Richard Shearer is the owner and Managing Director of QP Sport, having bought the business in 2005. Used and endorsed by athletes, sporting governing bodies and Olympians globally, QP Sport is the world’s only specialist manufacturer and designer of protective guards for martial arts, fencing, and other sports.
Location: New Plymouth
Business Type: Sports Protective Wear
Founded: 1975 (Richard bought the business in 2005)
Number of employees: Six
Current Business Situation: Serious Covid downturn but recent positive revenue recovery
Relationship with The Icehouse: Owner Manager Programme Alumni
Tell us about yourself and why you decided to become an entrepreneur?
I bought QP Sport after selling Free Parking, a domain registration and web hosting site (which I co-owned with a business partner) in 2005 – so I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak.
Being an entrepreneur is more a state of mind. Entrepreneurs are the kind of people who want to do things differently or do something on their own, and continually question everything and ask ‘Why is that like that?’ and ‘Can this be better?’ And I fit into that category!
Why did you choose your type of business?
I was aware of QP Sport because it’s a well-known New Plymouth business, and it’s where I’m from. It’s an unusual and niche offering, with a focus on export – 95% of our customer base is international – and that appealed to me. I also liked the fact that it was something I didn't know anything about and was a bit of a blank canvas – ‘How much more could we find in this business?’ – which takes us back to that entrepreneurial state of thinking!
How does 2021 look for you compared to 2020?
Pre-Covid-19 we were three times up in numbers on when we acquired the business but it’s literally been a nightmare. We were down by more than three-quarters of where we should have been during the height of lockdown.
It’s quite hard to see this baby that you've grown for years suddenly get smacked. You certainly learn about yourself and your business during Covid-19. None of us saw it coming and didn't quite grasp the depth of the effects it would have.
We have a team of six and, with the wage subsidy, were able to keep them on while it was available. My team are incredibly loyal and weren't happy about being paid for work they weren’t doing, so they wanted to work more on an as-required basis. I actually increased their hourly rates as we are profitable when we are working and this is a model we’re still following at the moment.
We had just enough business to keep things going; to build-up stock, do some maintenance and training, tidy up some of our IP, so it was very much a stage-by-stage process. We've also got new products that we've developed that have had to be put on ice and that means waiting for the markets to be more predictable before we launch.
What are currently your biggest challenges?
We're involved in contact sports and heavily reliant on international markets, which means that during lockdown most of the people who use our products couldn't compete in their sports, use the gyms, or go to their classes to practice.
We’ve also had to manage this unpredictability in other ways because certain cities and countries are coming out of lockdown at different times, so we have all these variables to consider. It’s not as if we can just get back to ‘business-as-usual’ in one great moment.
The business has bounced back to around halfway of where we were pre-Covid. We have very strong brand partners in Europe and we don't sell direct to consumer, so we’ve worked hard on opening our direct to consumer channel in the US. It’s a work in progress but we’re seeing growth there of about 300%, which is very encouraging.
What kind of support have you received from The Icehouse and are you looking to keep working with them?
I’d known about The Icehouse since my Free Parking days and, when you're involved in a high-growth, fast-paced business, The Icehouse is always on your radar. I've also been involved with a community radio station here in Taranaki, where I actually run a business show, and I'd interviewed Liz Wotherspoon (Chief Executive of Growth) and Andy Hamilton (former Icehouse CEO) a number of times.
Entrepreneurs are often flying by the seat of their pants, and don't have a lot of textbook-type experience behind them, so I thought, ‘Now is the time to do the Owner Manager Programme’. Firstly, I just wanted to check that what I was doing was solid, and make improvements where I can, but also I wanted to make sure I was using best-practice across all parts of the business.
How have things changed since working with The Icehouse?
I did OMP 45 and it more than met my expectations. It was a privilege to be able to do it. The quality of the facilitators was excellent. I really enjoyed the Knowing Your Numbers sessions. It’s very reassuring to have that financial literacy in your skillset. I also enjoyed the parts that took a really deep-dive into your own business.
Presenting a business plan to the facilitators can be very daunting but I felt quite proud of what I was able to present. You go back to your team and make recommendations and implement ideas on your growth plan and so on, but in a small six-person business I am the team!
Moreover, OMP has given me the confidence that I had been doing okay. I was a bit of a ‘senior citizen’ in my cohort! Running a small to medium business, like I've been involved with now and in the past, can be quite lonely, so to see the younger members of the cohort grow was wonderful. We have the closest bonds, in a business sense. We can bump into each other anywhere, and we'll be straight into the guts of the OMP experience; ‘Did that project you were working on happen?’, ‘Did you fix up their issue with the lease?’. Straight into the nitty-gritty.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are struggling/looking for help?
I’m a ‘determined optimist’. By that I mean I don’t see OMP as something for somebody who's struggling, I see it as for someone who wants to excel and exceed. OMP gives them every chance to do that.
Entrepreneurs have got reasonably open minds. We are all very aware that the next thing is something that we don't yet know about, it's our kind of job to try and put ourselves in those positions.
It’s a big investment in your own business and your future, so it's the best thing you can possibly do if you’re a small to medium-sized business. You end up working on your business and not in the business, and you can’t really put a price on the benefits of that.
I connect totally with the original ethos of the founding of Icehouse that nurturing NZ SME’s in a directly relevant way was a breakthrough.
It’s quite interesting because as soon as you start talking to other business owners in New Zealand, you can almost pick the ones that have worked with The Icehouse. What they say resonates and connects, and you know they’re good and, invariably, you soon find out that they did OMP! It’s not a coincidence.
Follow the link for more information on QP Sport and its range of protective products and sports services.