Julian McHardy, managing director of Cairngorm Sporting Supplies (formerly Caledonian Cartridge Company), tells Helena Douglas how the company’s collaboration with Eley Hawk came about and what benefits it has brought.
is a tinge of regret in Julian McHardy’s voice as he talks. The shooting-loving managing director of Cairngorm Sporting Supplies, formerly Caledonian Cartridge Company, is honest enough to admit that he occasionally feels sad that the company is no longer a cartridge manufacturer. Having signed a deal with Eley Hawk in 2011, it is now a distributor.
“I do feel wistful sometimes because Caledonian Cartridge Company had been a cartridge manufacturer, and a good one at that, for nearly 30 years,” says Julian, who joined a Scottish Highland Regiment before forging a career in sales and manufacturing. He also rowed across the Atlantic just prior to taking up his post, proving he is one for a challenge. “However, I realised the market was becoming tougher, the economic climate was very challenging and we were losing competitiveness. Had things carried on, I expect the business may not have survived in the long term.”
Caledonian Cartridge Company started life in 1980 when a gunsmith based in Brechin in Angus couldn’t find the type of shotgun cartridges he wanted on the market. Rather than giving up, he decided to make his own and set up a business that would go on to make highly regarded cartridges for game shooters. As sales grew, the company moved to Banchory on Deeside. It continued its core business of making game and clay cartridges and selling them direct to end users.
“The policy of the business from day one was to sell direct to end users, and that differentiated it from other cartridge manufacturers,” says Julian. “In addition, we were renowned for the quality of our cartridges, which are very pleasant to shoot and have little recoil.”
About two years ago, the company was approached by Eley Hawk. “We initially declined the offer of cooperation,” Julian explains, “but Eley Hawk persisted. After looking into what it was offering, we eventually agreed to sell the Caledonian Cartridge Company name. This enabled Eley to start manufacturing our cartridges. The new business – rebranded as Cairngorm Sporting Supplies – took on distribution for Eley in Scotland, as well as becoming the sole UK distributor of Caledonian cartridges.”
Julian is at pains to point out that, while Eley Hawk has taken on the brand name, part of the deal required it to manufacture cartridges to the specific recipes Caledonian had developed. “We were using components, particularly gunpowder, from Maxam, Eley Hawk’s parent company, so it is easy for Eley to continue making the specific cartridges that have made our name and which our clients like. We had always taken trouble to ensure our cartridges aren’t punchy, as many of our game shooting customers have older, lightweight guns. It’s very important to me that Eley follows our recipes.”
The collaboration clearly has several benefits for both parties. “Eley Hawk could see a big market for exporting Caledonian Cartridges as we were the only Scottish cartridge brand and appealed to many Americans who came to Scotland to shoot. What was also opportune at the time was that our loading machines were tired and in need of replacement. Eley, because of its size and superb facilities, can also make more cartridges, maintain excellent quality, and we can benefit from its economies of scale.”
The link up between the two companies has also supported the development of an expanded range of clay cartridges, enabling the Caledonian brand to compete with other manufacturers. “That is a big change and has opened up a new business outside of the game shooting season. In addition, Eley Hawk’s economies of scale mean the Caledonian range is now competitively priced compared with other manufacturers.”
So where does this leave Cairngorm Sporting Supplies? The company is still owned by the same group of private shareholders – keen shots to a man – as before, with Julian managing the company and supported by two sales and admin staff.
The ‘bread and butter business’, as he describes it, is supplying cartridges – primarily Caledonian, but others can be sourced – direct to end users. These include shooters who want cartridges delivered to the doorstep, through to trade customers, a large number of shooting estates in Scotland, syndicates and clay grounds. “We have a wide range of customers, but our core business is delivering relatively small quantities to end users just like you and me,” says Julian. “We have around 3,500 customers, many of whom have been with us for over 25 years, so it appears the collaboration with Eley hasn’t caused any erosion of our customer base at all. Indeed, being able to benefit from Eley’s purchasing power, we have seen trade sales increase significantly and Caledonian cartridges are now as competitively priced as they have ever been.”
Another part of Cairngorm’s business is gun sales and accessories, which makes up about 20 per cent of its turnover. “That side started up following our attendance at trade shows where we realised a stand that just displayed cartridge boxes was fairly dull,” says Julian. “After adding in various accessories, we went on to become agents for Swarovski, AYA, Rizzini, Louis Lejeune and Mannlicher rifles, amongst others, and sell through a shop at our premises and online.”
Another part of Julian’s role is working closely with Tomás Atienza-Avila, managing director of Eley Hawk, on new developments and on going improvements. “We have a very close relationship and are constantly in touch. Development and thinking forward in this business is vital. There are just a few components in a cartridge so all manufacturers are constantly working hard to improve performance as well as reduce costs.”
As to collaboration as a way forward for smaller companies, Julian believes it can be a lifesaver. “The benefit of an association with a large company, who is in itself owned by a colossal company, gives us huge advantages in terms of economies of scale, purchasing power and R&D. But it’s important to remember that Cairngorm Sporting Supplies is still an independent company in its own right. We compete for business ourselves and don’t share our customer base with Eley Hawk, or with anyone else. What I can say is that I would certainly recommend considering collaboration with a bigger backer to small companies in the shooting sector. Things are tough out there, and a deal such as the one we have can make all the difference between survival and demise.”