Me And My Partner: 'The way you play sport is the way you are as a person'

Ex-England rugby players Fran Cotton and Steve Smith set up clothing company Cotton Traders in 1987. Today, turnover exceeds £50m
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STEVE SMITH

Fran and I struck up a good relationship when we were both students and rugby players at Loughborough University. After we left, we split up for a while before Fran came back up north and started playing for Sale, where I was already playing.

Fran was a teacher at the time, but then I got him a job where I was working, at the Distributive Industries Training Board. We worked together at various places for a few years after that as well, before we both realised that we wanted something more - and we decided that the only way to get it was to start our own business.

We discussed it for quite a while without actually taking the plunge. We finally sat down one day and said if it doesn't work out, we're both confident that we can find jobs again; so let's do it. Sometimes you've got to take a leap of faith. It was easier for me because I was a single bloke, whereas Fran had a wife and two kids. So I was up for it, whereas Fran was more cautious.

We're very different people off the rugby pitch. One of our greatest strengths as partners is that we are complete opposites. Fran's got lots of skills. He's probably the only international prop forward with a degree in maths, which always makes me chuckle. Maths has always been his forte, but it's definitely not one of mine. I'm far happier out there either selling and meeting people, while Fran's very good on the detail and checking the figures.

We've had our fair share of hiccups, especially when we were just starting up. When you're going through tough times, you need someone you can respect, who you like, who you can trust, and who you can get drunk with.

You don't know anybody in life until you've either worked with them or lived with them. We had a joint managing director structure for a spell, but it didn't work out at all. We were always arguing. In the end we decided that only one of us should be managing director. Fran's always suited that role, on the pitch and off it, whereas I've always been a vice captain, so we stuck to that arrangement. From that day on we've fallen out very little.

Fran is a great managing director. He's very good at listening to people. He's not autocratic, he's democratic, and he does give everybody their say. If there's a decision to be made, he's not afraid to make the call.

Twenty years on, our relationship is still very strong. We see each other most days. If I don't see him for a couple of days, I'll always give him a shout. We always talk and it's very rare that a day will go by without us having some kind of discussion.

I think we're still the same guys we've always been. We're still playing a game of rugby, just with a different ball.

FRAN COTTON

The idea of starting our own clothing business grew on us while we were working for a sports clothing company called Bukta. We were both enormously frustrated because we were providing all the ideas and all the energy, while the owners weren't providing any input whatsoever. The only thing they were doing was financing the business. It prompted us to wonder if we could do it ourselves.

When we first set up Cotton Traders, our two roles were split informally between mail order and wholesale. I looked after the mail-order side and Steve looked after the wholesale part of the new business.

As the business developed, we realised it needed a proper structure. So we decided on more formal roles, with me running the day-to-day side of things, and Steve focusing on the sales and the wholesale side. At the same time, we began to bring other people in to support us and build a proper management structure.

I don't think we've ever fallen out about serious stuff like business strategy. We argued a lot at first, when we were joint managing directors, but everything fell naturally into place once we'd sorted that out. At the end of the day, we always come together and it never carries on from one day to the next. That's a healthy relationship.

You're always learning about one another in a long standing relationship. It's like being married twice - first to my wife and then to Steve. You have your ups and downs but you work through those. We have the occasional difference of opinion and disagreement, but it never lasts.

Our skills complement each other very well. I'm a lot more analytical and more considered. Steve is a very good sales guy and a very good networker. It is really important to have someone who can bring a lighter side of life into play. I tend to be a bit more serious about it.

We still work well together. We're both out on the road a fair amount, probably a couple of days a week. But when we're in the office we always find time to catch up.

Trust and respect is vital to any business relationship. You've got to trust one another in a business situation and you must have respect for one another. Those are the two key ingredients. The fact that we are friends is a bonus.

I think playing rugby together helped. In sport, you bare your soul and there's no hiding place. People know everything about your character. I'm a great believer that the way you play your sport is the way you are as a person.

I'm a highly committed, competitive individual, which is a pre-requisite for playing sport at the highest level. I was very focused and serious in my sporting career and although Steve was equally as committed, he was a lot more relaxed. That's just our personalities, and it's carried through into the business. It's been the foundations of a fantastic partnership.

Interviews by Gareth Chadwick

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