CEO Interview: Steve Grindle, Raw Sports
PUBLISHED: 12:00 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:01 20 February 2018
© Thousand Word Media
A crippling paragliding accident and a helicopter crash would be enough to make most poeple take it easy for a while. Not Steve Grindle. Lucy Parford fist bumps the man behind one of the UK's most successful biking brands
There aren’t many interviews I’ve done which have ended in a fist bump.
In fact in 17 years this was probably the first.
But then Steve Grindle, founder of Raw Sports in the Forest of Dean, isn’t your conventional businessman.
He arrives for our interview wearing a branded Raw Sports T-shirt, his one-year-old daughter on his hip and is buzzing about changes afoot at Raw Sports HQ.
Steve, 51, has been the CEO of Raw Sports, which makes action sports clothing, for 25 years alongside a number of other interests including property and land development.
It’s always been his passion, as a sportsman himself, to produce high quality clothing, designed in Britain which would stand the test of time.
While it may have been off the radar for those outside the Trials biking and downhill MTB scene, that’s all about to change as Raw Sports is relaunching this year with a slick new logo and website selling an exciting new range of stylish apparel - jackets, hoodies and T-shirts - which can be worn on the street as much as on the track.
“When I was making race kit for off-road motorbikes and downhill mountain biking, it was almost too much of a specialist thing, only five per cent of the market really,” Steve says. “This technical stuff is more mainstream now, so you could actually wear it in the pub afterwards, couldn’t you?
Steve sits his youngest daughter, Harriet, down with some pens and paper and opens up his laptop to show me the new-look Raw Sports website which is about to go live with its spring/summer range.
“The website is all part of the new image, so we spent the last year rebranding it and updating it,” he says. “Bluelinemedia in Cheltenham have done all the back of it, then we’ve done all the graphic design, all the detail on it, so it’s working out well.”
Steve, who went to The King’s School in Gloucester, first set up Raw Sports in 1993 in Ruspidge where he grew up and has been riding bikes since he was a boy.
“I’ve always competed on off-road motorbikes and a bit of mountain bikes and skiing, so I’ve always been into these sorts of things,” he says, in his strong Forest accent.
“I broke all my hand in 1988 so I did do a couple of world rounds, but my world championship aspirations were wrecked when I wrecked myself. I’ve broken a few other things since as well.
“I still compete, I won the other weekend. I’m the over-50 expert champion for the area on the Trials, they say over-50 but I beat younger kids in it as well.
“So, I’ve always been into extreme sports really and have got plenty of scars to show it.”
He’s not exaggerating – Steve broke his back and neck paragliding in France and spent 14 weeks in hospital. A couple of years ago he crashed his helicopter, amazingly walking away with only a few cuts from the accident.
He also has a false eye, after losing an eye when he was 12.
“That probably had more of an effect on me than I realised,” he says. “It does definitely make you try harder at different things because you suddenly can’t catch.
“And then I did hurt my good eye in a motorbike competition when I was about 15. I had a patch for two weeks and was blind for 10 days. That was a bit of a weird one.”
Three generations of Steve’s family have lived in the same area. Their workshop was originally a foundry with pit pony stables and a railway track just outside. Steve, who has one sister, worked for the family businesses with his dad until he retired 20 years ago at the age of 60.
“I’ve always been pretty driven,” Steve says. “My dad, when I was younger, said ‘set your sights high, if you don’t set them high enough, if you reach it you won’t know where to go’, so always set your sights way out there.”
As a young entrepreneur, Steve always wanted to get into the leisure industry and, following the accident with his hand, decided to team up with Gareth Milford from pop band EMF to start importing surfboards from Australia.
A couple of years later, when that came to an end, he brought his friends, 10 times British Motorcycle Trials Champion Steve Saunders, from Cheltenham, and Rob Warner, three times British Downhill Mountain Bike champion, on board.
“I got them together and thought ‘let’s make some clothes for these sports’, because at that time, the competition didn’t really make great stuff and we could beat it,” Steve says.
Since those early days, Raw Sports has supplied kit and sponsored over 30 British champions and nine world champions in mountain biking and motorbike trials.
In between, Steve started to get involved with property and was a founder shareholder in software company Assureweb, in Cheltenham, investing some of the money he made through those endeavours back into Raw Sports. He is also a founder shareholder in Versarien in Cheltenham.
“People have always thought it’s bigger than it is, but I always got dragged into other things,” he smiles. “I was almost a one-man band with a few other people.
“I’ve had about four, what you’d almost call false starts, but those false starts have got me more champions, so it’s quite mad.
“One of the good things about it, is people are still wearing our kit 15 years later. So we actually made it too good, using the best material, because we didn’t want anyone coming back saying ‘this isn’t any good’.”
Fast forward 10 years and Steve is now on the cusp of bringing Raw Sports to the masses, something he always believed the brand was capable of. Last year, he teamed up with James Kent, Raw Sports’ new Product Director, who previously worked as a garment technologist for several international clothing companies.
“I was looking for somebody for five or six years, like a partner, so I wasn’t doing it on my own. I was looking for a managing director who could run it for me, to make sure that every day he’s pushing it,” says Steve, admitting there have been occasions when he considered giving it all up.
“I was coming up to my 50th birthday, I’ve got three young kids, got quite a few building plots in the Forest as well that I could carry on with and a couple of other companies which are doing alright and I honestly thought ‘why am I messing around with Raw Sports?’
“But I’ve thought that a few times over the years and kept it going. It’s the British bit I love about it – in a lot of ways there aren’t really many other British brands, are there, in extreme sports? And it’s a major investment to get to this stage.”
After a long search, Steve was thrilled to meet James as they instantly clicked and now work together in the Forest of Dean and have been out to visit factories in the Far East. Raw Sports’ new casual line is being made in Turkey and multiple other factories are sampling the kit at the moment too. Steve also met with Diane Savory, Chair of GFirst LEP, who has been a mentor.
“When James did his university degree, in fashion design and technology, his first job after there was working for a ballistic armour company. That got me really excited,” Steve laughs.
“As well as the casual gear, we still want to make technical kit and he’s as excited about that as I am really, to have that original bit.
“I knew I’d be giving up a few things in my life to do it, but it was almost the chance I’d waited 20 years for in some ways.
“We’ve started from scratch again in a lot of ways, everything is redesigned and updated and since then I’ve been introduced to another graphic designer who’s got involved.
“I’ve never done anything in my life before which everyone’s been so positive about. The collective process of it all has actually made it better as well.”
Gareth Milford, who was there when it all started, is also back on board on the sales side along with Rob Warner, who now commentates on Red Bull X-Fighters.
Steve has managed to get a world number one involved as well. Graham Jarvis is a British Extreme Enduro champion who travels the world competing and has got over a million followers on Facebook and nearly 500,000 on Instagram.
“The beauty of it is, because I used to compete, I’ve known him since the early 90s,” Steve says.
“I’ve got the right team now, it’s yet to be proved, but I feel like I’ve got the right team,” he adds. “It’s a hyper-inspirational atmosphere we’re in at the moment. It’s spot on.”
Pedal A Bike Away in the centre of the Forest in Cannop Valley is going to be Raw Sports’ new flagship store and it wants to be in 30 other mountain bike shops around the country too. All the products, such as knee pads, which Steve has dreamt of making for many years, are finally becoming a reality.
An atmospheric new video, with music by Them Is Me, was made for the soft launch earlier this year which was shot at the family workshop, the upstairs of which is now a showroom for Raw Sports, as well as featuring scenes from all around the local area.
“We’ve always been family businesses, from when I was five I was going to work with my dad,” Steve recalls. “We’ve always been there, it’s almost an Aladdin’s cave workshop, you can make anything there and we have done.
“Most of the local dudes wear our kit and it’s such a mecca now for mountain biking in the Forest, it’s unbelievable.
“Putting the Forest on the map would be something really great. All the hype that goes with all this, you say you want to be the number one action sports brand, but we can actually say we are the Forest of Dean’s number one action sports brand at the moment, with aspirations of being the UK’s.”