Stealth is an essential tool in the armoury of the successful angler as he or she stalks the bankside for that wary specimen fish. Quietly and with barely a rustle of the long grass, Paul Devlin has crept up on the angling trade, cast out on seemingly still waters and netted himself a multi-million pound business.

The 40-year-old from Cumbernauld now controls an internet and telephone sales empire with customers in every continent, the largest fishing tackle retail outlet in Europe and several as-yet unfulfilled ambitions.

His 80 staff, the majority based in Glasgow, generate a turnover of £8 million a year, a figure which has been growing steadily at between 10% and 20% year on year.  Even more surprisingly, it is all run and controlled from a warehouse in Possil, Glasgow, an inner city district more noted for its deprivation, drugs and decay, than hosting self-start economic success stories.

He owns his properties outright – a field sports shop in Glasgow’s east end, a small tackle shop in Cumbernauld and his 30,000 sq.ft megastore, plus a tackle warehouse in Scunthorpe which he bought out of receivership in 2003.

Very soon, he’ll open a new £2.1m store in Hull. At 11,000 sq ft, it will be England’s largest and his first major development south of the border as he sets his sights on high density population regions where he expects his formula of delivering unrivalled ranges of goods at highly competitive prices will land him even larger financial catches.

Despite the size of his operation, Devlin is unassuming, modest and displays a down-to-earth commonsense approach to business strategy that would serve as a useful model for any aspiring start-up.  He is of course also single-minded, thoroughly professional and as suppliers all testify quite ruthless when ensuring that the best bargain does not slip through the net.

He started, aged 10 tying flies as a hobby and recalls catching his first fish – a pike – on the Forth and Clyde Canal at Dullatur. His hobby quickly turned a profit when he started selling his home-tied flies at angling evenings run by Cumbernauld Angling Club in the local town hall.  Ten for £1, he recalls.

Today Devlin reveals fishing flies are still the largest individual money-spinner out of the staggering 60,000 items of stock that he carries.   “Buy for 5p, sell for 60p.  You can’t go wrong,” he smiles.

It is not quite so simple, of course.  Angling in all its forms, from salmon and trout, sea and coarse, is well-recognised as the largest participant sport in the UK with an estimated 3.5 million enthusiasts. 

But market competition is intense. On a European scale, the Tackle Trade Association says 2,900 companies are vying for a share of an annual spend worth (euros) €25 billion. In under 20 years, Devlin’s business has become one of the top three retailers.

He left school at 16 to work in local tackle shops, but despite a promising career with the Inland Revenue, really learned his sales and negotiation skills at the Barras street market school of economics. He opened a weekend stall selling used fishing tackle in 1986, placed ads in local newspapers and cycled round houses on his bike to make purchases.

In little over a year, however, he was making as much as £1000 a weekend and resigned from the Inland Revenue to pursue the tackle trade full-time. He spent £80 a month renting his first shop, PD Tackle in Cumbernauld which he still owns today.

A £30,000 Bank of Scotland loan funded the purchase in 1995 of what was then Scotland’s largest tackle outlet close to the Barras market in Claythorn Street and at the same time he was busily expanding his mail order operation to capture a share of UK phone sales from rivals such as Fishtec, SportFish and John Norris.

“I had no problems with the Bank,” he says.  “By that time I had bought the shop in Cumbernauld, and the premises next door, so I did have collateral, and I put £30,000 of my own money into the business so it was really a no-brainer for them.”

He repaid the loan in four months.  “I never liked owing anyone money ever.  In fact when I received my very first invoice from a wholesaler, I took settlement discount of 5% for paying within seven days. I still do that today with every single invoice.” 

This principle, underwritten by a healthy cash flow, has stood him in good stead and earns him first refusal on many of the best supply deals going. He needs it.  The impact of the internet on precious catalogue sales has been to fragment trade.

“Anyone can start up selling tackle from their garden shed and, on the net, can manage to look as good as us.  So while the internet gives us a wider customer base it increases competition – something we are still fighting.”

Two full-time web designers and a team of IT technicians help to keep his multiple online and print catalogues constantly updated since internet and telephone sales now account for 50% of overall trade generated from 30,000 unique users a month. 

The previous day, he reveals, they took 188 internet orders at an average spend of £70.  Customers live in Argentina, Cuba, the Bahamas, Australia and New Zealand as well as “thousands in Scandinavia”.  He has a mailing list of 20,000.

He’s only taken one director’s dividend in 20 years. “I take a wage from the business, but that’s it.”  His policy is grow, redevelop, consolidate, move on. Simple steps but very effective. Always keen to reinvest, he soon realised that scale was vital to growth and success and in 2003 he took “a significant gamble” and bought a huge warehouse shell at The Point Retail Park in Glasgow’s Possil. The building alone is now worth £1.7m and the paid-for stock £2.5m.

He recognises that his investment had spin-off benefits for the area. “The money which I paid Barry Clapham, who owns the site, for this building, was used to develop the whole retail park here – roads, fencing and so on.  It is just a stone’s throw from the city centre but in an area which now very much up and coming.”

Which is in his wider interest since he also diversified into house building and has a development in neighbouring Ruchill where expects to release 24, two- and three-bedroom flats for sale next year. “Posh,” he says. “I could sell them tomorrow and not lose money. But I’d rather sell them in a year’s time and make a lot of money.”

Four years ago, he travelled to Lincolnshire to buy the stock of Chapman’s Tackle a coarse fishing retailer which had gone into receivership.  He ended up ignoring the stock, but buying the business, including a 15,000 sq ft warehouse, plus a lease on their retail shop as well as 20 staff.

“It was the people who sold me the business,” he says. “They had good management, but had grown too big too quickly.  Their business focus complemented our own, in fact they were one of our biggest competitors at the time. It was a natural fit, but sort of just fell into our lap.”

The Chapman’s business is back in profit, although there is still room for growth.  Close by, in Hessle, he will shortly open what will be the largest fishing tackle store in England. It will stock 25,000 different items, concentrating on coarse and sea fishing and employing 10.  This will be the platform that Devlin will use to cast his net farther south whenever he feels the time is right.

He works up to 80 hours a week and takes personal control of stock, purchases and pricing. That means, increasingly, long buying trips to China where the majority of fishing tackle is now manufactured.

He says the Chinese are so far ahead in manufacturing skills that it will be very hard for western manufacturers to compete. And he is strongly critical of the lack of investment being made by government and tourism agencies in the Scottish sport fishing industry. 

“Angling is growing in popularity, but there isn’t enough investment from the various government bodies. Golf, football, tennis, wrestling, boxing all seem to benefit from funding. Yet it is angling which is the biggest participant sport and by comparison receives very little.  Scotland has such huge untapped potential. I simply cannot understand it. It is so short-sighted.”

Although Scotland is to host the World Fly-Fishing Championships in 2009, Devlin believes the numbers who would travel to Scotland regularly given the right level of promotion, is enormous.

Despite the long working hours, he has taken up golf and manages to fit in fishing “whenever I can”,  around family commitments. There are few places around the world he hasn’t fished in, but he cites shore angling for pollack on Skye and fly-fishing for salmon on the Aberdeenshire Dee among his personal favourites.

He has no plans to expand overseas, simply to consolidate and provide an unrivalled service, perhaps enjoying more moments of high business satisfaction like being the only supplier anywhere able to deliver the US airforce 600 pairs of neoprene waders in 24 hours. That, and fulfilling his long-term ambition:  “Retire early and die old”. If others followed his enterprise it might just catch on.

This story first appeared in the Sunday Herald, on xx November 2007.  It is reproduced here in full.

 

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