Mountainfeet – the evolvement so far… (Part One)

Mountainfeet has now been resident for over two years in Marsden and we seem to have carved our own niche alongside the other more established businesses in the area. But people often ask the question – how did the business get to where it is now?

Well, truth is, most of it happened by accident.

The shop itself started life as Paul Braithwaite Outdoor Sports nearly forty years ago in Oldham after the great man himself had returned from the epic 1975 South West Face of Everest expedition which put Dougal Haston and Doug Scott on the summit. For many years, Paul was the figurehead of a very successful independent outdoor shop selling everything from skis to tent pegs. At one point in the eighties, he even opened up second and third branches in Warrington and Rochdale.

But times change and so does the economy and the shopping habits of the people…

By 1999 the shop was ailing and Paul was diverting lots of energy into his roped access company which was growing fast. It seemed time for a change of ownership and in stepped Garry Smith who had managed the shop under Paul for a couple of years.

Garry injected much needed cash, expertise and enthusiasm into what was by that time a tired enterprise and turned it around through hard graft and being highly organised. During this time, I was working at IBM earning decent money but hating the job so when Garry asked me to give him a hand in the shop and ski workshop I jumped at the chance to break the monotony. We rubbed along very well and enjoyed mountain biking and climbing with each other outside of work too.

In 2001, I watched Garry’s business investment and hard work fall apart during the mismanaged horror of the foot and mouth epidemic. Together, we thrashed out a method of keeping the shop going where Garry reluctantly admitted he would need investment to survive and go forward. On that basis, I bought a share of the shop and a heavy dose of responsibility! Garry and I worked well together although I often sensed that a business partner was an uneasy acquisition for a very independent person like Garry and that we were chalk and cheese.

Even at that early time, we had decided that footwear and expert fitting could be the key to survival and although we didn’t have the medical and biomechanical skills present today we still prided ourselves on our service. I have to admit that I used to find selling boots quite intimidating and where possible would leave it to Garry – hard to imagine that feeling now!

For another three years we worked on together in relative harmony but I think Garry reached a point where the unintended sharing of his brainchild had maybe become untenable and he was ready to return to his previous career in the NHS. It was a shock to find out I would have to go it alone and also find the money to buy Garry out but it was eventually accomplished and Garry was amazingly supportive which made the handover as easy as possible.

The one advantage of a single hand on the tiller is that there doesn’t have to be any compromise. The shop’s business model was changed – the first of several that had to be implemented over the next eight years to survive in a rapidly changing and increasingly aggressive market place. But as the financial challenges became harder I started to feel that I was getting trapped in a downward spiral and each change was only putting off the inevitable…

One constant nightmare for any small business owner is finding good staff and delegating responsibility. In 2002 we were looking for a sales assistant and placed an advert in the Oldham Chronicle which elicited a handful of replies. One was from a tall, skinny young climber with red streaks in long hair which was shaved at the side. Garry wasn’t keen and I didn’t jump for joy either but we were caught between a rock and a hard place and reluctantly offered him the job. Marcus has been an integral part of the business ever since and instead of the grungy appearance of 2002 he now looks more like a lawyer although in reality he’s training as a radiographer!

A year later, a self confessed uni dropout who’d spent the previous summer dossing in the Alps joined the team – his appointment caused us more stress as he seemed to prefer opening boxes and stacking shelves rather than engaging with customers! And so Phil came on board – again to turn out to be an indispensable member of the team and to ultimately train and qualify as a podiatrist…

One matter was niggling me by 2006 – the name of the business. I wasn’t happy with the previous eponymous title of the shop because Paul had ceased all involvement with it years earlier. But what to call it instead?

The name Mountainfeet popped into my head one day and I kind of liked it. It’s ironic that it now fits the bill perfectly but people warned me that it sounded like it referred to footwear only even though we sold all manner of kit. So we trialled it for a year or so on our website before ‘rebranding’ the shop in 2008. Of course there were many people to who we’d always be Braithwaites but gradually the name caught on and the shop gained a new identity.

We’d played around with expansion of the Oldham premises and at one stage opened up on a second floor to provide a large tent showroom. BAD MOVE!!! This coincided exactly with the explosion of online shops and all that happened is we became the place to try a tent before buying it cheap off the internet. Bye, bye tent showroom and hello again to the engine room of the shop – our footwear department…

I wasn’t happy with the regular method of buying footwear at all. The business of walking into a shop and asking for a boot in what the customer assumed was his size and then being given a bewildering number of random pairs to try seemed crazy. Surely we should be guiding people to the correct choice with much more expertise and cutting out the guesswork? And so the idea for a highly specialised, footwear specific retail facility staffed by foot health experts was born…

Part Two coming soon – how Mountainfeet was nearly bankrupted by the Oldham Metrolink development and why we landed in Marsden…