Frank Thomas kit

The Bri­tish brand dom­i­nated for over 30 years but van­ished overnight

Motorcycle News (UK) - - New Bikes -

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.

Frank Thomas’ gaudy rac­ing boots were de­vel­oped us­ing the skills of the Northants shoe in­dus­try with the in­sight of rac­ers Haslam and Mar­shall

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