John Bright joins Ollie Harvey to explore the roots of Highland Outdoors and share plans for 2020.
When John Bright joined the gun trade, he was presented with the daunting challenge of representing the Austral Gun Company to clients in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. His patch covered an area larger than Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal and Spain combined, but John thrived on travel and the opportunity to meet customers.
At a time when firearms laws were changing radically in Australia, Austral Gun Company and its sister business Fuller Firearms closed to make way for Highland Sports. John was appointed as sales manager for the new company, uniting the sales teams from Austral and Fullers.
“Obviously you start off small and then want to take on more,” explains John. “We then expanded Highland Sports fairly rapidly, and I progressed through the company, working closely with John and David Fuller. Business was going well, but I wanted something more.
John adds that the Fuller Group follow a simple business formula – to partner with the right people. He said: “They saw the opportunity in me and I saw it in them. As a partner they are great at encouraging me to move things forwards, and to see what’s next. This is how I was asked if I wanted to move to the UK.”
Despite an initial hesitation, John re-evaluated the opportunity and saw a UK market ripe with opportunity. “At the time, we owned the brands of Nikko Stirling, Buffalo River and Ridgeline, as well as the worldwide rights to Howa,” he explains.
“I moved here in 2007 and set up the company from nothing. I spent a lot of time sorting it out, seeing customers, introducing myself, trying to make a bit of an impact on the market. We had some fairly ambitious growth targets, but the rest, as they say, is history!”
The brand has grown to incorporate an extensive portfolio, and continues to expand on its current warehouse and 28 members of staff. “You can call it a ‘one-stop shop’ if you like,” says John. “We get approached by a lot of manufacturers, and we need to look at how their brands complment our existing products, whether it is conflicting or not. It is no use offering the same product for the same price point because you are just competing with yourself.
“The one area of weakness has been ammunition. That is now being addressed, thankfully. We’ve had some final agreements, or negotiations, with Sig Sauer, and that has just had the CIP approval. Sig Sauer have done a lot of investment in their new ammunition plant in the US, so it isn’t just an ammunition brand re-branded by another factory – it is their own factory product and that’s hitting the market in the coming months.
By analysing the market, competitors and trends, Highland Outdoors have been able to strike impressive deals. ATN was recently added to their portfolio, as John explains: “We approached ATN while they had their own distribution channel for the UK market. ATN were not only manufacturing but also distributing – the two are very different business models, so we said, ‘You focus on making an excellent product and we can give you the distribution channels to actually present it to the market properly.’”
“We are happy with the results, and ATN, I can tell you, are happy with them too. Saying that, it’s still early days and we have a big learning curve ahead. If we see opportunities in the marketplace, we can look at how various brands in that segment are distributed and then move from there. We have lots of interaction with international markets as part of the Fuller Group, including America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Spain and offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
“A lot of our feedback comes from the USA. If we see a brand that is number one in the USA but only number five in the UK, you’ll see that it’s either not the right fit for the UK market, or the distributor is not doing a good enough job. If a brand is not being represented properly then we’ll approach it.
“It’s a challenge that any business has, and one of the keys to a successful business is that you need to know what the market is doing. You need interactions with your customers, but you’ve also got to take a gamble. Business is about taking risks. If you sit there and rely on previous sales to dictate what you do moving forward, you might often lose the trends.
“As part of my day-to-day duties I need to pull out my crystal ball and predict what we need in eight months’ time, working to our suppliers’ lead times.”
As well as roles in the boardroom, painting and decorating the workshops, and interviewing for staff, John is a shareholder for Webley & Scott, and is needed to progress the brand to the next level, whether at UK level or internationally. “We have some very exciting ventures happening outside the UK at the moment with Webley, which will be announced in the coming months – so watch this space.”
Preparations are also under way for Highland exhibitions at SHOT Show, the British Shooting Show and IWA. Using the trade shows as a chance to ‘cross-pollinate’ between the Fuller Group, Highland Outdoors believe it is essential to strike a balance. John explains: “There are so many options for shows. The best shows for us are the ones where products are on dealers’ shelves 365 days a year.
“It’s pointless not having a presence on our dealers’ shelves and a great presence at, say, the Game Fair, when most of our business comes from the day-to-day retail of stores carrying our stock. We’re very active on having our external sales guys knocking on doors, demonstrating new products, dealing with customers’ issues and supporting our dealer network. That’s a hell of a lot more important than doing a three-day fair that ends up being a bit of a jolly – and bloody hard work!”
John suggests that Highland Outdoors will have an ammunition focus in 2020, aiming to improve that sector. In addition, final negotiations are under way for potential new brands, and a new business, Highland Defence, is launching towards the defence side of the trade.
“That’s a different business model,” explains John. “Because I didn’t have anything to do between the hours of 7 and 8am… There are a lot of irons in the fire and I’m a big believer that when you reach the top of the mountain, you can either come back down again, or aim for the next peak.
“We have pretty clear ambitions for the next 12 months, three years, five years, ten years. We can’t hit our ten-year targets unless we hit our five-year targets. And we can’t do that unless we hit our three-year targets. The way we achieve that is by having good people. We could have the best brand in the world, but unless we have good people it won’t work,” warns John.
“The two most important parts of our business are our staff and our customers. If we can keep them happy, everything else will happen. We want to be the best at what we do – work-life balance is important, but I wake up every morning with a smile on my face. This is in my blood, it’s what I do and what I enjoy.”