Stripped for action

David Hinde could make Nike eat the words 'Just do it', reports Chris Arnot
Place your bets, ladies and gents, on the likely growth in the sportswear market over the next five or so years. Between 35 and 40 per cent in real terms wouldn't be too far short of the mark, according to informed tipsters. So by the year 2001, we could be looking at a business worth between pounds 2bn and pounds 2.5bn worldwide.

You won't get very long odds on the big American multinationals, like Nike and Reebok, being among the pacemakers. But where is the unfancied outsider, the one who comes from nowhere to grab a small share of the limelight?

Well, there's a lively three-year-old in Warwickshire, already beginning to show some promising form. In 1993 David Hinde set up a business from an unlikely starting gate: a spare bedroom at his home in Nuneaton. Within a year, he was kitting out the Welsh and Scottish teams at the Commonwealth Games. So popular were the Welsh outfits that they were the most in demand for "swaps" by fellow competitors at the athletes' village in Victoria, Canada.

Mr Hinde's company, UK Sportsgear, now has 20 employees and plans are afoot to expand its offices and workshops in what was once the canteen of a lorry park on an industrial estate. By the end of this financial year, he expects to be turning over in excess of pounds 1m. What's more, he now has serious financial backing from experienced investors. Among those sitting on his board are Rodney East, formerly managing director of the Etam women's clothing company, and Richard Farr, once of accountants Price Waterhouse.

They were obviously impressed by the detail in his bulky five-year business plan. "I believe in making sure you're nicely warmed up before entering the race," says Mr Hinde. "I've been walking for three years; now I can start jogging."

At 33, he looks as fit as you might expect of a former semi-professional footballer who spent part of the Eighties coaching soccer in the United States. Back in the UK, he took a job in London selling advertising on a commission-only basis. Ask him what he learnt from that and the answer is surprising. A good salesman, he says, has to listen as well as talk. "You have to be able to answer customers' objections and fully understand exactly what they want."

It was a lesson he brooded on when, suffering from burn-out, he retreated to the spare bedroom in Nuneaton to count his money and contemplate what he was going to do with the rest of his life. He began by bringing together his contacts in the worlds of business and sport, supplying corporate hospitality, after-dinner speakers and the clothing for companies' sporting activity days.

"I began to realise that it was more difficult to get hold of 12 football shirts of the right quality and design than it was to get tickets for rugby internationals," he says.

Why not design and make his own? Never mind that he had no experience of the clothing industry. He had an ability to listen and absorb information quickly. "For two years I was on a learning curve, looking at other products on the market, and working out how to improve them. There's an amazing amount of experience out there. It's all down to listening." Not just to producers in the clothing business but to prospective customers in the sporting world.

Before designing a new kit for Warwickshire County Cricket Club, he held lengthy discussions with management and players. At least one thing on the county circuit hasn't changed since Fred Trueman's day: Sunday league cricket apart, you can have any colour shirt you like as long as it's white.

Working within that fundamental restriction, Mr Hinde produced a short- sleeved number in ribbed cotton of the best quality money could buy. "If you stand out in the sun for eight hours a day," he says, "any distraction can have a negative effect on your performance." What's more, as Warwickshire's stalwart opening batsman, Andy Moles, pointed out, a collar blowing around your face is not the ideal aid to concentration when facing Curtley Ambrose on a blustery day at Northampton. Hence the button-down collar on the shirt produced by UK Sportsgear. Other counties are showing interest.

Producing a similar service for Premier League football clubs is not yet an option. "They're given kit by the big companies and paid to use it," says Mr Hinde, who has expanded instead by selling to rugby clubs, universities and companies wanting a corporate design for employees' sports teams.

Already he supplies a third of the universities in the UK , and sees that market as a way to break in to the US. "I've spent a lot of time in America and done the research. When we have the resources, we'll do it."

Meanwhile, his major high-profile target is to kit out the British team for the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000. Wrenching the contract from the grip of Adidas will not be easy, but he has had some success in taking on the big boys. Nike supplied the Scottish Athletics Federation before UK Sportsgear came along. And Mr Hinde has just clinched a deal with the Scottish and Welsh teams to renew their contracts for the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

"When I started in this business," he says, "my aim was to be a major international brand within 10 years."

Don't bet against itn