Why the Grays win where others fail

Article from Sports Trader February / March 2004

It is a special kind of family that can keep a company afloat for close to 150 years.  It is an exceptional family that ensures that all their brands stay leaders in their fields for all these years.  The Grays of Cambridge is such a family.

While the concept of a family business just about died out with the previous generation, the Grays show how it should be run.  The fifth generation of five Gray cousins are ensuring that their sports brands — Grays, Gray-Nicolls and Gilbert — stay frontrunners in their market sectors.

And they enjoy doing it.

The reason why the Gray’s managed to prosper where others failed, muses current sales director Richard Gray, is because the family is relatively small and the shareholders have also been responsible for the running of the company.  Management decisions had always been tempered by the fact that their own money was at stake and there were no non-executive shareholders who could be tempted to make a quick profit at the expense of sensible business practices.

Coming from a family that made rackets for royalty and has a World Champion in the lineage, one would expect Richard Gray to be somewhat … posh.  His easy-going demeanour and self-depreciating smile therefore comes as a pleasant surprise.  In SA for a brief visit to local distributors Leisure Holdings (Grays hockey and Gray-Nicolls cricket) and Gilbert SA (James Gilbert rugby), his schedule is tight, but he makes time for a discussion about the Gray family over a pint in a pub.

Richard, his brother Paul, three cousins Neil, Nick and Jason, are the current shareholders.  The five cousins who are currently responsible for running the company get along fine because they respect each other’s areas of expertise and do not interfere, he explains. Richard, Paul and Neil look after sales, product development and services in England, while Nick and Jason are responsible for sales, marketing and sourcing (Nick) and finance and admin (Jason) in Australia.

Interestingly, all of them except Nick who came directly from school, first joined other companies after university before returning to the family fold.  Richard, for instance, honed his sales and marketing skills as brand manager for household product and pharmaceutical multi-national Proctor & Gamble after he completed a business science degree.

But, his love of sport and the realisation that "the company is not ours to sell," compelled him to shoulder his share of the responsibility for the family concern.  And it has been fun.

There was no pressure on any of the present generation to join the family business, he stresses.  This is probably because their fathers were given no choice but to join the company and had to take over when their mother, Alison Rhone Gray, died in 1950.  She, in turn, was catapulted into the hot seat when her husband and their father, Harold Douglas Gray, suddenly died in 1938.

A formidable lady, Alison Gray not only steered the company through the difficult World War ll years when they supported the war effort by manufacturing equipment like tent poles and aircraft parts, but laid the foundation for the current diverse sporting goods company through strategic mergers.

Rackets World Champion and Cambridge University Pro, Henry John Gray, founded the Grays rackets company in 1885. He and his four brothers — also champions at this early version of squash — started by stringing and later manufacturing wooden rackets for the Cambridge students, among them King Edward VII and King George VI.  Over the next 80 years, Grays grew into one of England’s foremost racket manufacturers.

In 1941 Alison Gray merged the company with hockey stick manufacturer J. Hazells to form Grays hockey, which manufactured the now famous sticks in their Cambridge plant.  In the same year Grays also merged with the Robertsbridge, Sussex, company of the bat manufacturing carpenter L.J. Nicolls. The result was Gray-Nicolls.  Although the top quality English willow Gray-Nicolls bats are still made in Robertsbridge, it is at bigger premises than this factory founded in 1876.

During this period, well-known brands Shaw and Shrewsbury and Wainwrights also became part of Grays.

After her death in 1950, Alison Gray was succeeded by her two sons, William and John, who had been recruited into the business by their father, Harold Douglas Gray.  He had joined the family business when he returned from duty in World War l and expanded the racket manufacturing arm by opening the Gray-Russell rackets factory in Ireland.

His father, Horace George Gray, was responsible for developing the first laminated racket, the Masterpiece, in 1908.

In 2002 the company branched out into another new sporting code when they bought rugby pioneer Gilbert.  "Entering the rugby market was an important move for us," says Gray, "because it adds a different season and complements our current cricket, hockey and racket ranges.  We acquired all the assets of the company, which included the stock a nd key members of staff."

They are currently enjoying the benefits of the huge upswing in rugby interest in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in the UK after their World Cup success.  "Last year Gilbert enjoyed their best year ever," says Gray.

In line with company policy, the rugby products are also manufactured in their own factories.

Although the Grays’ have owned Gilbert barely more than eighteen months, a new Truflight technology has already been developed by them, which is an advancement on Gilbert’s famous patented "valve in seam" technology.  The 2004 range, to be launched in SA later this year, has already been hailed as the most technologically advanced in years.

The fact that they have always considered themselves to be manufacturers, contributed a great deal to the Grays’ success in all sporting codes.  This enabled them to be closely involved with the development of new products and to keep control of manufacturing standards.

Where possible, products are manufactured in factories owned by the company.

In 1965, when hockey sticks with smaller mulberry heads became popular and the Pakistani government cleverly banned the export of mulberry wood, Grays of Pakistan was established to oversee the manufacturing on the sub-continent.  They developed the world-renowned Grays Karachi King with its instantly recognisable orange flash, as well as the many hockey innovations that established Grays as one of the leading hockey brands in the world, including SA.  At the Sydney Olympics, 40% of the players used Grays sticks.  In 1987 Grays Pakistan floated on the Pakistan Stock Exchange and it has been one of Pakistan’s most successful companies ever since.

Although Gray-Nicolls continues to manufacture the top end English willow cricket bats used by some of the world’s best batsmen in their Robertsbridge factory, they also have a bat factory in India where Kashmir willow bats are made for the more price-sensitive market.

A Gray-Nicolls factory was also opened in Melbourne to supply the growing demand from the Australian and New Zealand markets.

Major innovations included the revolutionary "Steel Spring", the first shoulderless "Superlite" bat and in 1974, the revolutionary scoop bat.  The long list of high-scoring batsmen who played with Gray-Nicolls will fill pages, but Brian Lara deserves special mention as he scored his record-breaking highest ever test (375) and first class (501) innings with the Scoop 2000.

During the 1980’s, when the introduction of graphite rackets heralded another manufacturing trek to the Far East, the original Grays rackets factory in Cambridge closed.  The traditional upper-class racket sports Real Tennis and Rackets, however, did not succumb to the lure of synthetic materials and Grays continued as the only manufacturer of these wooden rackets in their Coton factory near Cambridge.

Real Tennis, a mixture of what we know as tennis and squash, is still popular enough to sustain 40 clubs in England, where aristocratic players like Prince Edward enjoy the game.

While Richard Gray and his siblings are looking forward to many more enjoyable years growing the sporting goods company, the 6th generation of Grays is growing up. With six boys and 8 girls to follow in their footsteps, it looks as if Grays will be a family concern for many more years.


Copyright belongs to Sports Trader, South Africa
Date: February / March 2004