Understated high achiever has cachet

R&R Sport owners (from left) Mat Woods, Paul Highton and Miff Macdairmid. Photo by Jane Dawber.
R&R Sport owners (from left) Mat Woods, Paul Highton and Miff Macdairmid. Photo by Jane Dawber.
R&R Sport is a classic Dunedin success story but one which, in typical southern fashion, flies below the radar. Business reporter Neal Wallace profiles the winner of the business skills retail category at the 2010 Otago Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards.

Seen recently by a mountaineer, the R&R Sport sticker on the side of a drum at the foot of Mt Everest was not a sign the Dunedin sporting retailer was about to take over the world, according to part-owner Paul Highton.

In typical unassuming Dunedin fashion, R&R Sport is conservative, considered and understated, so news a sticker had been found in the planet's ultimate adventure playground amused the owners but prompted a hasty rebuttal.

The winner of the Otago Daily Times-sponsored business skills retail category at the 2010 Westpac Otago Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards, R&R has grown from a second-hand sporting goods dealer in South Dunedin to a nine-store national retail chain selling high quality adventure sporting goods from its city head office.

Mr Highton, who owns the business with Mat Woods and Miff Macdiarmid, said it was a case of taking a model tested and proven successful in Dunedin's relatively small market to a national level.

That model was built around staff passionate about the outdoors and keen to assist others by sharing equipment knowledge and expertise.

"The outdoors is our religion and we want to get converts," Mr Highton joked.

Mr Woods said the store targeted not only champions but weekend warriors and those dabbling in a new activity such as multisport, and needing gear guidance.

Staff were encouraged to test new equipment to develop that knowledge so they could help customers.

"Everyone here is a gear freak," said Mr Woods.

"At lunch-time, people come here and look at the new toys, but staff here call that work."

He had just returned from a holiday testing new snow skis in North America.

Staff in the Nelson shop worked as bike mechanics for the Speight's Coast to Coast while others had a hand in helping prepare Richard Ussher to win the men's longest day, and the top two placegetters in the women's longest day, Sophie Hart and Elina Ussher, who also come from Nelson.

Adventure sport and outdoor activities have become mainstream activities attracting people of differing strengths, and the company has grown with that understanding.

Many sports were not cheap to enter, and Mr Woods said staff were aware a poorly prepared bike or skis could ruin an experience or result in injury.

The business sponsors leading sportspeople, including cyclist Greg Henderson, mountain-bikers Kashi Leuchs and Erin Green and multisport athlete Dougal Allan; and began doing so long before they reached the top of their sports.

But equally it has helped novices get a start, aware that often resulted in long-term relationships.

Miss Macdiarmid oversees sponsorship and said the company had 150 people on its books, from the elite to ambassadors, who, she said, were growing their sport.

"It is a demanding market, so we need to always be on our toes."

Local sponsorship was also important to keep up the firm's profile, and she said each store had a budget and was encouraged to sponsor community events, such as the recent Peninsula Challenge bike, walk and run on Otago Peninsula.

R&R Sport was established by Grant Vossler, in partnership with Darryl Tatom, who started Recycled Recreation in Hillside Rd.

The shop, as the name suggests, traded in recycled sporting goods.

Six months later, it moved to the building opposite the company's current Stuart St store, and with that came an ownership change which involved former high school physical education teacher and gym owner Dave Norris and Mr Highton joining Mr Tatom in buying out Mr Vossler.

Mr Highton was Dunedin-born and raised and after attending John McGlashan College was one of the first MBA graduates from the University of Otago.

His move to sporting goods retailing followed a conversation with Mr Tatom on the steps of the St Clair hot salt water pool, when Mr Highton was invited to help set up the new business.

That was in 1981 and Mr Highton was going to stay for six months, but he never left.

The men set up a national franchise chain of Recycled Recreation stores, but it was a complex structure which did not work as planned, and the stores were eventually taken over or closed.

Mr Norris was later bought out and Mr Tatom moved to run the Queenstown store, which resulted in Craig Wanty becoming a shareholder.

Mr Highton said that in the 1980s people were happy to buy used sporting gear, but that gradually changed.

It was also before big-box retailers started offering cheap sporting goods.

When that happened, R&R began to sell the world's leading brands in sporting goods.

Satisfied with the Dunedin business model, R&R bought a sports shop in Auckland in 1997 and rebranded it.

Mr Woods said the markets differed greatly.

Aucklanders had a different mindset to enjoying the outdoors, and it was difficult for a retailer to get a message across.

But it worked for R&R, and after two years it set up in Christchurch, and subsequently Hamilton, Nelson, Kaikoura, Queenstown, Wellington, and a second store in Christchurch.

Mat Woods joined the staff in 1993 as a commerce graduate from Otago University, filling in his time working while his wife completed her law degree.

He was originally a seasonal worker tuning skis, but after six months was offered the position of assistant store manager and in 1997 became a partner, buying out Mr Wanty who moved to Queenstown.

West Otago-raised Miff Macdairmid was studying physical education at the University of Otago and started working at the store in 1995.

She moved to Auckland to run the store in 1998 before travelling overseas for 20 months.

She then had a brief stint back in Auckland, and returned to Dunedin and a partnership in 2006.

Mr Highton said promoting staff from within the business was a conscious decision designed to preserve the retailer's culture.

Dunedin's business conservatism is still alive and well when the group discusses plans.

They have identified places to expand, but will only do so when they feel the time is right.

In the meantime, they continually work on their business model.

"We're more interested in quality stores than quantity," Mr Woods said.

They are also aware of the threat of online shopping, and while R&R has its own retail website, the staff believe physically going shopping can still be a fun and exciting experience.

R&R Sport
Head office Dunedin 

Stores: Dunedin, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson, Kaikoura, Queenstown, and Christchurch (2).
Staff: 135, reaching a peak of 150 during winter.
Owners: Paul Highton, Mat Woods and Miff Macdairmid.


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