Mark Neale

Push at doors that turn out to be half-open, and don’t bang your head on doors that are closed

HOF Entrepreneurs Mark Neale 1920X1080

Published: 12/04/2024

Mark Neale is founder of the outdoor retail giant Mountain Warehouse. An entrepreneur in the classic sense, Mark founded Mountain Warehouse in 1997 which has since expanded to over 300 stores worldwide. The retail powerhouse was actually his fourth attempt starting a business, and is still going strong after more than 25 years.

The retail entrepreneur talks about his upbringing in South Wales, contending with the internet boom and the pandemic, and his recipe for success in business.

That’s part of the general idea of the business, trying things all the time. It would be unreasonable to expect everything to work.’’
HOF Entrepreneurs Mark Neale 1920X1080

How it started

After studying and gaining a Physics degree at Oxford university, Mark didn’t really know what he wanted to do thereafter. He always had aspirations to set up a business. Growing up in South Wales, he hailed from a commercial background with his father a sales director and his mother working in an office.

After graduating, he initially spent 5 years working as a management consultant.  When he started his first venture he was living in a shared house in South London with no commitments apart from paying the rent each month: ‘’I didn’t have a wife, a child, a Volvo, or even a dog. I tried various things until one of them worked. I started out selling rollerblades for a while back in 1994, expanding to five shops before selling the business for a small amount of money.’’

He then followed this by setting up a toy shop, as well as a greeting card shop, before finding success with Mountain Warehouse, capitalising on the zeitgeist of people wanting to spend more time outdoors, be healthy and connect with nature. Instead of targeting the twenty-somethings market who live in London and go to Val-d'Isère at the weekend, they honed their focus on the everyday outdoor customer – middle-aged, middle-class dog owners.

’We’ve gone full-square for what we believed was a bigger market. We’re in the Lake District, Skipton, Inverness, Barnstable, Truro, Hereford. A host of market towns and county towns, where people take their kids walking on the weekends with the dog. That has worked well for us.’’
HOF Entrepreneurs Mark Neale 1920X1080

The early years were really challenging. There was a moment when Mark had to work out which suppliers to pay day by day. All of his friends had got “proper” jobs at blue-chip firms and were climbing up the career ladder whilst Mountain Warehouse was still finding its feet amidst a relatively unknown, untapped market space: ‘’Building a business that survives takes a lot of perseverance.’’

Facing challenges

Launching in 1997 came at a time before the dot-com bubble. Mountain Warehouse didn’t have a website and started out by selling competitor brands rather than their own branded products. After 5-6 years, Mark decided to switch things up, turning the company’s attention and resources to their own products and the internet, gaining an advantage by really understanding the customer and their needs. He was travelling to China six times a year, establishing a blueprint for the brand. Mark says: ‘’I now visit about 100 shops a year and I talk to our colleagues in the stores to find out what the customers are saying. You get a lot of feedback as to what products we’re missing, ideas for expansion, or what’s working or not working.’’

The range of products Mountain Warehouse offered also changed, starting out with hiking and walking equipment, before expanding to ski-wear, beach attire, casual travel clothes and a range of activewear for running and gym-goers.

‘’That’s part of the general idea of the business. Try things all the time. It would be unreasonable to expect everything to work. Push at doors that turn out to be half-open, and don’t bang your head on doors that are closed.’’

Now 30% of sales come from online whilst internationally, 30% of the business lies outside of UK shores.

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic. Over 300 stores in nine countries, that Mark spent 20 years building up, were forced to close in the space of a couple of weeks with no real idea of how long for. “I remember saying to the team at the start that it was going to be the most extraordinary period in our careers, having to make lots of decisions very quickly with imperfect information, with no idea of the eventual outcome.  And all this concern for the business was happening whilst we were all also worried about our parents and our children and every other aspect of our lives. Mark says: ‘’We have now recovered from all of that, but for so long it was difficult to forecast when we were going to be open, and working out what was going to sell was incredibly tricky. When we first reopened, all our window displays were for Mother’s Day and we had summer stock in winter and winter stock in summer.’’

It took two years to get back onto relatively steady waters. However last year came the freight crisis with container rates rising through the roof. That generated a lot of pressure, but now the business is trading extremely well again with lots of opportunities in the pipeline.

Qualities to succeed

Our mantra is to make this season better than last season, and next season better than this season.  If you do that for long enough then the compound returns can be very material. 2023 has been a great year with big business in Canada and New Zealand, constant expansion in the UK, and the imminent opening of pilot stores in Australia. Mark’s passion and determination isn’t depleting anytime soon: ‘’I’m 56 and I don’t know what I’d do if I stepped down. I don’t play golf! It’s still challenging and interesting and there’s lots of stuff still to do.’’

Valuable advice

His advice to budding startups and entrepreneurs is just to start, and before you get too old.  He believes if he’d left it a couple of years, he’d have got way up the career ladder, had more personal commitments, and then it would have been far riskier starting his own venture.

Mark sums it up best: ‘’We don’t mind mistakes, as long as we learn from them and make it better next time.’’