John successfully applied for the position of Sales Director at the House of Hardy in Alnwick, Northumberland. Hardy’s was the world’s pre-eminent supplier of fly fishing rods and tackle. The Hardy family still managed the business, although by this stage it was part of the Harris & Sheldon Group, a private company owned by the Miller family.
After once again proving his natural ability as a salesman, this time with fishing rods and tackle, John was asked to help revive another part of the Hardy’s business, the gunsmiths Churchill. He soon restored Churchill’s fortunes and returned to Hardy’s as Sales Director.
Another fresh challenge now came John’s way. The Honourable Toby Tennant, a prominent figure in the North East and a shareholder in a small Borders sporting bag manufacturer called the Liddesdale Fishing Bag Company, persuaded John to join them as Sales Director. At that time one of Liddesdale’s biggest customers was another North East based company, Barbour. Barbour eventually decided to take the bag business in-house and agreed to buy Liddesdale. John never saw eye to eye with his new bosses at Barbour and left shortly after the take-over. Subsequently Barbour closed down Liddesdale and sourced all its bags from lower cost factories overseas.
John’s departure from Liddesdale was, however, just the start of greater things. Ever one to embrace new challenges, John decided to start his own bag business. It is a testament to his powers as a salesman that his first contract was to make fishing bags for the House of Hardy, which had previously sourced them from a long established UK manufacturer. At that stage John had no dedicated manufacturing premises.
John’s manufacturing operations began in 1984 on the kitchen table of his own house in Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria, soon expanding to include the garage. He employed a local machinist to stitch the bags, cutting the material and hand riveting himself with his then wife Jo. Although he had been warned by people in the industry that he “would not make a profit for 12 years”, John traded profitably in his first year on a turnover of £21,000. Considering the odds, this was a tremendous achievement.
John’s marketing skills and can-do approach to business were a breath of fresh air in an industry that was then often characterized by somewhat staid and old fashioned business practices. The company grew rapidly and within a few years John and his wife Jo had built a successful and profitable business with customers all over the world. The company acquired sales agents in the UK, Japan, Germany, France and Italy as well as prestigious retail customers such as Harrods and Liberty’s. Manufacturing customers (in today’s business parlance, Private Label) included luxury brands such as Holland & Holland and Purdey’s. Even Burberry, now a global megabrand, asked John to make bags for them, but he found that their pricing requirements, which in those days were largely driven by the wholesale market, were too onerous.
The company was a regular exhibitor at the Birmingham Spring Fair, the equestrian show SPOGA and the Game Fair. Through regular advertisements in The Times, Telegraph and Country Living, the company also built up a thriving mail order business. The company’s success led to numerous awards for export and entrepreneurial achievement.
John Chapman’s bags were carried by royalty, celebrities and politicians. Well known clients included Margaret and Denis Thatcher, Robert Plant and Princess Anne. Demand was further boosted when Prince Andrew’s new wife Sarah Ferguson was photographed carrying a Chapman bag. Somewhat in contrast to today’s designers, John modestly claimed that many of his most successful bags were designed in the pub after work. It is a tribute to his capabilities that many of his original designs are still among the company’s best selling products.
The Company’s Tannery Road Workshops
In order to keep pace with the rapid growth of the business, John rented workshops next to the Metal Box factory in Carlisle. In the early 1990’s he moved the business into the company’s current premises in Tannery Road, Harraby Green Business Park. This delightful and characterful building is now very much part of the public image of the company and was an inspired choice of location.
In the mid 1990’s the House of Hardy decided to enter the bag market in a big way and made John an offer he could not refuse for the business. John’s involvement lessened after the take-over and he retired some years later. John and Jo Chapman still live in the Borders and remain in regular contact with the company and its current owners. Their achievement in building a successful branded manufacturing business from scratch, with limited resources and in a notoriously difficult sector, remains an inspiration to this day.
The Company Today
John Chapman remains British owned. The new owners acquired the business in 2006 and remain wholly committed to a Made in England policy. The business has grown steadily over the last few years and the Chapman brand is now sold all over the world, including to shops in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, the USA, France, Scandinavia, Korea, Singapore, China, Russia and Australia. A thriving mail order and internet business also sells direct to clients in these and many other countries.
The company recently completed a major investment and renovation of its Carlisle factory, offices and factory shop. This investment has significantly expanded plant, capacity and the company’s ability to cater for both trade and retail clients visiting the facility. It represents a major vote of confidence in the future of bag making both in Carlisle and the United Kingdom generally.
The Chapman name remains well known in the UK clothing and accessories world as one of the last remaining authentic UK bag manufacturers. The factory receives a steady stream of both British and international designers, brands and retailers seeking the kind of personal service and local sourcing which mass market suppliers cannot provide. Over the years, manufacturing clients have included some of the UK’s best known luxury brands.