Ireland’s new-found love of exercise suits Brian Fox of Regatta Great Outdoors down to the ground
In late February 2018, a cold Siberian air mass – dubbed the Beast from the East – swept across Ireland. By the start of March, heavy snow showers were compounded by the arrival of Storm Emma, a depression that ushered in blizzards and 2m-high snowdrifts.
Employees couldn’t get to work, with transport at a standstill and cars abandoned at the side of the road. Some communities were stranded for days without food, water or electricity.
In Cork, Brian Fox, the head of Regatta Great Outdoors’s Irish business, was concerned about two colleagues who had flown over from the company’s Manchester headquarters for a meeting with him. With Cork Airport closed and roads impassable, the two women had to stay put at their hotel in nearby Ballincollig.
So Fox and his wife Siobhán put on their ski gear and walked down the middle of Model Farm Road – where Fox works and lives – to visit his colleagues at their hotel. Along the way, Fox’s inner monologue was on overdrive.
“I was saying to myself, ‘My business has shut down. I’m losing money because I’m paying rent, rates, and service charges, and I’m not generating any revenue’,” the 57-year-old recalls from Regatta’s Irish office and buyers’ showrooms on the Model Farm Road.
“Those clever people who already had an online platform knew that consumers would just move from bricks-and-mortar to shopping online. But I didn’t have that option. I decided then that I was going to break open the piggy bank and put Regatta online.”
Just days later, Fox started the ball rolling on setting up an Irish e-commerce platform for Regatta. He has since built two more platforms – one for the clothing company’s Dare 2B activewear and multi-sports brand, and one for its Craghoppers travel and adventure brand.
Within 18 months of Storm Emma, online turnover had equalled that of Regatta’s physical stores and concessions.
And when a lockdown of a different kind hit Ireland in March 2020, Fox was ready.
“I was hoping online would do a little bit of business so I could get some revenue,” he says. “But the Monday after we closed our shops in the lockdown, online sales just took off. When the stores did reopen, they did so with a spike and online dropped off – but nowhere near to as low as it was before Covid. The growth was just exponential.”
As a result, total turnover surged 48pc at Regatta Great Outdoors Ireland for the year ended January 31, 2021, while profit jumped 58pc to €1.3m. Fox expects turnover for the current fiscal year to increase from €26.9m to €37m.
Driving that growth is the acceleration in popularity of outdoors activities such as walking, gardening, hiking, and camping – with the latter benefitting from staycations as a result of a ban on international travel.
Indeed, the trend for more consumers incorporating outdoor sport and fitness routines into their daily lives is poised to outlast the pandemic, says Fox, who goes to the gym three mornings a week and regularly walks 8km before work.
“In the past, there was not this mentality in Ireland about getting outside, unless you count football training on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and playing a match at the weekend,” he says. “But now we’re saying, ‘You can go do something before you go to work and after you come home’.
“Covid has gotten everybody out and about, and we happen to be in the right space for it to work for us. That mentality is going to stay with us and will probably only improve.”
With that in mind, Regatta’s Irish operation is in expansionary mode.
In December, it opened a flagship store in the Blanchardstown Centre and one at the Nutgrove Shopping Centre, bringing the total number of standalone stores to 27. The UK-headquartered retailer and wholesaler also has 12 concessions at both the Shaws department store chain and at Paco, a Cork-based fashion retailer first known in the 1980s for its colourful knitted jumpers.
Now Regatta plans on opening a further four standalone stores this year – in Cork, Galway, Dublin and Limerick – to increase its market share.
“The cynics among us might say, ‘What do you need shops for? Just go online’,” Fox says. “But I’m a firm believer in that it’s all about consumer confidence in the brand.
"If you are going to buy something online from Regatta.ie, it’s nice to know that the Regatta shop is down the street if you are having an issue.”
The company is also investing in setting up a 130,000sqft distribution centre in Munster, where it will employ a further 60 people and will begin distributing Regatta’s autumn/winter collection in August to its online customers and stores.
While this will mean customers can receive direct next-day or 24-hour delivery on their online orders, rather than fulfilment of their orders from Regatta’s retail shops, the biggest benefit will be allowing the Irish operation to overcome some of the obstacles posed by Brexit.
“Brexit has been a disaster,” Fox says. “Distribution for my product was coming from the UK, which meant that I had huge issues with importing product, customs declarations, banking facilities, and tariffs.
"It’s destroying our product margins, the lead times are colossal – and then you have to factor in the supply-chain issues from the Far East.
“I haven’t passed on any of these costs to my consumers at all. But it will be kicking in this year. We will have price increases for spring/summer of in the region of 8pc and for autumn/winter it will go up again.
"The distribution centre will incur costs but it will also offset the current costs I have to pay, so it’s a trade-off.
"Give me 18 months and all going well I can bring costs back down again. Whereas maybe some of my competitors mightn’t have this facility to go down the cost-reduction route. I’ll be able to accelerate my growth and have control of everything.”
But how did an ambitious, rapid-speaking Corkman come to be head honcho in Ireland of a family-run British institution like Regatta in the first place? Growing up on the Model Farm Road – Fox never strayed from his roots for long – he was roped into his father’s business.
“My dad had an electrical shop in Cork city and one in Ballincollig. When I was 12, he dragged me out of bed one Saturday morning and told me to get in the van because, ‘We’re going to work’.
"Every Saturday, we’d take deliveries of TVs and washing machines, and he would show us how to unload the trucks and put the stock away. When I was old enough to drive, I would do all the deliveries around Cork city and Ballincollig and to all the farmers.
"I’d install TVs. Back then, when I’d bring a television to a house, it was a big occasion – because the family could be paying for it for three years. The TV stand would have been cleaned and ready.
"It was very humbling, in that it was a one-to-one experience with a family who had spent a lot of money and had been saving for it. Two or three years later, they would be back again. They’d say, ‘That was wonderful, we had a great experience and we want to update it’. I brought the same idea of customer experience to Regatta.”
After finishing school, Fox honed his sales patter by working as a merchandiser for drinks company C&C, packaging the beverages in supermarkets and shops and making the product look good.
After a stint as a trainee manager at Quinnsworth (now Tesco), he got a company car at the age of 22 when he became a sales merchandiser at Reckitt & Coleman, which later became household cleaning and personal care giant Reckitt Benckiser.
“I love chatting with people and meeting new people, so it kind of suited me,” Fox says.
He moved on to selling sportswear and equipment to sports shops for a Dublin firm and worked on developing a clothing range with waterproof and breathable technology for a now-defunct brand called Scanda.
Because the brand was competing with Regatta, the Black family – who own the company – headhunted Fox and made him their Irish sales representative.
After a few years of running the UK brand’s wholesale operation from his garage, Fox noticed during the Noughties that large sports brands such as Nike and Adidas were opening their own stores to sell directly to consumers.
He decided to emulate that strategy, starting with a concession at Shaws in Wexford in 2004 and opening the first standalone store at the Crescent Shopping Centre in Limerick in 2011.
Today, the biggest-selling of the company’s three brands in Ireland is still the eponymous Regatta brand, designed to be an affordable, practical mass-market product.
It sells everything from waterproofed jackets to fleeces (now selling for €14.95), to wellies – even dog coats and accessories.
But the price points are higher for the other two brands, including Dare 2B, a sports brand that also competes in the athleisure boom with celebrity collections such as the Laura Whitmore Edit.
Fox says: “I’m not as posh as Gym+Coffee – they are terrific operators. But my Dare 2B range is similar to theirs, with hoodies, leisure wear, leggings and sports bras.
"We’re nowhere near the price point of Gym+Coffee, but Dare 2B is more expensive than Regatta while still being affordable.
"If I go above that price, I’m losing the Dare 2B consumer – and if I go below it, I’m eating into the Regatta market.
“That’s why I would consider us top dog in the business right now.”
Name: Brian Fox
Position: Executive director of Regatta Ireland
Education: “Ballincollig Community School and then to Cork College of Commerce to study purchasing and materials management.”
Family: “Married to Siobhán for 34 years. My daughter, Aimee (32), is a health economist and my son Gary (25) is in the Navy and finishing his engineering degree.”
Pastimes: “Going to the gym, walking, and skiing. When I was younger, my sport was water-skiing. I used to own a water-ski centre in Cork but I sold that business about 10 years ago.”
Favourite book: “I love Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll Kelly books. Every time one comes out, I’m crying with laughter at every page. I normally prefer fiction, but my latest discovery is a non-fiction business book called Turning the Flywheel: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by Jim Collins.”
What has the pandemic taught you about business?
“That you should take nothing for granted. If you’ve got a good business built on solid foundations, then you just keep improving on it. Then it’s all about the devil being in the detail – I leave nothing to chance and keep looking at everything and assessing it.”
What motto do you live by?
“When I was 19 and in the grocery trade, I probably wasn’t the most polite to an older rep visiting the store. He said: ‘Listen to me, Mr Fox, be nice to the people you meet on the way up because we’re the same people you meet on the way down.’
"It was my first time hearing that – but I’ve never forgotten it. Ireland is a terribly small country, and you never know who you’re going to meet.”