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Entrepreneur Mark Neale, founder of Mountain Warehouse, shares the story behind the brand's success – and tells us about his new venture Neon Sheep.
Mark Neale and his 250-strong team have been headquartered in Belgravia for almost a decade, now occupying four floors of Eccleston Street office space. “When I started the business we had an office in Clapham for about 10 years, but when we outgrew that we wanted to come north of the river, and where we are now in Belgravia we have such great transport links both for the Tube and the train,” explains Mark.
The businessman likes to lunch in Oliveto and Boisdale for special occasions, pops into Eccleston Yards for a drink and says all the team are “excited that the bakery Ole & Steen is opening on the ground floor of our office”. The brand he is most famous for, Mountain Warehouse, sells affordable yet technical outdoor clothing and accessories – think merino wool-base layers for £25 and silk gloves for a bargainous £9.99 – and has been going for 21 years. Like all the best ideas, the business model seems simple in that the company designs, makes and sells all its own products in its own shops, cutting out the middle man and selling direct to the consumer at lower prices.
Mountain Warehouse’s shops now number 340, of which 100 are overseas. “Our biggest market outside the UK is Canada, where we have 40 shops, and we have plans to open six shops in New Zealand this year. We also have shops in the US and Germany, and we’re growing in all those markets,” Mark says. What’s more, Mountain Warehouse now has a younger sibling, Neon Sheep, which Mark describes as a “fun, quirky, stationery-led modern gifting offer for millennials – with pink sheep hanging from the ceiling and lots of unicorns, rainbows, mermaids and sequins.” Like a younger Oliver Bonas, I venture? “It’s a lot more affordable”, says Mark.
We source primarily in the Far East and we saw a gap in the market for something that was bright, fun and a completely different customer to Mountain Warehouse. At the moment we have 10 shops, but we already have plans to open another 10.” The name was chosen by his 14-year-old daughter, who is no stranger to dabbling in the retail world, having modelled Mountain Warehouse kids’ clothing. “We used to pay her in Lego,” jokes Mark. “Kidswear is a really important part of our range,” he adds. “It’s how many people discover the brand because our skiwear is so affordable, and people know their kids will grow out of it.”
It wasn’t all smooth-sailing for Mark, whose wife is the former chief executive of tanning brand St Tropez. His first three attempts at retail businesses didn’t work out, but his advice for budding entrepreneurs is just to go for it. “You can spend too long trying to think of what the perfect opportunity is,” he says. “In some ways starting is the hardest bit, and I think you have to start before having a family and a mortgage. I was 25 and living with mates when I left consultancy and started my first business, so all I needed was enough money to pay the rent every month.” Did his tenacity ever waver? “There was a phase in my 30s when all my friends were making lots of money in banking, when I thought, ‘Is this ever going to work?’ But it was a gamble that paid off.” A very modest understatement – Mountain Warehouse alone was valued at £310 million last year.
Mountain Warehouse and Neon Sheep can both be found at Victoria Place Shopping Centre and online.