Inside business: Up sticks and play the field

Lacrosse is a minority sport here, but thanks to a firm in Manchester, there is some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England
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The Independent Online
INHERITING a company specialising in lacrosse sticks is not, on the face of it, a guarantee of a gilt-edged future. Generations of strapping players from independent girls' schools have just about kept the game alive since 1886 when Queen Victoria watched a demonstration by visiting Red Indians and proclaimed it "character-forming for gels".

Men tend to take it up at university and later form clubs. There are around 20 in the North-west and seven or eight in London. All the same, lacrosse is a minority sport. The British market is at best stable and unlikely to expand greatly.

Small wonder that Dr Tony Rigby thought long and hard when his father died in 1984 and bequeathed him TS Hattersley and Son. It is the only one of its kind in Britain. Sticks wielded on the playing fields of Roedean are manufactured on a small industrial estate in Manchester.

Around 100 a week were emerging from the factory when Dr Rigby took over. Twelve years on and the figure is nearer 450. Turnover, meanwhile, has increased from pounds 90,000 to more than pounds 500,000.

Not bad for a managing director who has spent most of his working life in medicine. For 15 years he was medical adviser for the shipyards at Vickers and Camell Laird's, and before that he was a general practitioner at Bromsgrove, near Birmingham. Silver-haired at 64, it is easy to imagine him writing prescriptions and giving avuncular advice to patients. But once he steps from behind his desk and sets off into the works, he moves with surprising speed and purpose.

Six men are producing lacrosse sticks made from hickory, which is imported from Alabama. Nine women work part-time, stringing the nets with a gut that begins life in a Chinese sheep. The process has been speeded up by the acquisition of a dehumidifier, which quickly dries out the sticks after they have been bent. The pounds 9,000 investment was paid for out of profits. Dr Rigby was determined to avoid bank loans.

"GPs have to be fairly sharp at business these days," he says. "If you want to make a reasonable living, you have to play the system. So I knew about handling money. But I didn't have much idea about what happened here."

He learnt by calling in at the factory on journeys between the Barrow and Liverpool shipyards. He came in at weekends and during the evening, a particularly fortuitous time to make telephone calls to the US. There, he felt, was the potential to improve the firm's fortunes. Today, more than two-thirds of production finds its way across the Atlantic. Three native Americans, working on a reservation, provide the only competition in the supply of wooden sticks. There are, though, two American companies making the plastic variety favoured by male players.

In 1986 Dr Rigby used a tournament in England to approach representatives of STX of Baltimore in Maryland. The deal they struck then ensured that TS Hattersley and Son would be the sole UK distributor of STX plastic sticks, helmets, rib pads and other merchandise.

Women and girls use a minimum of protective wear and wield wooden sticks. Dr Rigby's son, Chris, who was brought in to the company on the sales side, makes regular tours around independent schools to ensure that games teachers are not short of advice or supplies.

Another son proved useful in expanding the Japanese market. As a consultant director at the Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo, he provided invaluable advice on how to deal with business contacts in the Far East. Sales there now exceed those in Britain. The Japanese want traditional wooden sticks engraved with the Union Jack.

Queen Victoria would have expected nothing less.