Star quality

Star quality

Richard Metcalfe’s international rugby career was cruelly cut short, but now he’s a major player in customised sportswear. Brian Nicholls joins him at his Cramlington factory.

At 7ft 1ins tall, Richard Metcalfe was a tower of rugby strength for Newcastle Falcons and Scotland. Now he’s a pillar of encouragement to men’s, women’s and children’s teams in a host of sports through the sense of identity his sports kit instils.

This rare breed of player, capped by two nations, should have been living off rugby still and, at 35 he remains, in his own mind, “a wee snip of a lad”. But a cruel injury forced early retirement and the need to re-think hisgame plan.

Hence, in the past four years he has, with his brother Mark, 42, and their co-director Craig Steven, have built Orion Teamwear - a company employing 13 which has doubled sales annually since start-up and which is likely to achieve more than £1.7m this year.

It is main rugby kit supplier for the likes of Blaydon, Moseley in the English first division, and the cream of players from independent schools who make it into their teenage version of Barbarians. In football, it equips leading North East junior clubs like North Shields and Cramlington.

It is niche-building in grassroots with a bespoke service for even the youngest of sides. Metcalfe has bounced back from bitter disappointment and, as a team sportswear provider, he expects five years hence to have sales up to £10m and his employees up to 40.

When he was told by a hospital consultant that he would be crippled with arthritis within three years if he ever played professional rugby again, he reluctantly stepped down.

That was six years ago and, like many professional sportsmen, he had seldom thought of what he might do when the glory days and the cheers of the crowd faded. Married with two young children, he needed an alternative.

“I worked for another business also in sportswear manufacturing,” he says, “but the company wasn’t for me. When you’ve played rugby for 10 years professionally and built a reputation, you don’t want to lose that working on the back of someone else. Customers kept saying if I ever set out on my own they’d move with me. It sank in. I thought I could do it better.

“Working for someone else, you find things out of your control, whereas as a professional sportsman things are in your control. You can train. You can play. For me, a start-up seemed a natural progression into working life.” Small business, however, was not a family tradition.

“I think I’m the first in our family to say, ‘right, let’s give this a try’.” Metcalfe accepted a friend’s offer of a room in his office premises at Gosforth, where he and his wife Kate and children Olivia, nine, and Max, six, also live. By the time a phone line was installed, he was making inroads into the lucrative sector of sportswear manufacture.

“We set off with me on my own with a bag and an email, and Mark invoicing.” Metcalfe soon realised that manufacturing wholly in the UK could be cost prohibitive, so all the basic manufacturing is done in China, with the value added, such as club badges, made in Cramlington.

He explains: “We have partners where we have our production lines, and we control everything from start to finish. Running factories isn’t for us, but we do have a long-term relationship there. “Everything is to our specification. We travel to the Far East every five weeks.

It’s quite easy, and in-house here we have embroidery and heat-sealing machines and presses. We finish the items with the personalisation.” The Chinese work is spread over three factories. “As we grow, we don’t want all our eggs in one basket. If one factory goes down with problems, we can move work to another one,” he explains.

But how does one trace reliable partners in a vast Chinese population? “It took a long time to pinpoint them,” he says. “It was a case of going there with my rucksack, walking round, finding the factories, and knowing different people. Some family friends involved in sourcing at the time helped us. From there it has been a progression.

When we visit China or other Far Eastern countries, we take time for research and development, and for finding other factories for the future. It’s exciting; you’re always looking at new things.” Big brands like Adidas will not be confronted, though.

“They are leisure brand people. You go to them for a replica shirt and tracksuit bottoms. We’re mainly into schools and universities, where sport is actually played and people want value for money. Because we’re flexible, a good team, and our fingers are on the pulse, we can move things quickly.” Within five to seven days, in fact.

Of his business rivals, Metcalfe says people are sick of buying kit designs, only to find them discontinued a year later.

“We say to clubs, ‘why don’t you design your own identity?’ We guarantee to keep those designs as long as they want. We have just won over Newcastle University so are supplying for all their sports next year.

“We’ve just had their rowing team here. We’ve never done rowing before and the guys came in, showed us the products they use, and we’ve been doing R&D with them.

“It’s exciting that we’re sampling kit for a crew that for the last two years has been in the country’s top two. Nobody in the North East does this kind of business to the extent we do it on professional fabrics and garments.” After a year at Gosforth, the business moved to a Cramlington unit, moving again 18 months later, still in Cramlington, but to purpose-built premises on Nelson Park Industrial Estate, with a showroom and production space enough to grow in the future.

“We cover virtually all sports, which is unique in its own right,” Metcalfe points out. On the new website, for which he lavishly praises ZebraHosts of Newcastle, he says people can go online - whether for tennis, hockey, badminton, rugby, netball or football.

They can pick a design and team colours, then download, add sizes and order.

“It’s a tool helping customers to design their own corporate identities,” he says. Originally, Orion was set up to serve rugby, but it diversified by demand. Now it provides balls and other equipment for numerous sports, using major manufacturers. The maker of Gilbey balls for international rugby, for example, makes balls for Orion. Initially, Orion was regionally focused, but this year it has, says Metcalfe, “gone through the roof” nationally, through a seven-figure, three year contract with Trutex, the UK’s biggest independent supplier of school and team wear.

Trutex, of Clitheroe, Lancashire, founded more than 100 years ago, has a school customer base of 1,200, and includes a Fairtrade range. Metcalfe says: “We can now look forward to being a national and an international brand. We’re getting overseas orders already, dealing with Dubai and with orders in Europe.

In the next two years, we want to push further there.” The website should help. But has the recession hit? “Yes and no. This time last year we would have had a lot more orders in place, whereas customers are holding off a bit now until they have to buy. Invoice payments are also affected. Gone are the days when people would pay on time. We’re the same, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

“You just have to get into the mentality of chasing your money regularly. We’re fortunate; the people we deal with are mostly clubs, universities, schools - they’re not businesses inclined to hold back payment.” What motivates him? “Seeing a little lad walking around Newcastle with an Orion top on. Also, I love coming to work to see what we can do today to help another club, another player, feel proud.

“Any professional sportsman will tell you that one of the best things is turning up for the first pre-season training and getting your huge bag of kit; it’s something to be proud of. It’s about having that identity, feeling part of something with your team mates.

“If you get off the bus looking smart and the other team don’t look as good, right away you’ve got the first five minutes on a free ride, because they think, ‘if they’re looking this good, they must be good at playing’. Kids want to be a part of something and be proud of playing for someone - whether it’s football, netball, cricket or hockey.”