How a founder takes up the challenge of staying ethical and profitable
Life changing events played a big part in the development of David Gordon as an entrepreneur.
Four years ago he took a step back from the day-to-day running of his business, Bamboo Clothing, which he had transformed into an international brand based in the South West of England. He has promoted members of his management team to general manager, plant liaison and marketing positions.
The catalyst for change was his wife’s diagnosis of terminal cancer – she passed away in January 2020.
Gordon, 53, remains president of the company, but stepping down from leading much of day-to-day decision-making has benefited his personal life and allowed the company to grow faster. âRetail is retail. I now have better people than me to do the job of a general manager and deal with suppliers.
He started the business from his garage in 2006, selling bamboo T-shirts. The idea came to him during a conversation about sustainable materials he had on an adventure trip through Greenland. Since then, its bamboo clothing line, under the BAM brand, has expanded into fitness and outdoor activities, as well as casual wear.
Gordon’s leadership challenge has always been to keep the business both economically and environmentally sustainable. He says he is motivated by the need to develop a sustainable business model, while explaining the superior qualities of bamboo.
Gordon, now the company’s president, doesn’t like to be labeled as “green.” It’s “such a bland phrase and it frustrates me because greenwashing is everywhere now,” he says, while pouring tea into the kitchen of his home, a houseboat on the Thames. âBamboo is just a premium product and everyone who wears it gets it,â he adds.
Gordon wears an old hoodie and jeans and likes to keep his clothes long. He says the new BAM clothing lines are designed to have a zero carbon footprint, assuming they are kept for at least 50 washes.
The company has become âclimate positiveâ by measuring and offsetting its carbon footprint, both by purchasing bamboo and by using its products by customers. Its packaging is plastic-free.
Gordon’s aversion to being labeled as green dates back to when he first founded the company. âWhen we started out, we implicitly understood that the green option involved some kind of compromise,â he says. âI thought if this business was to operate the way I wanted it to, it had to stand on its own and the products were selling on their own merits. “
BAM clothing, sold by catalog and online, has experienced a good pandemic. Sales had grown 28% in the previous three years, but jumped 43% in the 12 months leading up to January of this year, according to the company’s latest accounts. The company is expected to match that performance in 2021, according to Gordon.
Lockdown restrictions have prevented his team from visiting their raw material suppliers in China and factories there and in Turkey and making meetings virtual instead.
This had an environmental benefit and also helped keep operating costs under control, as the price of raw materials rose by around 5%, largely due to supply chains disrupted by the pandemic.
Online sales in the year ending January 2021 reached Â£ 16.3million, up from Â£ 11.4million the previous year, helping to push pre-tax profits to 2.8million sterling against 701,000 pounds a year earlier.
âWhat this business boils down to is sales,â says Gordon. âOur clientele, older and more affluent, proved to be more resistant to these [price] pressures. Typical BAM clients are between the ages of 40 and 55, âsocially and environmentally sound professionals,â says Gordon.
The clothes are made in four factories in Turkey and one in China, which the company has each used for five to ten years. It is important to maintain long term relationships with a small group of suppliers. âYou know a good factory when you walk in the door and there is no mess on the floor. Its Chinese manufacturer only works with British mid-market brands. âWe’re a perfect match,â adds Gordon.
âIf you have a good relationship with someone who runs a good factory, things are better,â he says. “We have never had a problem with supplying these factories.”
One of the ways he has maintained his relationship is to ensure that Bamboo Clothing pays its suppliers promptly. âI literally pay the next day when I have a lot of money in the spring. It’s not only good ethics to have an honest relationship, but it means if you have a problem you can call them and find some flexibility in the terms.
Three questions for David Gordon
Who is your leadership hero?
It must be Ernest Shackleton. I am passionate about polar exploration and wish I had been led by it. He truly saw himself as someone who served his men.
What was your first lesson in leadership?
When I started in the 1990s, one of the great things was that people weren’t barking orders at staff anymore. What people needed to learn back then, and something that I practiced, is that the carrot is much better, more productive, and nicer than the stick.
What would you do if you hadn’t started BAM?
Maybe an adventurer / expedition guide, but more likely another goal-driven business.
I ask him if transporting raw materials around the world is the most environmentally friendly way to make clothes. âIt’s better than the alternatives,â says Gordon. Over the past two years, 10% of Bamboo Clothing’s profits have been spent on carbon offsetting and funding initiatives to tackle climate issues.
This fall, Gordon created an employee share ownership plan for all 60 Bamboo Clothing employees by selling 10 percent of its stake.
“I would not exclude [selling] a higher percentage on the program, but I don’t have any John Lewis plans, âhe said, referring to the British retailer set up as an employee-owned business. âConceptually I like this model, but I’m not at this stage myself. “
Gordon adds that the stock sale, which earned him “the best part of Â£ 2million”, was both a method of increasing employee engagement and a way for him to create financial security, after experiencing business failures in the past.
At 25, he created his first company, TSF Clothing, which prints T-shirts, mainly to finance his passion for pole vault. He had started the sport as a physical education student at Loughborough University with the goal of becoming an international athlete.
Requests for training proved to be an unnecessary distraction, and he ended up selling the business to an employee for a nominal fee after several years of losses. âPart of me is this broke 37-year-old man, so I wanted some money for security,â Gordon says.
Bamboo Clothing was launched, starting with an initial investment of Â£ 20,000 each from one of Gordon’s cousins ââand a friend. He hasn’t looked for capital from private equity, a move he says ensures the company doesn’t let itself be guided by short-term growth plans. It also gives it the freedom to stick to its guiding principles of business ethics.
Gordon even achieved his initial goal of becoming a world-beating athlete. Four years ago, at 49, he won the pole vault in the 45 to 50 category at the World Masters Games in Auckland.
He realized that his greatest passion is to be an entrepreneur. âI probably would have ended up in business no matter what I did,â he says.