Having initially set up The Climbing Hangar to fund a lifestyle, Ged Macdomhnaill sensed the time was right to grow the business and is assembling a team to take the leisure brand national.
Charged with £3m of funding from NVM Private Equity, Macdomhnaill explained some of the growing pains The Climbing Hangar has gone through and how his own leadership style has had to adapt.
(1) What are the origins of The Climbing Hangar and how has it grown to date?
My business partner has built climbing walls in the UK for over two decades, but he is more of a chaotic-genius type who needed a people person to run and collaborate on a centre that he built.
I was a teacher desperate to escape and, while not the most organised, am definitely the more administrational out of the two of us. We had no plans to scale, it was driven more by a love of the sport and a need for some passive income while we went climbing.
I sensed the winds of change and forecast that climbing was going to go big. From £110,000 in year one, we acquired failing wall Urban Ascent in Parsons Green (migrating from Liverpool’s poorest district to one of London’s wealthiest) and more than doubled turnover there in 18 months. Now we’re taking a big gamble in risking it all again by self-funding a new build in Plymouth that opened in March 2018.
(2) What was the hardest part of taking it from a one-site operation to three around the UK?
I’d have to say getting me out of the way. I’m that classic scatty, low attention span entrepreneur who is not into detail. I like to start but not finish things, so have a need for a good operations team to make us efficient, sort through my ideas and make the good plans work.
Recognising I wasn’t the right guy for the operations job anymore was tough, but thank god I did it.
(3) How have you looked to acquire customers and keep them coming back?
We acquire through word of mouth and arrange much of our operation around generating reasons for customers to talk what they are doing with us – such as free learn to climb outside days. Other than that we simply try to be nice to people – that seems to be bring them back.
(4) How has the team you’ve assembled developed since first setting up in 2010?
It’s tough for the team at the moment as we are shifting rapidly from a lifestyle company to saying “what does it take to become a living wage employer?” or “what do we have to do to create exciting CPD pathways and real career opportunities for everyone?”. This all means getting professional fast.
Some won’t make the journey as the change is too great. This is a shame as knowing what works in the business, and being able to show how well you have done it, is how we can achieve so much more than our previous “winging it” fashion.
New recruits are people who can strengthen our operations function. Finding passionate climbers is easy, but people who can deliver a dependable, well-administered business without going all corporate is another challenge altogether. We are still looking for more of those people, having found a few.
(5) What have you learnt about leadership and management while building the business?
I think it comes down to say less, listen more. You need to ask people what they think. I also hate planning, but I now realise that my team are basically chained if they don’t’ know where we are going. I’m still awful at it, but at least I know it’s the right stuff.
This also extends to our targets and goals. I’m happy in chaos, confidently moving in a general direction and knowing that the prize is “over there” and will emerge. That’s sort of ok for a vision in a rapidly-changing field, but the team need clarity as to how their work at the very least moves us in the desired direction.
This kind of thing might sound basic, but it is tough for me to get my head around concrete objectives when it’s not how I work.
Finally, if you don’t get people you don’t get leisure businesses in my view. It’s generally a low-wage environment, so finding other ways to make peoples live great is essential.
(6) You’ve just taken on £3m of growth capital. Why is now the right time to take on funding, and how will it be deployed?
To achieve rapid market growth you need funds to harness that now while market share is there to be taken. By next year, us and the other two major players in our market will have made some moves and there will be less territory to go around. We need to be more than ready when the competitive landscape gets bloody – and that isn’t long now.
We have already started to see distressed walls for sale and one go bust recently. I’ve been offered three in the last 18 months. The funds are for scale as our model works well, we just need more.
Discover how the CEO of PureGym deals with 60m customer experiences a year.