As Britain suffers its coldest week of the year, one man could be forgiven for having a smile on his face.
Mark Neale, who opened the first Mountain Warehouse in Swindon 25 years ago, is enjoying a bumper week ahead of Christmas as fleeces, thermals, hats, gloves, socks and ski jackets fly off the shelves.
Last weekend was the High Street retailer’s busiest ever.
Record demand: Over Black Friday week, Mountain Warehouse sold 100,000 fleeces, 80,000 thermals, 50,000 ski jackets, 100,000 padded jackets and 250,000 hats, gloves and socks
And this follows a record-breaking Black Friday at the end of last month when sales were a tenth above last year.
There was a particular rush at the end of the World Cup clash between England and USA – which fell on Black Friday and ended 0-0 – when the website took an order every second.
Over Black Friday week, Mountain Warehouse sold 100,000 fleeces, 80,000 thermals, 50,000 ski jackets, 100,000 padded jackets and 250,000 hats and pairs of gloves and socks.
The boost continued a post-pandemic recovery which has seen the outdoor goods retailer hit new heights after it teetered on the brink of collapse.
Results for the year to the end of February showed sales jumped more than a quarter from a year earlier to £302.6million, the highest ever despite ongoing disruption from Covid.
That figure was also 4.6pc higher than pre-pandemic levels. The business swung to a £164,000 loss for the year, from a profit of £7.9million a year earlier.
Neale’s sense of relief was palpable over a coffee at Mountain Warehouse’s headquarters in Victoria, London.
The 54-year-old’s empire almost came crashing down when Covid struck. As cases of the virus spiralled in March 2020, sales plummeted and Mountain Warehouse decided to shut up shop.
Neale left the building in tears and said it felt like ‘staring into an abyss’. He said: ‘I had spent 23 years at that point building this up, and I had no idea whether we would come back.’
But it was saved by ‘extremely helpful’ government interventions, including furlough payments and business rates relief.
From there, online sales bounced back from the initial shock, as households in lockdown turned to outdoor activities such as hiking and open-water swimming.
And as pandemic restrictions eased, it roared back to life, riding the wave of a staycation boom.
Camping gear flew off the shelves and its stores were thriving.
When the local MP popped into Northallerton’s Mountain Warehouse in his Richmond constituency in North Yorkshire for a pair of walking shoes while on the 2019 campaign trail, it barely caused a stir.
At the time, Rishi Sunak was a relatively obscure figure, having only recently been elevated to chief secretary to the Treasury.
Founder: Mark Neale opened the first Mountain Warehouse in Swindon 25 years ago
Even after Sunak’s rise to the top of politics, he is far from the most famous man to have bought footwear from Neale.
He counts Mick Jagger as his highest-profile customer.
In a life before Mountain Warehouse, Neale set up rollerblade retailer Route One. The Rolling Stones front man was living in Richmond in Surrey with Jerry Hall and ‘just walked into the shop one day and bought some’, Neale said.
‘Obviously nowadays you would get a selfie, wouldn’t you?’ he said.
Neale sold the five-strong store chain to a friend and moved on to his next venture.
‘It was hopeless, really,’ he said of an educational toys company which was driven out of business by the likes of Tesco and Woolworths. Then he tried his hand at greetings cards, which ‘was okay actually, but didn’t really go anywhere’.
After back to back flops Neale ‘stumbled’ into outdoor gear, and Mountain Warehouse was born. Its no-frills affordable kit flew off the shelves, paving the way for a slew of store openings.
The business stuck out in an outer-wear market dominated by the likes of North Face and Columbia, whose marketing often featured hikers with ice picks conquering mountains.
Mountain Warehouse’s focus, however, was not quite on the top of the mountain. ‘Our customers are interested in value for money and a functional product that is going to keep them dry when they walk the dog,’ Neale said.
It was a fitting approach for Neale, and also showed an entrepreneurial ‘try and try again’ attitude.
The strategy has paid off, with Mountain Warehouse seeing more than 20 years of back-to-back growth in sales and profits before the pandemic hit.
Neale said: ‘Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d meet somebody and they would say, “What do you do?”
‘I would say I have a business called Mountain Warehouse – it’s a bit like Millets.
‘Five years ago I would have the same conversation and they would immediately say, “Oh, I know what Mountain Warehouse is”.
‘Then it changed again – about three years ago people went from saying they knew what Mountain Warehouse was to saying, “I love Mountain Warehouse”.
‘It was a real journey.’
Neale was born in the former steelmaking town of Ebbw Vale in South Wales and was brought up in nearby Abergavenny. He went to the private Monmouth School for Boys before landing a place at Oxford University.
He studied alongside Boris Johnson and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, scraping through a degree in physics.
He was the first person in his family to attend university, but he was not the first successful retailer – one of his great grandfathers had a shop in Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent.
His wife Michelle Feeney was chief executive of the tanning brand St Tropez but has since moved into luxury perfume, opening Floral Street in 2017.
Neale’s daughter, who recently started studying geography at Edinburgh University, has been enjoying Mountain Warehouse’s friends and family discount, stocking up on supplies needed for her course.
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