Business focus: Ian Coley Sporting
PUBLISHED: 15:51 02 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:20 02 October 2018
© Thousand Word Media
From gamekeeper to Olympic shooting coach, Ian Coley's empire now boasts the biggest Sporting Agency in the UK. And even at 71, he has no plans to hold fire. Tanya Gledhill meets him
Leaving school at 15, Ian Coley never dreamed he’d one day have his name over the door of the UK’s biggest sporting agency. But that he has.
Ian Coley Sporting now turns over £6m a year, employs 20 full-time members of staff and puts in excess of 500 bed nights into Gloucestershire’s hotels and holiday cottages.
And Ian himself – six-times Olympics coach, MBE for services to shooting and who has represented his country more than 200 times – is renowned the world over for his shooting prowess.
Not bad for the softly-spoken son of a publican who spent his schooldays bunking off lessons to go gamekeeping on the neighbouring estate.
Ian was born in Birmingham in 1947 to Gerry and Betty Coley. By 1950, the family had moved to Elkstone to take over The Highwayman Inn – a hostelry on the A417 between Cheltenham and Cirencester.
You can’t miss it – it’s the one with the horse-drawn coach in the car park – but back then, it was the Masons Arms, and fairly rustic in its facilities.
“When we got there, there was no indoor toilet,” laughs Ian, for whom the move is indelibly imprinted on his memory. “I can still remember that now, all those years later.”
Ian was sent to prep school at Leckhampton Court, now home to the Sue Ryder Care hospice.
“We wore mortar boards,” says Ian. “They were very good for throwing at people. That was the best use for them that I found.” It’s a glimpse into the young Ian – a mischievous, free spirit with a steely determination to plough his own furrow. And talking to him today, at the age of 71, nothing much has changed.
By Ian’s own admission, his brother Chris was the more studious of the two boys, winning a scholarship to Cheltenham College, though sport – particularly country sports – is in the family DNA.
Chris has, for the past 33 years, been at the helm of corporate hospitality specialist Chris Coley Racing. It was he who, in the mid-80s, came up with the concept of the Tented Village and corporate boxes at Cheltenham Racecourse, without which the course would be unrecognisable today. Together, they are formidable pioneers.
While Chris was studying at Cheltenham College, Ian was skipping lessons to hang out with John Brown, the gamekeeper on the estate opposite his parents’ pub.
He spent every hour he could there, learning about birds and breeding programmes. John taught him everything he knew, and it was there he found his calling.
“I hated school,” says Ian. “Hated it. I couldn’t even pass the 11-plus. Then again, had I actually attended, I’d probably have done better. Ileft at 15 and went to work as a trainee gamekeeper for Captain Gibbs on the Coombe End Estate.
“It was very old-fashioned keepering – we used broody hens back then. But it was a great start for me in what my life would turn out to become.”
From there, Ian went to work at Fletchers in Cheltenham’s Winchcombe Street, a renowned provincial gunmaker.
In the five years he was there, he learned the trade and worked his way up to manager, but – like his determined schoolboy self – always had a burning desire to go out on his own.
In 1971, he opened Ian Coley Gunsmiths in a tiny shop in the Lower High Street in Cheltenham. It wasn’t the most salubrious end of town, and still isn’t. But for 40 years, this modest, green-painted shopfront became the go-to gunsmiths for everyone from the gentry to Olympic shooters.
Ian’s reputation, both for gun sales and fitting and shooting, quickly spread.
But what’s really remarkable is that this empire is entirely self-financed.
“When I started the shop, I managed to scrape together £5,000 from friends and family,” he says. “It was quite a lot of money back then, and an aunt of mine left me £2,000 which really helped, but I scraped together the rest to open the shop. I begged and borrowed it all.
“I was determined to self-finance and I’ve never had any kind of bank loan – actually, that’s not quite true. I had one for three months, once, but I soon got rid of it.
“I always worked on the basis that everything I made I’d put back into the business, and that’s what I’ve done. Always.”
Ian caught the bug for clay shooting at 17 at a village fete in Withington.
Everything about the sport captivated him, and he knew it would become a lifelong passion. His time at Fletchers allowed him to improve his game, and by the early 70s he was shooting for England. It’s an honour not lost on him now.
“To shoot for your country, well, it’s the greatest honour,” he says. “There was great excitement when I got the call, because it was all I ever wanted to do.
“And then when I’d shot for England, I wanted to shoot for Great Britain. And that took me another nine years, but I got there.”
Perhaps his biggest disappointment – though I suspect he wouldn’t call it that – was not being able to compete at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
He’d made the squad, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted US President Jimmy Carter to boycott the Games, and some GB teams followed suit following a Government call. The shooting team being one, a move supported by the Shooting Association.
By the mid 80s, Ian was developing his shooting school and began to offer corporate shooting dates at stately homes across Gloucestershire, branching out into game shooting days. And all the while his reputation as a coach was growing.
The challenging Double Trap – first shot at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 – became Ian’s speciality and Great Britain’s most successful shotgun discipline.
His Olympic legacy as Team Manager/National Coach began in Barcelona in 1992 – a move he acknowledges he couldn’t have made without the support of his wife, Jayne, a renowned gun dog breeder.
“I don’t really know how the coaching came about,” says Ian, who has shot internationally in more clay disciplines for England and GB than anyone else.
“I was always the one on the team who they’d come to for advice, so I suppose there was something in that.
“Of course one of the best moments was in Sydney in 2000 when Richard Faulds won Gold, and that was made all the better because Ian Peel had won a Silver in Trap just a couple of days before.”
After Sydney, Ian thought about relinquishing his coaching role and focusing on the shooting school. But he was persuaded to stay, and he took the team to Athens in 2004 – a competition he describes as “difficult”. But then came London 2012, where the disappointment of Athens would turn into glory.
“When Peter Wilson won Gold on home turf, our home Olympics, in front of a home crowd, well, that was a dream come true,” says Ian, who was awarded the MBE shortly afterwards.
“I’m very lucky with how my life has turned out. I’ve shot competitively for more than 50 years. I’ve shot on every continent. It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Ask Ian where he’s happiest, and he’ll tell you a grouse moor “somewhere”. He relishes the vast expanses of land, the scenery. He loves the partridge on the nearby Salperton Park Estate and game shooting days at Stowell Park, home to the Vestey family. But he’ll always have “a soft spot” for Coombe End, too.
“These days, I do try to have a few days a season on the grouse,” he says.
“I do treat myself. It was a childhood dream. And now that I’ve got some money, I can do it.” He laughs as he says this. Forty years after he opened his gunsmiths in Cheltenham, he applied for planning permission to move it to the shooting school in Andoversford.
“I thought it’d take about five years to come through,” says Ian. “But it was granted straight away, and that rather caught me on the back foot, though it was a blessing in disguise.” Ian Coley Sporting now boasts the biggest gun shop in the UK, with more than 1,000 shotguns, air guns and rifles in stock. It’s an impressive sight. At any one time, there are around 25 pairs of guns on the shelves, including left-handed ones, and clients get to compare some of the world’s finest sporting guns from Beretta, Rizzini, Caesar Guerini, Krieghoff, Perazzi, Browning and many other manufacturers.
Fancy a bespoke gun? Ian can arrange a trip to the Perazzi factory where clients can watch every stage of assembly, and have their own gun made-to-measure.
There’s also a vast country clothing range of prestigious brands including Schoffel, Beretta, Browning and Le Chameau.
Gun fitting is a major part of the business, along with lessons for individuals and corporate teams coached by some of the UK’s top shooters. One is Shooting School Manager and Chief Instructor Shaun Porter, an ex-mechanic who joined the team up at Andoversford – a vast, green, tree-peppered space with Olympic-standard traps and towers – in 2010.
Thanks to Ian’s considerable encouragement, he says, he has won numerous compeitions and represented England on multiple occasions, most recently at the Home Internationals where he was part of the winning senior team.
It’s this softly-spoken drive that’s taken Ian and his shooting school to even greater heights in recent years, notably a merger with rival Roxton Bailey Robinson in 2016.
Roxtons provided exceptional shooting and fishing experiences around the world, and the company’s Sporting Agent Adam Bromfield – ex-Holland & Holland – had been a friend of Ian’s for some years.
“Roxtons were competitors, big competitors of ours,” says Ian. “I used to swear about them all the time. There was a time I tried to get Adam to come and work for us – but I couldn’t afford him. And then one summer evening we were fishing on the River Coln at Coln St Aldwyns and talk of an association was started.”
A merger sale followed, the businesses coming together under the larger RBR Group but still operating in their own right. Now, thanks to Ian’s and Adam’s expertise, clients can enjoy sport from a day’s driven shooting with a full team on a historic English estate to wing shooting in destinations like Argentina or Spain.
The two businesses are a “good, natural fit”, says Ian, with a lot of client cross-over. Now, Ian Coley Sporting/Roxtons is the biggest sporting agency in the UK.
There were whispers of retirement, perhaps to spend more time with grandchildren Imogen and Haydn – who has already shot for England. Or Jayne and her six black Labradors who have monikers like Easter, Ida, Garbutt and Ganton.
But when I ask about taking a back seat, he just smiles.
“I’m trying to slow down a bit now,” he says. “But it’s difficult because to me, this isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. I’m very lucky that shooting is a passion of mine.”
Still, he has big plans for the business, including an expansion of the gun shop – last year voted the Nation’s Favourite Gun Shop by readers of Clay Shooting Magazine.
“We’re a destination, now,” says Ian, justifiably proud. “We get people coming from all over the world for tuition and gun-fitting. We have some very, very big names in the shooting world.
“At the shooting school, we’re planning to expand the facilities and make it more prestigious, but taking care to preserve all our lovely woodland.
“Already we bring in tens of millions of pounds to the Cotswolds, but we’re going to employ more people, which will make it better for the whole community.
“But we won’t start shooting on Sundays, that I can promise you.”
And then he pauses, reflecting on the past 40-odd years.
“When I was a young lad, never, ever could I have visualised how it could be here,” he says quietly. “Never. And long may it last.”