A company's exclusive approach to fishing brought it world-wide fame - and huge debt. Now it has a new MD and he is reeling in the profits.
Not long ago, John Holland, the managing director of House of Hardy, received a telephone call from a potential customer. He was asked if the firm could provide them with various bits and pieces for a new venture they were about to embark on. Mr Holland was happy to reply that his firm could. Nothing remarkable in this, you might think, expect perhaps the name of the customer in question and its putative programme: respectively, the Pentagon, and Star Wars. Even this might not have seemed worthy of note, but for the fact that House of Hardy is not in the defence business - it is the world's most venerable manufacturer of fishing tackle. The request did, Mr Holland concedes, "seem a little incongruous".
However, the Pentagon was not the only unexpected visitor to House of Hardy's bucolic Alnwick offices that summer. "We also had a call from the Swedish Space Institute," Holland muses. "To be honest, I hadn't known there was one." This was followed by requests - all fulfilled - from Airbus Industrie and Plessey Naval Systems. Could this outbreak of interest in the Hardy rod be attributed to a sudden fondness for fly-fishing among the international scientific elite? Or was it simply an elaborate practical joke? Read on.
In 1872, William and John Hardy set up business in the pleasant little Northumberland market town of Alnwick, manufacturing, first guns and then fishing rods. Within a decade, the Hardy Palakona - hexagonal in section and made of split bamboo - had won the International Exhibition's Gold Medal, making it effectively the best fishing rod in the world. Shortly afterwards, the Hardy "Perfect" reel was patented, featuring such coups of Victorian hightechnology as check mechanisms and ball bearings.
In 1892, the by now flourishing Hardy brothers opened a shop in Pall Mall, just over the road from the fishing-mad occupants of St James's Palace.
Throughout the succeeding 100 years, aristocratic and royal noses have been pressed up against the shop's windows, as their owners mistily eye up Keenwells and Olive Damsels, Suspender Buzzers and Walker's Kinghorns. These are all makes of fly, and fly fishing has always been an expensive business. As with a Rolls-Royce, if you have to ask the price, you probably couldn't afford one anyway. A summer rod on the Tweed has become as much part of the "season" as Ascot. Consequently, the contents of Hardy's Pall Mall shop are as much part of the English argot as fetlocks and wet-bobs. Indeed, suggest to a whaleboned dowager that she might benefit from the services of a large Black Doctor and she will not set her butler on you, but thank you politely, and change her fly accordingly. The whole mise en scene is delightfully (even, one suspects, art-fully) Woosterish. A later partner in the firm - LR Hardy - insisted on wearing black tie to fish; while a letter from Africa addressed, in 1925, to Hardy and Co, c/o The King, England, made its way to Alnwick without a hitch.
However, as many other British companies discovered to their cost, such exclusive olde worlde Anglo-cuteness - even with a string of 10 royal warrants - does not necessarily contribute much to what many in this more profit-conscious era refer to as the corporate bottom line. In 1967 Hardy Brothers (Alnwick) Limited was bought by the Harris and Sheldon leisure group, mainly, it seems, because its chairman, one James Miller, was a keen fisherman.
Mr Miller, however, appears to have been less keen on losing money, which his newly acquired toy proceeded to do with alarming alacrity. In 1983, with Hardy's factory running on a three-day week, Mr Miller decided that something had to be done. Less than a decade later, the firm was making a tidy little operating profit of £593,701 on a turnover of £4,803,787 (1990 figures). It now sports only a solitary royal warrant (HRH the Prince of Wales), of which more later; but it has, on the other hand, added a string of more marketable honours to its list: an American Kudos Award for Design Excellence and five Japanese Industrial Design Awards, the first awarded to a non-Japanese manufacturer. It has also, by no means coincidentally, added John Holland to its board, and the Pentagon et al to its customer base.
A glance at Mr Holland explains much. One might expect the MD of a firm of fishing tackle manufacturers to be ruddy of cheek and tweedy of jacket and, indeed, photographs of generations of Hardys in the firm's museum confirm this. Mr Holland, by contrast, wears sleek grey suits, a discreet gold wristwatch and tinted spectacles. He looks like a man with a background in takeovers and turnarounds, and that is precisely what he has. "Don't get me wrong," says Holland, explaining the revival of his company's fortunes. "The Hardys were excellent fishermen: they just didn't have very much in the way of, er, business experience. I think I was brought in in '83 principally because I didn't fish."
Clearly, the change in Hardy's corporate philosophy has been more than merely sartorial. It has also, despite Holland's assurances to the contrary, not been easy. The point, in a sense, of the Hardy rod has always been its old-fashionedness, its craft value. But the trouble with handmade, split-cane rods is that they are vastly more expensive than what Holland calls, with pursed lips, the "low-cost, large-volume tackle from the East" that flooded the market in the '70s. Staying in the bamboo market meant that Hardy's kept its kudos but risked losing its custom. Alternatively, if it entered the ungentlemanly melee of fibre rods, it risked losing both. Tradition is a nice thing, but making it pay is something else. "We were not a '90s company," notes Holland, "and yet we had to exist in 1992."
Holland's solution to this commercial Scylla and Charybdis has been to maintain the trappings of his product's old-fashionedness while discreetly altering its actual substance. Marketing literature stresses the venerableness of, for example, the centenarian Perfect reel and the purposefully outmoded fittings, still resolutely affixed by the hands of Hardy's 160-strong workforce, many of whom have been with the company for decades. It also emphasises Hardy's status as a family firm. Much is made, too, of the rosewood-boxed fishing set - £2,000 to you (luminaries such as Oscar Peterson and Eric Clapton have already ordered theirs) - commissioned to celebrate the centenary of Hardy's Pall Mall shop. The firm also highlights its continuing manufacture of split-cane rods. Indeed, Holland claims that the Prince of Wales - whose triple feathers adorn all Hardy goods - "will fish with nothing else".
This is an impressive feat of legerdemain. Split cane now actually accounts for only a tiny portion of Hardy's output, and no member of the Hardy family has any remaining connection with the firm. (The last, J L Hardy, resigned his directorship this year in what Holland describes as "entirely amicable" circumstances.) When the workers on Hardy's shopfloor hand-tie, with scarlet thread, single leg ceramic rings in place, it is usually onto a much less expensive composite fibre rod. Elderly fisherfolk chest-deep in the Tweed may grumble nostalgically about the superiority of bamboo, but not in sufficient numbers to matter. Composite tubing has also allowed for a much more controlled production flow. "When I arrived, 66% of all our products were available at any one time," recalls Holland steelily. "Now 98% of products from our international catalogue can be despatched within 48 hours. We no longer assume a divine right to exist. Fishing is a very serious business, but so is business. I think it's fair to say that Hardy's was previously run from the heart." The head, under Holland, has become the company's dominant organ.
Composite tubing has had other commercial attractions for the firm, too. Although Hardy's has been able to control its prices and thus staunch the haemorrhage of its genteel, but no longer necessary, rich clientele, a major part of its products' appeal still lies in the perceived exclusivity of the name. The firm does now offer equipment for coarse fishing - that rather more declasse sport pursued by the anoraked on reservoirs ("I wouldn't put it quite like that if I were you," coughs Holland) - but casting the commercial net too wide might have threatened Hardy's valuable snootiness. So they looked for synergies, resulting in a highly lucrative Countrywear line (waders et al) launched in 1988. Then came the creation of the firm's Fibatube division. This markets Hardy's expertise in high specification epoxy tube production (garnered in the manufacture of the aforementioned composite fishing rods) - to other potential customers. These have included Plessey, for whom Hardy has manufactured parts for sonar buoys; the US Army's Operation Desert Storm ground forces, who requested collapsible telecommunication masts and, as mentioned above, various odds and ends for the Pentagon's Star Wars programme (Holland, mindful of the Official Secrets Act, draws a discreet veil over these). Fibatube now accounts for some 20% of turnover and seems to be capable of accounting for a great deal more eventually, although Holland insists that his main business is, "and will remain, fishing tackle".
Hardy's MD is clearly wary of using the kudos of Fibatube's Star Wars tag as a marketing ploy for his aristocratic game-fishing products. It might do to advertise lesser tackle as "Rods From Outer Space!" but Holland is having none of it. "We talked to a firm of, ah, management consultants about whether we should exploit the connection," he says regally, "but we decided against it." No reasons are given, but it was probably thought that while Americans might go for it, the traditional British fisherman would find it faintly off-putting.
For reprints of this article, contact Anne Oakley (071) 413 4336.