Thinking Business > Sport is in his blood – interview with Rob Hawkins

Sport is in his blood – interview with Rob Hawkins

Hawkinsport is a family run business that was established over 50 years ago. The love of sport of founder, Freddie Hawkins was present throughout his University life in Leeds and Oxford, and then during his Geography and PE teaching career at Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. The lure of rugby saw Freddie expertly negotiate two days off per week to play rugby. Wednesdays he played for Bucks as Captain, Thursday for East Midlands and on Saturdays for Wasps. To say he loved rugby is an understatement. In order to combine his love of sport and work, Freddie made the hard decision to leave teaching and open a specialist sports shop in 1967. Freddie opened Coleman Hawkins & Co in partnership with Don Coleman in Slough.

Establishing Hawkinsport as a leader in sports clothing and equipment came through the family’s dedication and commitment. Freddie’s Father-in-Law, Ro Clark, managed the accounts and often spent the time in the shop helping customers whilst Freddie was on the road spreading the Hawkinsport name and promoting their expert knowledge. Rob was always present at Hawkinsport and started work full time after school (and a few ski seasons!).

Embracing changes in technology, Hawkinsport made the move to their current location in Wessex Road, Bourne End in 2015 which has enabled them to increase their floor space and install cricket and hockey hitting nets, restringing tennis rackets and grow the embroidery and printing business providing bespoke team, school and clubs sportswear plus corporate wear.

 Reading the history about Hawkinsport, you must have grown up on the side of a pitch and itching to get on it?!

I did! I was on it more than on the side lines. I played sport at a very young age from school, at Cubs, Bourne End Junior Sport club and carried on playing football, rugby, cricket and tennis. My Dad – who was my biggest supporter and critic – always said just go and play. I always took my kit and if anyone didn’t turn up, I filled the gap.

Your Dad took a big leap of faith in the 1960’s. When did you start working for Hawkinsport full time and what was your route to Director?

It was a natural progression for my Dad, from being a sportsman to selling kit. He was successful in the 60’s selling to all his contacts through playing sport but times changed and the business went through highs and lows. Dad would play rugby on a Wednesday and Saturday and then work the shop with his father-in-law covering for him while he was away.

I have always been there from a young age – blowing up footballs to sweeping the warehouse floor. I left school in 1989 and worked for Hawkinsport and was fortunate to work two ski seasons just before the recession hit in 1992. I worked covering managers days off across all the stores and learning the back-office operations at the same time. Fortunately, I was there to assist with ‘all hands on deck’ when the recession truly hit. We went from 5 shops down to one with only my Dad, Mum, Martin Sell and myself running every aspect of the store. Martin started as a Saturday lad and is now a Director of the company!

In 1996 I was able to work full time for Hawkinsport building up the business with sports clubs and schools for kit and equipment, mostly cold calling, visiting customers in the mornings and back on the shop floor in the afternoon.

What business knowledge did you have before becoming a director at Hawkinsport?

I’ve worked in the family business from a young boy so have been able to learn from my biggest critic and best teacher – my Dad. He was a very successful businessman so he has taught me the ways of retail, relationship building and the benefits this can bring to development and growth. I also went to the University of life in a Ski Resort for 2 years! One of the best things I’ve ever done and some of the amazing people I met there are still friends and help with business advice when needed.

Closing 5 stores and opening a single larger operation with an online facility was a bold decision, what metrics did you use to drive the decision?

Back in 1998, a local guy from the rugby club was adamant the internet was going to be huge, remember many people still didn’t have mobile phones then. I was keen to set up a website but my Dad was more hesitant – all paperwork at that point was by hand – so we were quite early adopters in having a website. We didn’t sell from it right away but we were one of the first to get one. It was a progression.

Our website is now a real time retail store and we have landing pages specific for clubs and schools for them to securely order their kit from. Our warehouse was set up in 2009 and we have a dedicated team who manage our digital and direct to garment printing and embroidery orders. Each club or school has a dedicated Account Manager who ensures that the whole bespoke ordering and delivery process is streamlined, and turnaround is swift.

Has that decision driven the way people shop?

 We have clients nationwide and for hockey clubs and schools, that demographic is happy to order clothing and kit online and it is a large part of our business.

Our passion is sport and ensuring people have the correct kit and equipment to help them be the best they can be in their chosen sport. We do not compete on price but knowledge and quality products which they can try out in store – we have a hitting net for hockey, tennis and cricket – before buying to see the difference it can make to their sport. We don’t try and compete with the big boys in terms of price as we don’t have the buying power they do. We focus on service and knowledge. We aim to make the customer journey as smooth as possible so they can come in to store, request delivery or opt for click and collect.

Seasonality is obviously an issue, how do you manage?

 Yes! Back to school from July to September is a crazy busy time with the start of the rugby, football and hockey seasons. Easter, which is the start of the cricket season and when rugby and hockey clubs go on tour, is also very busy for us.

We scale up and could have as many as 14 staff on the retail floor alone in August and September, in addition to a full team in production or dispatch. It’s tricky trying to get the right amount of staff for periods of time. We are lucky that we have University students who return home, who may have worked for us as Saturday staff and have that passion for sport so are keen to work with us again during the peak summer months.

We are putting a focus on corporate wear which is all year round. We’ve always done this but are promoting it more actively. It’s a competitive market but we know that companies will always shop around and we already have the infrastructure.

Has sponsorship and branding influenced your relationship with suppliers and the deals that they have made?

 We are part of a buying group that spun out of Intersport. Bar people like Nike who are going alone and will only deal with two major retailers in the UK and go direct to customers. We are working with other suppliers who are supporting us and we’ll support them. Fortunately, we are not a business that depends on Nike as they are not crucial to our business, them going direct has not had a huge impact and gives other brands an opportunity, especially niche brands. They are often less price driven and more product driven.

 Piranha is our own brand that we created in 2006. It has developed really well and been supported heavily by customers. We’re very proud of it.

The Covid-19 pandemic obviously forced you to close the store’s doors for lengthy periods of time but did you see further growth in online?

 The pandemic has been interesting. When we went into the first lockdown everybody was into fitness and wanted dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, home fitness work out tools. We offered click & collect and delivered locally. Once that sold, suppliers had nothing left! Nobody foresaw the pandemic, so suppliers just didn’t have the stock and couldn’t get it for 6 months.

On top of that there was no team sports permitted. So, no one was buying anything, didn’t need new kit, not treating themselves to a new stick/racquet/boots and everyone seemed to be hanging on. This hit us hard but we have loyal customers who continued to order from us.

We used the furlough scheme and are grateful for it. The 3 Directors worked the whole time but unfortunately we had to furlough all other staff but are all back now full time thankfully.

What’s next for Hawkinsport?

Investing in our website and changing the platform to Magento 2. Increasing our online presence, adding some more features, more user friendly and SEO with a focus on growth especially in the corporate market.

 What advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneurs with an itch to get into retail or the sporting world?

You need to be tenacious, believe in yourself as you won’t get it right straight away and knowing your market is key. If you’re independent don’t try and compete with Sports Direct or Decathlon. Specialise and don’t try and be a ‘jack of all trades’ – be different.

 The sports trade is a very nice trade to be in, brutally hard, but good. You are dealing with people who want to buy items and products that they are doing in their leisure time – things they enjoy doing – so generally speaking people are enjoying the buying process. Especially our junior market, which is about 70% of our market. Parents will invest for their child’s kit if they are happy, enjoying and excelling at sport. It’s heart-warming to see children get new sports kit and equipment as they really genuinely enjoy sports. Parents don’t mind spending money on sports kit as they will enjoy it and enjoy watching them take part in sport. We’re really lucky as all our customers are all very nice people.

Is there anything you’d like to share with us?

 We are just launching a rowing range under Piranha. We live 500 yards from the Thames and rowing is huge in this area. It’s an area we haven’t provided for before but there is the demand. This launch is very exciting.

 Quick fire round:

Beach or mountain?


Fine wine or cocktails?

Fine wine

Home working or office?


Fast car or luxury car?

I drove a van for 20 year, so a van!

Movies or books?



My most recent favourite read is Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (owner of Nike) it was interesting to see how it all started and to see where it is now as a brand – its staggering.

It’s great to interview someone who has been involved in their career from childhood and helped achieve great things. Driving developments in the sporting kit and equipment market while offering corporate clothing makes you a busy man so thanks for making time for us Rob!

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