Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Jason Mace, Founder of Gala Tent

PLANNING a millennium party gave Jason Mace a headache, but showed him that business could be fun. A marquee was needed for the celebration, to be held at the club run by his parents, but millennium fever meant they were in short supply.

“We were planning almost a year before and there was nothing available to rent,” he said. “Lots of people wanted to party at home.” Mace realised there was a gap in the market. “Why hire a marquee when you can buy one for less?”

In March 1999, with plenty of time to spare before the festivities, he founded Gala Tent in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. “The tents were off the shelf to start with. Perfecting the design and build came later, with feedback from the users,” he said. Today, Gala offers marquees and smaller gazebos at prices up to £1,099.

Customers have included David and Victoria Beckham, the tennis star Boris Becker, and Marco Pierre White, the chef. The business, with 30 staff, had sales of £4.6m in 2011 and profits of £1.2m. It expects revenues of £7m for last year and £1.4m profit.

Mace was born in Rotherham and attended Clifton comprehensive school with his older sister. He had a taste of entrepreneurship at a young age. “When I left school at 16 I had a short spell working with my dad who had set up a shot-blasting business.”

Three months after his 17th birthday, in 1988, he used the technique to launch a small company called WheelCare. “I’d charge between £20 and £40 to clean a set of spokes.” He also established another business to clean and refurbish telephone boxes for the council.

“Working for myself at an early age gave me respect for companies and managing directors. Business owners don’t get the credit they should, even though without them we have no economy,” he said.

At the age of 22, though, it was time to lend a hand with his parents’ new business. His father, who also worked as a lorry driver, and mother, a hairdresser, had bought a working men’s club in Hemingfield, near Barnsley.

Mace worked behind the bar and helped organise events. It was all hands to the pumps. “When the DJ didn’t turn up for a wedding we had organised, my dad told me to get on stage and do the job.”

It was Mace’s turn to ask for a favour when he started Gala Tent. He borrowed his father’s 4×4, loaded it with £2,000 worth of small marquees — bought on his own credit card — then began knocking on the doors of pubs and clubs. “I came back with no sales. The pub industry was struggling,” he said.

Penniless but determined, Mace advertised his “millennium marquees” in a local newspaper, hoping to attract householders who were preparing to throw parties of their own.

It wasn’t long before the phone started to ring. “I sold that stock and reinvested, reinvested, reinvested.” Mace soon saved £10,000 and opened a business account with HSBC. He has since switched banks four times, “to pitch for the best deals and save money”.

Six months after the company launched, he was struggling to source stock from British suppliers, so he turned to manufacturers in China.

With more goods to house and only a table in the club on which to design and assemble products, a proper workspace was needed.

Mace’s brother-in-law, Mark Thompson, made a personal investment of £10,000 for a 50% share. He is now the joint managing director. “Because of Mark’s investment we have never rented a property, we’ve always managed to buy,” said Mace, who holds the other 50%.

After a request from a family friend for next-day delivery, Mace agreed a contract with a courier service to make Gala the first national marquee mail-order company. The e-commerce site was created in 2000 and the marquees, plus equipment such as seating and lights, are also sold on eBay. Overseas trade accounts for about 10% of annual sales and is increasing.

In 2004, the family club was struggling, so he convinced his father to convert the premises into a warehouse for him. His parents then sold up and invested the £450,000 proceeds in Gala, which moved to larger premises in Sheffield.

In 2011, the business moved to a 53,000 sq ft warehouse and office unit in Wath-Upon-Dearne, near Rotherham, bought for £1.6m. With sales rising 11% in 2011 and 16% growth expected in 2012, the company is already looking to expand.

Growing can be scary, the boss admits: “We didn’t want to get any bigger at first, but expanding was a milestone for us.”

Mace, 41, lives 14 miles from the office in the village of Firbeck with his Norwegian girlfriend, Aina Yndestad, who is a vet. His advice to entrepreneurs is to conquer fear and doubt. “You could have the best idea in the world but unless you put it into action, it will stay an idea.”

Link to Sunday Times website

How I Made It Gala Tent

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