Rob Lawrence’s decision to set up his own climbing centre, Boulders, was decided in an instant driving over the Severn Bridge one night. However, it was to take him through some extremely challenging periods, at times as perilous and arduous as some of the climbing routes he’d encountered. Here, he shares the remarkable learning curve he went on – setting up his own business, surviving the economic downturn and how his time in the Army shaped his next, most important mission.
Rob says: “Climbing had always been my passion and I originally left the Army with the intention of being a mountain guide. But driving back from Bristol Climbing Centre one night, I made up my mind up I was going set up my own climbing centre.” He adds: “Doubt didn’t enter my mind then. Looking back, I had a lot of confidence, but I was naïve.”
It was this confidence though, that helped lift this dream out of his head and into reality.
“That night I put together a mind map and next day got some books out of the library to learn about business plans. Then I took myself to night school to learn about finances.”
He laughs as he recalls: “I don’t even think I knew what VAT was. The Army looks after you very well, so as a 26 year old I had no knowledge of its importance.”
Ultimately, Rob did not allow his lack of knowledge in a particular area to put him off trying. On reflection, Rob attributes some of this attitude to his experiences in the Army.
Rob reflects: “As an officer, you’re not necessarily an ‘expert’ in anything, rather a conduit between experts. You’re used to listening to lots of advice and assimilating information.” He adds: “As an example, when I needed to get the best out of machine guns, I’d go and speak to the machinegun section commander. At Boulders, when I needed to get to grips with employment law, I spoke to an employment lawyer.” However, setting up his own business was, admittedly, a ‘lot more stressful’ than his time serving.
Rob opened Boulders’ doors to the public in Cardiff, in August 2007 – within a few months, the economic crash came. Recreational activities are often one of the first things families cut back on in their disposable income, so the business suffered greatly. Rob says: “We had employers on fixed contracts and massive overheads in our warehouse.”
He adds: “The first three years were the most horrendous of my life and there were times when some pretty dark thoughts jumped into my mind as the only way out. I genuinely don’t know how I got through it.”
Rob did get through it though, one step at a time. He and his business partner worked together to think of more innovative ways to keep the revenue coming in by broadening the appeal – one such initiative was to introduce more structured kids’ classes to help retain their custom and get secondary spend from their parents.
“We had to drive the initial footfall and get everyone excited then ensure we maintained this excitement.” He adds: “It was always our intention to do something good for the community as well as hopefully make a successful business. I think that original goal helped us through.”
Now Boulders has 14 full-time staff, 30 climbing instructors and for the past two years has made good profits. One of its investors also went on to win UK Investor of the year.
While Rob was still Managing Director of Boulders he sat on the Council of the South Wales Chamber of Commerce and then joined the Sport Wales Advisory Group – roles it is unlikely he would have been accepted for, were it not for his business expertise.
Rob is now on a ‘brand new learning curve’ working in business development in a travel media and technology company, where he is developing a product that utilises public sector partnerships to access and sell to their private sector, commercial partners.
His advice to service leavers setting up their own business is: “Don’t be scared of the outside world – I believe the skills I gained in the Army helped shape my personality and ensure I was head and shoulders above my peers in the civilian world, in terms of experiences.”
He adds: “When I joined the Army I wasn’t a good listener. I learnt quickly that it’s essential to listen – bringing together the collective experiences of a group, to drive a solution, is the best skill the Army taught me.”