The luxury British gunmakers have been in the business for over 180 years and are still innovating - with their eye on a younger clientele. Managing director Daryl Greatrex talks to Jodi Bartle about the company's heritage and plans.
Luxury meets guns
If the word luxury is defined by heritage, rarified experience, bespoke craftsmanship, authenticity and maybe a couple of Royal Warrants thrown in for good measure, then British gunmakers Holland & Holland fit the bill. Founded in 1835 by successful tobacconist and “extremely good shot” Harris Holland, who came to gun-making as an end user of the product rather than through traditional apprenticeship routes, the business was later taken on by his nephew Henry to become Holland & Holland, competing and holding its own against great and good British gunmakers. Daryl Greatrex, MD for the brand, notes that the company’s inception coincided with a golden era for the trade, bolstered by a stalwart British Empire which was sending intrepid Brits out all over the world and taking with them a love of shooting and hunting.
The perfect ambassador
Mr Greatrex himself is a perfect ambassador for his company, dressed in the Holland & Holland city-to-country tweed signature style and with an outdoorsy complexion of someone who lives the lifestyle the brand sells to its well-heeled clientele. But he began at the bottom - attempting to inveigle himself into the shooting world as a young man in 1979, he applied to various gun-making companies at the time to become a shooting instructor. Holland & Holland did eventually take him on but as a quaintly titled ‘errand boy’ - a job he took “because once you are in, you are in”; and he rose the ranks to become MD of the entire operation.
Over the years, the company was bought out and slowly diversified from pure gun-making into much more of a lifestyle brand, incorporating a clothing line, accessories, books, travel, collaborations with the likes of Range Rover and now, one-offs such as an experiential dining foray which include shooting, preparing and eating game, all crowned by a stellar cast of Michelin-starred chefs. The flagship store in Bruton Street boasts a gunroom filled with gleaming handcrafted antique rifles, while the brand owns a working shooting range in Northwood and a 100 year old purpose-built factory in Kensal Rise which is where the guns are still made and repaired.
The legal operation is outsourced to the parent company, and Greatrex is in regular contact with the in-house team there. “The legal side of our business is significant because we are heavily regulated. We discuss issues with them such as our involvement in a number of brand partnerships after we get the ball rolling - and they offer us a legal backup which is a great source of support.”
With gun ownership often generating political controversy, Mr Greatrex is at pains to differentiate the clientele buying guns from his business.He says that at the Holland & Holland level, the market is at the “very top end of the shooting spectrum, where some of that political noise tends to filter out. We advocate sensible gun ownership as everyone should, taking a responsible view while understanding that there’s an emotional response around guns. We are sensitive to this as is our whole shooting community and our loyal clients, and we are behind initiatives such as conservation and sustainability.”
One element of the brand’s diversification into a broader offering has been a move into a more female-oriented and youthful space, best exemplified by its clothing line designed by Stella Tennant and Isabella Cawdor. Both well-known in the fashion industry (Tennant has been modelling for 25 years while Cawdor is a former Vogue editor and mother of Brit model Jean Campbell), the pairing of Tennant and Cawdor is a brilliant example of the way a luxury brand can offer a modern, refined sensibility to entice new customers while never alienating its core market. The clothes are essentially non-fashion, but crafted from luxurious fabrics and skins with a nod to ease of wear for both city and country and the campaign, set in Mongolia and which adorns the walls of the Bruton Street store, is at once aspirational and exotic.
Greatrex admits that the company has been conscious of the need to attract a younger audience. “Things have changed over clothing side, because the young professional people who enjoy shooting are not necessarily looking for the same thing as their parents did. Our strategy has changed; we are becoming more mobile, getting out and about and using social media to convey that message to people.” The message primarily being that Holland & Holland is now about adventure; capitalising on a renewed desire for British-made things and a relook at the importance of craftsmanship.
Another shift in the Holland & Holland mood is a move to return to gun-making apprenticeships. Historically, gun-making was a trade where you would start as an apprentice for a five year training porgramme, but Greater says that that hasn't been the case for a number of years. “It became extremely expensive and difficult to retain young people whose outlook had changed, because after the ’60’s and ’70's people got a decent salary working in less skilled jobs and didn't need to spend time learning a proper profession. Now we are moving back to a time where people are wanting to get involved in trades and so we are re-establishing the apprenticeship programme.” In September a small number of apprentices will begin training “on the bench” with experienced gun-makers who have spent their careers in the factory.
In a company with 90-odd employees, Greatrex says there is always plenty to keep him awake. Brexit has not been top of mind as he says the Holland & Holland client base “is a diverse one and that the company’s eggs are in a large basket. America is our biggest market, but we’ve had a presence in Europe, Scandinavia, up until recently Russia, and historically in India. We’ve been very proactive in going out to different parts of the world and cultivating markets and so have a small number of clients in lots of different countries but always working with a small volume.” The Bruton Street store runs the operation - Greatrex says he prefers to keep the base here which allows a very personal relationship with clients and which means they can attend to issues themselves.
Form and function
“Our guys know our guns and how they work. We are still using guns made 90 years ago - they are fully serviceable although the components are slightly different than those in the modern guns. Our promise today is of form and function. The most important part of what we do, alongside making something that is beautiful, is that when client pulls the trigger it does what it says it will do.”