Frank Thomas kit
The British brand dominated for over 30 years but vanished overnight
Frank Thomas? Didn’t he used to be a TV comedian? No, you’re thinking of Frank Skinner. Or maybe Frank Sidebottom, Or Frank Carson even. No, Frank Thomas was the name of what became Britain’s leading brand of motorcycle clothing in the 80s, 90s and Noughties – although, come to think of it, some did think they were a bit of a joke.
Why? Was it rubbish? No, anything but – well, the business wasn’t at least. The clothing itself, especially with hindsight, was sometimes good, sometimes less so – basically it became so omnipresent it was easy to mock. But there’s no doubt the company was hugely successful.
Where did it all start? Out of Britain’s shoe industry, oddly enough, as historically based in Northamptonshire. Duo Peter Laughton and David Wooding founded it to make motorcycle boots. The crafty bit was using the skills of shoe industry outworkers spread across the county to produce the boots which sales and marketing expert Laughton then took to shows across the country.
So it’s a bit like the Kinky Boots story, but for bikers? Sort of, but not as sexy. Some of those early boots were about as dowdy and conservative as boots got – hence the Frank Thomas name, chosen as the company wanted a classic, British, traditional name. Besides, have you been to Rushden or Higham Ferrers?
So how did it take off? Because they were innovative and challenging in other ways. They developed a racing boot with Roger Marshall and Ron Haslam, which, though gaudy, was very popular. They pioneered paddock boots, were dynamic commercially, advertised extensively, grew a large dealer network and, crucially, in the mid80s, when UK manufacturing costs began to rise, set up a plant in Asia, a first for a UK motorcycle clothing business. What else did they do? Pretty much everything. From boots they expanded into gloves, leather jackets, trousers and suits, textiles – becoming particularly renown for its Aqua range of waterproofs – and more. So much so, in fact, that we’ve all probably worn a bit of Frank Thomas at some time or other.
So it got pretty big? By the early to mid-90s they could do no wrong. By 1995 it was making an annual profit of £3m, was operating in the UK, Germany, France and more and by 1997 had a turnover of £12m.
So what went wrong? Hard to say precisely but the first big change came in 1999 when Laughton and Wooding sold the business through a management buyout and expanded to buy accessories firm Motrax at the
same time. Laughton, who retained a smaller shareholding, said at the time: “We decided to go ahead partly because David wanted to retire, and partly because we realised we would have to grow via acquisition rather than just organically. If the opportunity for more acquisitions comes along we shall look at those as well.”
Soon after Frank Thomas bought the Lewis and Dynamic brands then, following a second management buyout in 2003 (which then valued the company at £38m), Lintek. In 2004, Frank Thomas also took on the retail arm of BKS Leathers.
Sounds good. Bigger is better right? Not necessarily. Although by 2007 its turnover had risen to £19 million profit was down to just £14,000. The following year, as the economy started to take a downturn, was worse still. Laughton resigned in July and at year end Frank Thomas posted its first ever loss of £2.7m. James Toseland’s infamous first corner crash, bedecked in St George BKS leathers at that year’s British GP probably didn’t help, either.
So what happened? Despite numerous restructurings it never recovered. Another loss of £2.6m came in 2009, the world economy was in free fall and the end came quickly, going into administration on January 27, 2011.
So was that it? Not quite. As part of the liquidation the receivers sold the Frank Thomas brand and stock to J&S Accessories for a reported £1.5m in February 2011 who are still selling Frank Thomas gear through their 26 outlets. BKS (Made to Measure) Ltd, meanwhile, a wholly separate company to the off-the-peg BKS brand previously run by Frank Thomas, lives on.