Sitting in an armchair, sipping a cappuccino as dark clouds gathered over Holland & Holland, new chief operating officer Nigel Stuart, on his second day in post, told GTN that innovation is the secret to steering one of the world’s finest gunmakers out of stormy waters.
It is just over 35 hours into your premiership at Holland & Holland. What was your biggest challenge on day one?
I don’t think there was any sort of challenge, really. It was about meeting and understanding the team. Though I’d done research into the product, it was actually seeing the product and the manufacturing process. Yesterday, I spent the day in the factory, today it’s here at the shooting ground and tomorrow it’ll be at Bruton Street in London to see the sales teams, so for me the first few weeks are really about fact-finding.
Prior to this, you worked in the luxury yacht market with Spirit Yachts. What are the similarities between Holland & Holland and high-end gunmaking and the luxury yacht market, and what are the obvious differences? Admittedly, even a top Holland & Holland gun doesn’t fetch quite as much as a luxury yacht.
There’s no difference in value to me. Just because the numbers changed, it doesn’t mean the value has changed. The similarities are that they’re both great British manufacturing companies using the finest craftsmen available and having evolved over many years to find construction and handcraft methods to actually build something—so there’s a huge similarity in that.
The challenges of manufacturing in the UK are well known to many, and the previous company I worked for and Holland & Holland both share those challenges. But they’re also well-known brands. Holland & Holland is a very strong brand and I’m used to that element of it, and they’re dealing with very similar customers, customers who can afford to own something for itself. You’ll find they own a nice bit of art or even have a special car, or a watch or whatever it is, but they’re the kind of people who will buy items of a quality that mean something more to them than just buying a gun.
So you’ve got Holland & Holland, you’ve got Purdey and you’ve got Boss. I think many of us think of those brands as being a Holy Trinity of high-end gunmaking. Why buy a Holland & Holland over a Purdey or Boss? What marks Holland & Holland out?
Each one has a place—they’re all high-end guns. And forgive me as I’m not someone who’s been in the gun trade for long, but as I look at them I think they all have uniquely different characters. At no point would I say one is better than the other. To me, Holland & Holland is a brand. It’s about the type of gun it produces. I look at Purdey and to me it looks like a similar company but producing a very different gun. I think it’s going to be horses for courses, so you’re selling to a certain market.
In the world of high-end sales, is suggesting that your product is much better than any other product a bad way to go about business, or a poor sales strategy?
Well, if you look at other companies, the car industry, for example, they do say that to some degree—‘our car is better than theirs’. In handmade London guns, I don’t think that is true because you get into a difficult argument. You can’t substantiate ‘better’.
I don’t think you are going to win those arguments. You’re much better selling on the strength of the type of gun, the type of shooting someone’s doing and the services and aftercare you can offer. And it comes down to a personal relationship. These people can own their gun for many years and they want to be able to phone up the guy
who made the gun, the guy who sold them the gun, the guy who’s running the company. It’s a long-term business.
In 1900, people were buying Purdeys and Holland & Hollands because they were at the coalface of innovation. The other day, I opened up a Purdey box and it had instructions for the owner on how ejectors operate, saying, in essence, that you can be gentle and they still work: ‘Sir does not need to use brute strength.’ People went to these brands because they were innovators. Over the past few years, sales have been weak and other brands have been innovating while Holland & Holland hasn’t. Do you think that is still part of the strategy or is buying a Holland & Holland a bit like buying a Morgan—is it a kind of curiosity for the eccentric, while those who want the best go for brands that are doing new and exciting things?
It’s interesting you say Morgan. If you look at Morgan, going back 20 or 25 years ago, you just said they were staid. It hadn’t really changed. You had the Plus 4 and the Plus 4 2, but then they did innovate. They brought out their ugliest car and then they brought the three-wheeler out and those were huge innovations. I see Holland & Holland as being no different.
Do you see the business as being on the cusp of innovation?
I think it may have recently lacked innovation and there is a huge opportunity here. It’s got a team of highly skilled craftsmen and the backing of Beretta. Though Beretta doesn’t want to get too involved in the day-to-day running, they will offer their expertise when needed. With that support, I think there is a great opportunity to really innovate.
Going back to 1900 again, if you stood outside the door of Holland & Holland on a sunny July morning and you stopped customers wandering into Hollands and asked, “What do you do for a living?” you would probably find that you had manufacturers and industrialists and aristocrats. However, Britain has been in a sorry state of decline, or levelling up perhaps, for a while, so what do buyers of a Holland & Holland look like now and how does the international market feature in that demographic?
Fundamentally, everyone is aware of the value of the gun that Holland & Holland makes, so you are looking for someone who can obviously afford them but, as I said, they are the kind of people who appreciate beautiful items and things that are elegant. They will have fine furniture and nice pictures, not necessarily the ones that you think you need to have. They won’t just go for a Rembrandt on the wall. You may find they’ve got an artist, an unknown artist, but the work they have is truly stunning. They are that kind of person.
Do you have any concerns about operating at the bottom of a three-tier system, with GMK above you and Beretta above that? How much space is there for you as somebody who doesn’t have a background in gunmaking to say: “This is the direction we’re going to go in”?
Ultimately, Beretta does own the company but Franco [Gussali Berreta] is very for Holland & Holland to continue as an independent company. I’m not the sort of person who is a dictator in terms of leadership. I will listen to what the team of salespeople and the craftsmen feel. I will also listen to the market, so if I’ve got thoughts on how we move forward, I’m hoping that conversation with Beretta and GMK is actually quite simple, because they will see that whatever it is, is a positive forward step.
What you are stepping into here is a leadership role within a terrific brand and into a brand that’s a cornerstone of British cultural history. Nobody is going to pretend, however, that Holland & Holland has had a particularly successful time over the past three or four years. The volume of guns it has been selling has been poor and it has been haemorrhaging money through its fashion line. How do you take this company forward and what would success look like within a 10-year period?
We’ll start with going back to basics and returning to the core of the business. We manufacture guns, so we need to sell some more guns. Innovation is happening in the background already and we want to rapidly expand that without detracting from the quality of what we’ve always done. It’s very important that the DNA of a Holland & Holland does not disappear.
That is absolutely vital. We also have this shooting ground that we’re sitting in today, which is a truly amazing establishment and we need to maximise the use of that, to allow people to come down and to try the guns and use them. In terms of success, in five or 10 years that means the business being a profitable company that has another 100 years in it. Secondly, it’s a time of change. We have all the things that are going on with steel shot. I’d love to see our facilities being green facilities.
You say you would like to see facilities being green facilities—is that just at the shooting ground or all parts of the business?
All of them. I think we should do every environmentally sensitive thing we can so we don’t have to produce waste. We should recycle. The amount of electricity required to run the factory is minimal really. We could run off solar. All we need is men and women on the benches and they’ve got their lamps and they’re using hand tools. So I think success is based on profitability while being an environmentally sensitive company. It’s creating products for people to shoot game, obviously, but also to shoot clays. We’ve got to follow that—not be dragged into it but actually be leading the way.
Your guns are primarily used to shoot game, but nobody can pretend that game shooting is a world without controversy. What do you think are the biggest challenges that game shooting faces and how do we go about fending off any threats that we face?
You’ve got to look at everything in the whole. Take pheasant shooting, for instance. Those birds are bred, but how are they bred? What is happening to them after you shoot them? We’re not just digging a hole and burying the shot birds in there—they are a food source. As we all know, meat is not the greatest thing for the environment. I like the idea of simulated game days, when you go out and walk the line and you do clays in a different way. I think there’s a huge opportunity there, but also it’s the shot we’re using, it’s the wadding, it’s the cartridge.
So you wouldn’t say Holland & Holland, under your leadership, will be a company afraid of change?
We’re not afraid of change at all. Though we must keep the DNA of the gun—we cannot start producing a London-made Beretta.
If somebody said to you that they are worried about Holland & Holland under your leadership because your knowledge of shooting is perhaps not as strong as many of your customers’ will be, what would you say and is it a problem?
No, because I’m very mindful of it. I’m not going to learn everything. I was lucky when I was younger, around 16 years old, as I did do some shooting with my father. He lent me a 16-bore damascus-barrelled gun, and it was the gun that my father taught me to shoot with.
But you know, I’m not afraid to listen to experts. Holland & Holland has got some fantastic people. The team here, the instructors, they know the guns. I’m not going to suddenly say I know it all, and that’s the important thing. It would probably be more dangerous if you had someone in here who thought they knew it all and had come from within the industry.
On that point, my final question is that, presumably, because of coming from outside the industry, you are currently on an information-gathering mission, a listening exercise. How long does that go on for before you start implementing the strategy you devise?
There are obviously immediate things that need to be dealt with and that’s a case of short-fire listening and making sensible decisions along with these guys and the GMK guys. I would have thought that within six months, I will have a long-term strategy done. We already know some of the things we need to do.
I think Holland & Holland is just an outstanding brand with a great history and future, if we stick to the essence of what that is. That’s what I mean by the DNA. In my previous role at Spirit Yachts, there was a DNA and I was true to that DNA for the whole time I was there—it wouldn’t necessarily have been the yacht I would have bought myself, but that doesn’t matter.
Do you know how many guns Holland & Holland sold last year?
I do, but I’m not telling you.
Is it exciting for you to come into a company that is not at its zenith—perhaps not at its nadir but certainly not at its zenith?
It’s what I do. I’ve done it twice before.
And you made a success of it both times?