A bit old article now but very enjoyable read;
Top batmaker Gray-Nicolls is unbeat about the challenges facing the British family business - hopefully with the help of Ashes success.
A narrow grain with a touch of red wood running down one shoulder. Alastair Cook, it seems, isn't half choosy when it comes to selecting his cricket bats. Fortunately for England's Ashes hopes, it appears to be working.
Boasting an average of nearly 124, the Essex cricketer is the top of the Ashes pecking order. A double-century in the opening Test has helped stir English hopes of a first win Down Under in 24 years.
And nowhere are they smiling more than in Robertsbridge. The sleepy East Sussex town is home to Gray-Nicolls, the company that sponsors and manufactures bats for Cook and Andrew Strauss, the England captain. Not a bad pair of marketing openers.
It all starts at the company's scruffy HQ opposite a street named Willow Bank. Outside the jumble of sheds lies a muddy courtyard piled high with tree trunks. The trees, about 1,200 of them annually, have been shipped in from the surrounding counties.
One at a time, the trunks are measured and then cut into chunks – three or four to a willow tree. They're split into bat-sized pieces before being roughly shaped and graded – grade one for Cooky and Strauss, down to vellum for kids and hackers.
The work is completed by the batmakers, a group of four craftsmen in the woodwork shop. It's nearly as romantic as it sounds. The room hangs with sawdust caught in the bright winter light as the makers plane and sand bats into shape. Only the acrid smell of the wood glue mars the mystique.
"Some of the players – Strauss or Mark Ramprakash – will come and stand over the batmakers while they work," says Richard Gray, sales and marketing chief and one of five fifth-generation family directors. "There is more hand-crafting now – the players like bowed bats with thick edges."
Gray-Nicolls, founded in 1855, has come close to collapse several times but through luck and judgement today boasts the best of the public school sports brands – Gray-Nicolls in cricket, Gilbert in rugby and Grays in hockey.
The company's beginnings lie in Cambridge, where Henry Gray was rackets professional at the University Arms. One of five brothers – three of whom were world champions – the wonderfully bearded Henry began making rackets and balls before setting up a shop.
The business grew steadily but faced its first crisis with the collapse in demand for sports goods in the Second World War. Mergers followed, including a tie-up with LJ Nicolls, batmakers of Robertsbridge. With the ball rolling again, the business expanded overseas to new factories in Australia and Pakistan, until the advent of the graphite squash racket in the early Eighties again nearly led to collapse. Having survived, the company went on to take advantage of Gilbert's troubles by buying the business out of administration in 2002.
Today, with the Nicolls and Gilberts having long sold out, the five Gray directors are the sole shareholders. So do they feel forged in history?
"Very much so. Because of the difficulties some of the generations went through, we do feel an obligation to keep it going and leave it in a better state than the one we walked into," Gray says, admitting he would love the business to remain in the family. "But who knows? If the kids all want to be rock musicians, they may have a different view."
There are 12 children in the sixth generation, a tricky number, in Gray's thinking. Business gurus might pull their hair out, but the company has no chief executive. All major decisions are made jointly by the five directors. A recipe for disaster, surely?
"You're not the first person to say that. The key to it, having seen in previous generations that it didn't work so well, is that you need an odd number. These days, we have debates, but we come to an agreement."
If it all sounds like a beautiful money-making machine set in the beautiful English countryside, well, it's not quite that easy. Despite its dominance of the rugby ball market and sizeable chunks of the cricket and hockey sectors, Gray-Nicolls had just £16.7m of revenues in 2009 and pre-tax profits were £780,000.
"Everyone knows the brands, but when you go to Lord's and look around you, how many cricketers do you see? There are only so many people playing these sports," he says.
So, is it a frustration that real growth seems so hard to come by? "Yes. It's hard work, and it's been very hard work recently. Sometimes it seems like a lot of hard work for a fairly low level of sales. But I don't think we're missing anything – we've got the players, the products, and we're in all the major retailers. We're ticking the boxes." Doesn't that make it even more frustrating? "Yes," he replies, laughing.
It's the classic challenge for many of Britain's family businesses. They don't want to sell out and give away the family jewels, but the jewels as they stand don't offer quite the income the family might like.
Allied to that frustration are the caution of UK retailers, growing competition from major sportswear players such as Adidas, and escalating prices from the Chinese suppliers of Gray-Nicolls' footwear and clothing products.
But Gray remains upbeat. In India, where the company has a joint-venture, the expansion of the middle class should offer growth opportunities.
"There is a rapidly growing middle class that wants brands. In 10 years, India will be a massive market for us." A buy-out of the Indian business at some stage is on the cards then? "It's on my list of things to do. Right at the top."
Meanwhile, there's always another Gilbert to look out for. "We're very mindful of that. The vibe is that there are businesses under pressure. I would think we'll look carefully if a strong brand came along in apparel in rugby, hockey or cricket." With any luck it might come along just in time to take advantage of an Ashes success.
Founded 1855 in Cambridge by world rackets champion H J Gray, merging with cricket bat maker L J Nicolls - founded in 1876 - in the 1940s.
Based Robertsbridge, Sussex
Staff 100 in the UK
Fells 1,200 willow trees annually
Brands Gray-Nicolls, Grays, Gilbert
Sponsors Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss and Monty Panesar
Products "We base the range around what the top players are asking for. If an England player can bat for three days using a pair of shoes, it will work for Tumbridge third XI."
Richard Gray's Ashes prediction "2-1. We'll clinch it in Sydney."