Business is booming.

How one founder meets the challenge of staying ethical and profitable

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Life-changing events have played a big part in David Gordon’s development as an entrepreneur.

Four years ago he stepped back from day-to-day management of his company, Bamboo Clothing, which he had built into an international brand from a base in south-west England. He promoted members of his senior team into the managing director, factory liaison and marketing roles.

The catalyst for the change was his wife’s diagnosis of terminal cancer — she died in January 2020.

Gordon, 53, remains chair of the company, but retreating from leading much of the daily decision-making benefited his personal life and enabled the business to grow faster. “Retail is detail. I now have better people than me to do the jobs of managing director and dealing with suppliers.”

He started the company in his garage in 2006, selling T-shirts made of bamboo. The idea came to him during a conversation about sustainable materials he had while on an adventure trek across Greenland. Since then, his range of bamboo clothing, under the brand name BAM, has expanded into fitness and outdoor pursuits, as well as casual wear.

Gordon’s leadership challenge has always been to keep the company both economically and environmentally viable. He says he is driven by the need to develop a sustainable business model, while also explaining the superior qualities of bamboo.

Gordon dislikes being labelled as “green”. It “is such a wishy-washy phrase and it frustrates me because greenwashing is now everywhere,” he says, while pouring tea in the kitchen of his home, a houseboat on the river Thames. “Bamboo is just a superior product and everybody that wears it gets that,” he adds.

Bamboo has attracted a lot of interest as a source for fabric, in part because it grows so quickly and with minimal pesticides. However some climate NGOs have warned about the risk that ancient or endangered forests are being cleared to make way for bamboo plantations.

Gordon is wearing an old hoodie and jeans, and likes to keep his clothes long term. He says new BAM clothing lines are designed to have a zero-carbon footprint, assuming they are kept for at least 50 washes.

The company has become “climate positive” by measuring and offsetting its carbon footprint, both from buying bamboo and customer usage of its products. Its packaging is plastic-free.

Gordon’s aversion to being labelled as green dates back to when he first founded the company. “When we started out there was an implicit understanding that the green option involved some sort of compromise,” he says. “I thought that if this business is going to work in the way I want it to, it has to stand on its own feet and the products sell on their own merits.”

BAM clothing, sold through catalogues and online, has had a good pandemic. Sales had been growing by 28 per cent in the three previous years, but jumped by 43 per cent in the 12 months to January this year, according to the company’s last accounts. The company is set to match this performance in 2021, according to Gordon.

Lockdown restrictions prevented his team from visiting their raw material suppliers in China and factories there and in Turkey and instead make meetings virtual.

This had an environmental benefit, and it also helped keep a lid on operating costs, given that the price of raw materials rose by about 5 per cent, largely due to supply chains disrupted by the pandemic.

Online sales in the year ending January 2021 rose to £16.3m, compared with £11.4m in the preceding year, helping to drive pre-tax profits to £2.8m from £701,000 a year earlier.

“What this business boils down to is sales,” Gordon says. “Our customer base, older and affluent, has proven to be more resilient to these [price] pressures.” Typical BAM customers are aged 40 to 55, “socially and environmentally aware, comfortably off professionals”, Gordon says.

The clothes are made in four factories in Turkey and one in China, each of which the company has used for between five and 10 years. Maintaining long-term relationships with a small group of suppliers is important. “You know a good factory when you walk in the door and there is no mess on the floor.” His Chinese manufacturer only works with British mid-market brands. “We are a perfect match,” Gordon adds.

“If you have a good relationship with someone who runs a good factory things go better,” he says. “We have never had a problem with supply from those factories.”

One of the ways he has maintained relationships is by ensuring Bamboo Clothing pays suppliers promptly. “I pay literally the next day when I have lots of money in the spring. It is not only good ethics, having an honest relationship, but it means that if you have a problem you can ring them up and find some flexibility in terms.”

Three questions for David Gordon

Who is your leadership hero?

It has to be Ernest Shackleton. I am fascinated by polar exploration and I would have loved to have been led by him. He genuinely saw himself as someone who served his men.

What was your first leadership lesson?

When I was starting out, back in the 1990s, one of the big things was that people no longer barked orders to staff. What people needed to learn then, and something I practised, was that the carrot is way better, more productive and kinder than the stick.

What would you be doing if you had not started BAM?

Perhaps an adventurer/expedition guide, but more likely another purpose-led business.

I ask him whether transporting raw materials around the world is the most eco-friendly way to make clothes. “It is better than the alternatives,” Gordon says. For the past two years, 10 per cent of Bamboo Clothing’s profits have been earmarked for carbon offsetting and for financing initiatives to help tackle climate issues.

This autumn Gordon created an employee share scheme for Bamboo Clothing’s 60 staff by selling 10 per cent of his shareholding.

“I wouldn’t rule out [selling] a higher percentage to the scheme, but I have no John Lewis plans,” he says, referring to the British retailer set up as an employee-owned business. “I like that model conceptually but I am not at that stage myself.”

Gordon adds that the share sale, which netted him “the best part of £2m” was both a method of increasing employee engagement and a way for him to create financial security for himself, having had business failures in the past.

Aged 25, he set up his first business, TSF Clothing, which printed T-shirts, primarily to fund his passion for pole vaulting. He had taken up the sport as a physical education student at Loughborough University in an effort to become an international sportsman.

The demands of training proved an unhelpful distraction and he ended up selling the business to an employee for a nominal sum after several years of losses. “Part of me is that broke 37-year-old, so I wanted to have some safety money,” Gordon says.

Bamboo Clothing was bootstrapped, starting with a seed investment of £20,000 each from one of Gordon’s cousins and a friend. He has not sought capital from private equity, a decision he says ensures the company does not get driven by short-term growth plans. It also gives him the freedom to keep to his guiding principles on business ethics.

Gordon has even achieved his early goal of becoming a world-beating athlete. Four years ago, aged 49, he won the pole vault in the 45 to 50-year-old category at the World Masters Games in Auckland.

He has realised that his biggest passion is being an entrepreneur. “I probably would have ended up in business whatever I did,” he says.



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