They say money doesn't grow on trees. Tristram Mayhew, 41, would beg to differ. In just eight years, Mayhew, a former officer in the Royal Dragoon Guards, has built a £10m-a-year adventure company, Go Ape,in the UK. And the basic idea was just to get us all swinging from the canopies of British forests.
Having left the army, Mayhew was dissatisfied with the corporate world, and was already mulling over several business ideas when he went on holiday to France with his wife Rebecca in 2001. Staying in a B&B near the Auvergne Forest, "we came across this tree-top adventure course", says the Kent-born entrepreneur. A family of four were running through the trees, using ladders, walkways and tunnels made of wood and rope. "The ten-year-old was having a great time, the 15-year-old was, too, but trying not to show it", but it was the parents who made the biggest impression on Mayhew they "were like 15-year-olds on a first date". It was obvious, he says, that they were having the time of their lives.
Convinced it could work in Britain, Mayhew contacted the Forestry Commission, which at the time was suffering from a drop in timber prices. "We were the big idea they didn't know they were looking for." After viewing a home video of the French course and a Powerpoint presentation, the Commission offered Mayhew a 26-year deal for the whole of England, as long as he opened six sites in six years. "We had to give them a share of turnover", he says, but in return he benefited from the fact that basic infrastructure was already in place with water treatment plants, cafes, loos and car parks in most of the forests. "That was the real beauty of the deal."
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They raised £135,000 by selling his wife's Clapham flat, and moved into a ramshackle farmhouse in Suffolk, using the garden shed as an office. In 2002, employing the French from the Auvergne course, the company set up 35 different kinds of wobbly bridges, lines through trees, plus harnesses over an established play area in Thetford Forest on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. It took just six weeks. "We were mobbed by pushy parents on the first day, as they'd seen us building it over the previous weeks. So we didn't have to do any real marketing. If we were sufficiently cool and amazing, we knew they would tell everyone."
Go Ape expanded into three more sites that winter. "We wanted to make it look like we had a national footprint." But like many first-time entrepreneurs, he hadn't kept an eye on cash flow, and realised he hadn't enough to pay salaries before the summer holidays. "I very embarrassingly had to borrow £40,000 from my mum, who luckily had it. Otherwise, we would have ended up as yet another statistic on why not to set up your own business." In the first year, they made a small profit on a turnover of £150,000, before making £1m-worth of sales in 2004. Now the firm has 22 sites, and business during the February half-term was up 27%.
Despite the recession, he plans to open sites in Australia and the US by the year-end. "We assumed the downturn would hit us. But I think it's this 'staycation' thing. People are staying around rather than going abroad because of the euro." For the moment, that suits him just fine.
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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