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The Outdoor Clothing Innovating Family Firm!

Keela was founded on the East Coast of Scotland, the perfect place to innovate and test outdoor garments for the changeable British weather. They continue to provide UK-led garment designs. Their aim is to provide quality outdoor clothing packed with innovation and technology, and after over 25 years they continue to enhance their reputation based on these principles.

Paul Andrews caught up with Sam Fernando, Sales Director and second generation family member involved in the business to find out more.

When was the business founded?

The business was founded in 1979 with Ardmel; the Keela brand came later in 1980. At that time there were 3 directors, including my father.

What does it do?

Ardmel Specialist Engineering innovates, develops and manufactures machines and consumables for the clothing, electronics and motorcar industry. They are best known for the tape sealing machine and ultrasonics, for which Ardmel won a Queen’s Award for Innovation.

Keela is the Outdoor brand. We manufacture technical outdoor clothing for the outdoor professional – Mountain Rescue, ambulance, police etc, and for the amateur outdoor enthusiast whether that’s a runner, dog walker or mountaineer.

Tell me a little about the history of the business?

Rube, my father, developed the first ever tape sealing machine and this is what really kickstarted the business. The tie-in with manufacturing of clothing followed from this with Rube’s knowledge of sewing production. In the eighties, we could see the writing on the wall in the way business was changing, with a handshake no longer meaning anything. It was painful to see so many brands moving out of the UK, typically to China. Therefore, we went our own route with the Keela brand.

In the 1990s, Keela’s Research and Development team began working on the knottiest problem in outdoor gear design: how to manage inner condensation in wet and cold conditions. The result is System Dual Protection (SDP), a pioneering double layer fabric system that offers game-changing breathability. Its ground-breaking performance netted us a second Queen’s Award for Innovation. We have continued to innovate, develop, and grow from there.

What generation are you and what are your first memories of the family business?

I am the second generation. Much of my childhood recollections are of going to work with my father at weekends. Often, he would give us wee jobs to do, for example we would earn 20p for sweeping the floors. My mum (who was a trained midwife also played a large part in the company) and I have lots of memories of our home filled with boxes of garments. She was always quality checking the inventories or doing some other small tasks at home when the factory was very busy.

Are there any other family members working in the business?

Yes my brother, Ruwan, is the Operations Director and oversees the organisation as a whole. He set up the factory in Sri Lanka in the nineties, shortly after returning to the UK with his wife, Kate. My younger brother, Harry, has recently joined the engineering section. Arlene Kidd is also a Director and is family to us also. In Sri Lanka, my aunt and cousin also play pivotal roles.

How important was the business in your life as you grew up?

It was an integral part of our lives. When you have your own business, it invariably overlaps into family life. Holidays and weekends must be balanced with business and in the early days my father worked incredibly long hours, frequently travelling abroad. He would take us into work with him at the weekends and, of course, in any crisis, the whole family would help out. Even now, it’s never a 9-5 job and you often find yourself juggling personal commitments with the business requirements.

What was your journey into the family business and what do you do now?

Initially I was very against joining the business. After university I ventured down to Leicester for a new career and in between jobs I joined the firm as a temp sales rep in Nottingham. I absolutely loved it, driving all over the country for more than 7 years, living a fantastic life. But then a crisis arose at the factory and I came back to help, and have been here ever since, working my way up within the company. I am now the Sales Director, but as any other SME leader will recognise, you never do one specific job. The nice thing about a family business is that everyone does help out.

What values are important to the family and the business?

A can-do positive attitude, enthusiasm, drive, and the ability to think outside the box. A quirky sense of humour is probably helpful too.

Do you build the family ownership into the marketing and brand narrative and if so, how?

No, not really. My father came to Scotland from what was then Ceylon in the 1960’s with Singers’ sewing machines. He met my mother, fell in love, and settled down here. At the time, the Sri Lankan background was not always viewed favourably. We are quite a private family so it’s a bit alien to us to talk about our family heritage.

What do you think makes working in a family business special?

There’s a bond and you know that, no matter what, your family will always have your back through thick and thin.

Are there any disadvantages associated with working in a family business?

Ha ha of course! My father’s singing for one! On a serious level though, there are of course positives and negatives. Certainly, being in the family business has kept the family closer. Without this I may well have been down south and only seeing family for special events and holidays.

The downside is that it can, on occasion, put strain on relationships both inside and outside the family. It’s important but often difficult to separate business and personal life.

Have you taken any particular steps in terms of governance to help protect the business for the future?

That’s an interesting question and I feel most family businesses would probably say it’s often something that is pushed to the side to look at for another day. What we have worked hard at is putting in place the right foundations – the right team is critical with good systems and processes.

Is there a next generation in the wings?

I think, if you asked them, you’d get a resounding ‘No!’ from the next generation right now. One of my nieces has joined the Navy and I am immensely proud of her decision. But who knows what will happen in the future? Some are still in nappies!

What advice would you give to anyone in the next generation considering joining their family firm?

Try your hand at something else first. It will give you a good grounding and if things don’t work out you will have more confidence to walk away.

If you could talk to your younger self before you joined the business, what would you say?

Buy shares in Apple! Realistically I think you learn by experience, and even when things go wrong you must learn to stand up, dust yourself off and keep going. So my advice to myself would all be on a personal level – look after your back, don’t neglect your social life and always take a holiday.

If you could sum up the family business in three words, what would they be?

Pretty damn awesome.

You can find out more about Keela Outdoors here


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