by Julie Sharpe
Over the last 30 years, British dinghy sailor Nick Gill, who founded one of the most innovative of the Marine Technical Clothing companies Gill, has continually delivered major improvements in technical gear.
Nick Gill, now 52, talked about the early years. ‘My sport and passion was sailing. Being in landlocked Nottingham, three hours from the sea, I could only be a dinghy sailor. I sailed the National 12, it’s a 12 foot restricted class, not quite as hairy as an 18 foot skiff, but quick and wet. I still sail the same class today.
‘We had no sailing gear, we used to go sailing in a pair of canvas shoes, a pair of shorts and t-shirt and we did not go sailing in the winter.
‘I was doing a business degree, and in one of the courses I had to do a business plan on establishing a new business. As a keen sailor, I decided to do a business plan on a Sailing Product company and Dinghy Gear was an obvious need.
‘Fresh out of University, I decided to put my business plan into action. I began the business in 1975, in the corner of my father’s textile factory; in a small space about ten metres by ten metres.
‘Nottingham, right in the middle of the country, was a textile production area. My father’s business was lace not sewing, so there was no knowledge of sewing technology in the family. However in the area it was easy to hire a few sewing machinists and the entire textile manufacturing support industries. I would spend three days on the road, visiting customers, listening to what the dealers wanted. Then I came back and back made it.
‘We could be flexible; we changed things and improved things as we went along. We had to learn everything from scratch. While fabric might be waterproof, the seams were not, so we had to learn how to make them waterproof. It was traditionally through high frequency welding machines but that only worked on heavy PVC fabrics that gave the old-fashioned 'Oil Skin' look. Nylon fabrics had to be glued until the arrival of the hot air taping machine. Gill had one of the very first in Europe and it transformed the opportunities in sailing wear.
‘We discovered that the level of service from our competitors was very poor. Deliveries were often ‘in weeks’. We were able to offer the customers deliveries by the weekend if they ordered by Tuesday. Dealers could carry less stock and missed fewer sales and soon become confident selling the Gill Brand; its the same service ethic we still hold dear today and is one of the ways Gill Australia is able to grow the business.
‘While we started in dinghy gear, that was a narrow niche and we soon branched out into a wider range of sailing gear. Gill Marine was self-funded, so we had to make a bit, invest it and move forward step by step.
‘Helly Hansen, Musto, Henri Lloyd were there 25 years ago and are still there now, others have disappeared, but our growth continues onwards. It took the best part of ten years to get really established in the UK. Then we began to look at wider markets. We started selling into Europe and are one of the top three brands in most European markets.
‘Now Gill is the biggest foul-weather International brand in North America, though much of the US market is retailer branded.
‘Three years ago we made a big change, one of the key decisions of the last 30 years, when we moved away from high-profile branded fabrics.
‘We found that by using licensed-only breathable fabrics it was becoming quite limiting, as we wanted to reach another level of performance and offer a wider choice.
‘While these breathable fabrics were good for outdoor wear, we needed customised fabrics. What is good enough for general outdoor wear is just not good enough for severe marine conditions.
‘The marine waterproof standards were not high enough. What is considered an industry standard of two metres water pressure, was just not high enough for us. We set our own standards at three times that level, and not just when the fabric is new but after we artificially aged for testing purposes.
'With branded fabrics, we could not make improvements. If our test results showed a weakness we wanted to be able to address it, possibly by additional coating.
'Our departure from this route was considered was considered by many to be a ‘brave’ decision at the time, some people thought we were making a mistake, but others recognised it would deliver major improvements including passing on cost savings to customers.
‘The proof has been in the results…we have now had three years and our sales of technical waterproof clothing is up 40 percent in a market that has not really grown overall, so we have made gains by increasing market share.
‘Seawater is very abrasive; a drop of seawater covers a much larger surface area than fresh water. As the water dries, the salt water abrades away the waterproof repellent finish on the outside of the fabric. We therefore use more durable water repellent finishes.
‘We also found the outer surface on new texture-ised fabrics could be abraded by Velco hooks or harness webbing. Velcro hooks were tending to fluff up the fabric. We have now gone to a denser and flatter weave, and it has reduced the affect of abrasion by a factor of three.
‘The real business end of the coating is on the inside and we’ve been able to do some major customisation there and also we have improved the Durable Water Repellency factors with new compounds and our latest fabrics withstand eight times as much washing.
‘A major benefit in the switch to our own fabrics has been on prices.
‘The cost factor, making full sets of offshore jackets and pants out of these branded fabrics, meant the prices we were having to set seemed outrageous to us. By developing our own fabrics we’ve been able to drive costs down 30-40 percent, without reducing quality.
‘Another benefit for the consumers in the move to our own customised fabric is we are free of the confusion factor, eg should I go for ‘this -Tex or that -Tex,’ all trying to look more technical, which is more waterproof. Confusion is not good for consumers; they need to understand which product suits their needs.
‘At Gill, we came up with the systems to classify with a simple dot fabric classification system, to detail the differences in the recommended uses for our product range:
1 Dot Onshore
2 Dot Inshore, coasta and dinghy sailing
3 Dot General offshore and coastal sailing
4 Dot Keelboat and offshore racing
5 Dot Ocean racing
'Now our retailers and consumers know and understand what category of sailing gear is on offer. It makes it easy to go down the technical clothing racks and select to right product range for their needs.’
Nick Gill was asked the question, ‘Where from here?’
‘We have very much stayed with technical gear, we see further development of lighter fabrics, stretch fabrics, cross over garments you can wear on the water, but look smart at the Club, or in town.
‘We see a lot of potential from intelligent fabrics; we see our strength is in our research and development of specialised fabrics and innovative design.
‘While we have followed our competitors having products made in China, we have retained and expanded our textile testing and our quality control. Nothing needs more testing than marine gear. You are not just walking in it, you are sitting in it you and you are getting fire-hosed. You only need to read reports from the Current Volvo race to see how extreme conditions can be.
‘Technical clothing can be so critically important. We work closely with serious racing sailors, we talk to them about the changes or improvements they need.
‘We then design our ranges to their exact specifications and when we have protot