In a short space of time, leather goods firm Croots has become an iconic, award-winning English name. Allistair Croot tells Helena Venables how they managed it – and what lies ahead
Run by Allistair and Jackie Croot, Croots England goes back to the 1970s when Jackie’s father, John Smith, a sales rep for Hull Cartridge Company, and his wife Margaret decided to turn their hands to the creation of quality sporting luggage. To do this they set up a company called Field Sports Products, converting the top floor of their family home into a workshop.
Over the next few years the company’s reputation for making quality cartridge bags and gun slips grew and the business moved to purpose built workshops in Scarborough before moving again, in 1990, to larger premises in Malton, North Yorkshire, where it is based today making a high end range of gun slips, cartridge bags and travel bags from premium quality leather and canvas.
Allistair Croot, who grew up on a farm and did an engineering apprenticeship met Jackie in 1991 and found himself calling round at the workshop after work and getting to know about the business. He joined in 1995 to work on sales and marketing and, with an eye to the export market, exhibited at IWA in Germany in 1996, which resulted in new sales outlets in New York, Stockholm, Vienna and Tokyo—all of which are still Croots stockists. Today, Croots products are available in over 20 countries around the world with Allistair and Jackie jointly managing the overall company direction. While Jackie runs the manufacturing and quality control side of the business, Allistair manages sales, PR and marketing.
Allistair explains that historically the company made good products, sold them to gunshops who marked the product up and re-sold them. “While this worked, the company, Field Sports Products, didn’t have a brand and we saw from the way the market was changing that an English company needs a brand. So we went through a re-branding process and decided that my family name, Croot, which we think comes from the Netherlands, was pretty unique. You also have to take into account where a brand comes up in web searches and Croots is unique.”
The rebranding, helped by a branding agency, had immediate benefits but despite its modern marketing approach Croots still focuses on its core sector, shooting. “It’s where we have come from and the market we have always made products for,” says Allistair. Over the past five years we have had more and more customers coming to us from overseas, for example Japan, saying ‘We love the canvas game bags but can you make them in yellow instead of brown’ and all of a sudden they become more of a lifestyle product.”
About three years ago Croots decided to embrace this lifestyle market wholeheartedly and launched the Croots City range, grouping its shooting and country products under the Croots Country brand, which is driven by functionality and classic designs. However, Allistair is keen to stress that Croots City is not a fashion label but targeted at the shooter who loves the Croots products but also wants a bag to use for work, to travel or to carry a laptop.
“Those people want a similar style product to those we make for shooting but to use Monday to Friday when they are working too. We are not naïve enough to think we could create a fashion brand to rival the likes of Paul Smith and Hugo Boss. There has to be a reason for someone to buy a product: the main reason is they know the quality of Croots products because of their sporting interests, so would then start to use our other products in their daily lives.”
Despite broadening its appeal, Allistair says the future of the company is still very much in the countryside market and the “fashion” shops that stock their products are also interested in the heritage of shooting and hunting.
Designs for both Croots Country and Croots City are carried out in house by Allistair and Jackie, who work closely with their 13 staff, many who have been with the company for around 20 years and are highly skilled. “We work as a close team and our staff are proud to work on our products and take an interest in them and the business,” Allistair adds.
Roles include leather-cutting, preparation, polishing, dyeing, punching and riveting. Products are put together on the sewing floor, finished, and then go through a strict quality control process before being dispatched. “Experience is key; we look very closely at our leather and every batch is checked for quality before it’s used. We have a good supply chain and have been dealing with some suppliers for 25 years, so we trust them to supply what we need.”
Allistair explains that historically Croots products were made to order, and retailers would have been happy to wait a few weeks before delivery. “But they would have ordered enough to last them two months. When we took over we saw that shops weren’t able to carry much stock, so we decided to manufacture our standard products to stock and supply out of stock. The result is that we are much more efficient, have good stock control and can meet our orders very quickly, meaning our retailers can carry a wider range of our products to the benefit of customers.”
Croots has around 400 retailers and a consumer-based website which many of the stockists use as a point of reference for the customer. The site also has a stockist listing for the country range in Europe, USA and the UK. Retailers who apply to sell Croots products are considered on a case by case basis with factors such as where they are based, how much stock they can display and so on being factored in to the decision.
Croots Country products are extremely popular in the Scandinavian markets, which appreciate English quality and style, as well as France, Belgium and Germany. “We are less popular in southern Europe.” says Allistair. “Those countries like a very different style and obviously they are suffering economically at the moment.” Across the pond, the US market is buoyant but Croots decides carefully which outlets it chooses: “We prefer those that sell English brands and English tweeds and that is the market we are expanding. We have also picked up customers in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa so business is looking good. In east Asia, Japan is our first in the export market, but that is for the Croots City range, followed by Taiwan and Singapore where there is a great passion for the English look.”
Ongoing business development has seen an increase for the rifle shooting market, including canvas and leather rifle slips of a quality to match high-end rifles and the full bore rifle market, especially in Scandinavia and Germany.
In line with its development Croots carries out strategic marketing and PR, working with its branding agency on visuals for adverts, exhibition stands, and social media. “We have to be realistic that we are a small company and yes, while we do some PR, we also have an old fashioned strategy of maintaining personal relationships with our customers, we talk to them on the phone, get to know them and build relationships over time. The important thing for our stockists is that they can get the products they want when they want them, they are very high quality and they can make money on them. We also have a personalising service, can ship direct to customers, and we try and bend over backwards for retailers and customers. That appears to be working very well and we are looking forward to a very successful future.”