction, and it was lacking a sense of leadership. So the first thing I did was instil leadership, accountability and a sense of order into the company. The manual helped with that by giving people something consistent to embrace. Always remember that a manual is a living, breathing document that should reflect the heart of a company. Without one, you cannot direct the energies.”
The second thing James did was give most of the staff pay rises. “By and large, they were woefully underpaid. If you’re paying your staff peanuts, that is what you are going to get out of them and I also strongly believe in a living wage. But with reward must come responsibilities, so from that point I worked with staff to instil order and stability. We came up with realistic budgets and also came up with ways to improve the engagement of staff at all levels. I also encouraged every person to quantify what were the right tools they needed to do their job properly. There are no more excuses!”
Setting a direction and defining what William Evans is came next. “In the end there are two aspects to the company: there is Williams Evans at London and William Evans at Bisley. In the past the company tried to make them one and the same, but they really are two separate beasts.”
Hence, James and his staff are promoting the two aspects of the business separately, but under a single William Evans umbrella. William Evans Sporting Bisley is now focused on supporting all the sporting activities that take place at Bisley, including trap, skeet, sporting clays, long range precision, military precision, military sporting, military shotgun, all the practical shotgun disciplines, rimfire and so on. As he puts it, “If it goes bang at Bisley, we want to support it. That is why we are now stocking all the fun tactical toys as well as the traditional ones.”
By contrast, William Evans London is marketed as a country gunshop in the city. “This approach allows us to identify what the goals are for each location and to focus those two locations on what they do best. Before, they tried to do the same thing at both, and that didn’t work. For example, the Bisley customer is more price-sensitive than the London customer, and the cost to run Bisley is less than the cost of running the London shop, so we can be more competitive on certain things at Bisley. It is really quite simple and we have come a long way on this.”
William Evans’s staff have all embraced the company’s changes enthusiastically, James says, which is clearly beneficial. “The staff have been great and they know they have to fit in to both London and Bisley; there cannot be a disconnect between the two locations even though they are different. Having those retail stores is vital to the business, and what we are doing is certainly a brave new direction for the company and one that I believe will give it a sustainable future.”