The Highlands are Calling
Taking over the iconic Highland tweed specialists a couple of years ago, John and Nicola Sudgen are driving Campbell’s of Beauly forward
Article and photography by Andy Barnham
It’s a cold day North West of Inverness when I visit Campbell’s of Beauly, the Scottish Highlands tweed specialists; perfect weather for their wares, especially given the oil for their boiler has just run out. However, talking to new owner John Sugden, it’s clear he and his wife Nicola enjoy a challenge.
The retail and tailoring business was established in 1858 and was family run until two years ago when the fourth generation passed control of the business to John and Nicola, in order to retire. “March 1st 2015, we took £12.50 in retail,” recalls John. Coming from a Yorkshire textiles family, John lived in Elgin for 10 years where his father James was the managing director of Johnston’s, before then working for a Scottish brand himself, the raincoat makers Mackintosh. Sensing an opportunity in the former, octogenarian, Campbell owners, John made the initial approach in January 2014 and it is a credit to all parties, and an indication of how suitable the Sugden’s would be, that at no stage were any lawyers present in discussions. Needless to say, taking over a business is never easy work; the visual merchandising had not been updated in decades, the tailoring was falling and John and Nicola lived with Nicola’s parents, 45 minutes away, for six months while the residence above the shop was renovated.
For the Sugden’s, authenticity is key; not only was and is the business family run, but the values of the brand are also reflected in the staff as well as the owners, best personified by head cutter Tom. Now 68 years old, Tom trained in Glasgow and has been in Beauly for over 40 years having taken over the role of head cutter from his father. Unsurprisingly it is claimed he makes the best plus 4s in the UK and whilst the old adage ‘he’s forgotten more than I know’ may be a cliché, you suspect in regards to Tom and tweed it’s simply true.
In their search to find suppliers for their retail stock, John does not just want to offer the best product, the other brands must also share the synergy and DNA behind Campbell’s; i.e. be family owned and offer quality. The result of this is a destination store that really does offer the best of British, with everything possible made in the UK or in Beauly itself. Cloth comes from Yorkshire and Scotland with 90 per cent of the tweed coming from mills north of the border – though despite the family connections – nothing from Johnston’s, “it’s too big,” notes John. However for a business that only achieves 5 – 10 per cent of sales via the internet, the biggest challenge is footfall, which helps explain the three VisitScotland Quality Assurance signposts. Awarded to Campbell’s just over a year after the Sugden’s took over, the five star award given for recognition of exceptional standards quite literally helps guides visitors to Campbell’s and solidified their location on the map.
So what do locals make of an English couple owning such an historic Scottish brand? John laughs as he recollects his first few weeks in Beauly and being asked if he wanted locally produced eggs dropped off at the store. In a town choc- a- block with community spirit and independent shopkeepers he believes he is now one of the biggest employers with eight tailoring staff and another eight retail staff and bemoans the fact the local Bank of Scotland is closing down. Walking around the shop floor John holds a photo album of the renovations offering a direct comparison of Campbell’s in 2015 and now; the only surviving untouched section is the famous tweed wall, which whist not brisk business he admits, is authentic and reflects the authenticity and core values of the business. It’s an inescapable term at Campbell’s; richly deserved and cherished. John stops at the women’s’ section and explains how Campbell’s has become a victim of their own success. In the last two years Campbell’s has turned around the tailoring side of the business to the extent it is now more than double what is was on March 1st 2015. Whilst much of this comes down to the Campbell’s history of working and supplying various hunting and shooting estates with their house tweed, you sense John and Nicola have spent time and effort reconnecting with the estates, even if they don’t openly say it. As a local business, John is able to personally visit the estates and check fittings; vital for gamekeepers and ghillies who are prone to fluctuations in weight due to their outdoors lifestyles. The upside of such a hands- on service are the recommendations that come Campbell’s way and as a result many estate guests make their way to Beauly with the men purchasing their own tweed suits with accompanying wives indulging in their own intrinsically linked retail therapy. Estate tweeds now comprise 70 per cent of the tailoring business of which most of the custom is men, the majority of the retail business though is female orientated. In order to cope with the unexpected female sales, John is aware they’re going to have to expand the recently renovated women’s’ section of Campbell’s. It’s a nice problem to have and a reflection of the effort that has been poured into this small firm.
Talking to John, it is clear that these efforts are the tip of the iceberg and there is more to come. Two years into the role he now has a clearer idea of the seasonal hunting industry, its knock on effect and how to manage the accompanying tailoring pipeline; mending is fitted around the normal working processes and offered only for Campbell’s items. He has also found Lara Bradbeer, a successor for Tom who has started to cut back on his number of days a week. “Craftsmanship is a challenge and struggle,” says John. Having never had a blank retail day since taking over and awarded the Royal Warrant for tailoring to the Queen’s estate in April 2017, it looks as if it is a challenge he and his wife are winning.
Enquiries: Campbell’s of Beauly, Highland Tweed House, High Street, Beauly IV4 7BU / 01463 782239 / www.campbellsofbeauly.com/