The mystery queen of Kathmandu

By Rebecca Macfie

Jan Cameron, the cashed-up founder of outdoor clothing and equipment brand Kathmandu, presents a very private paradox.

On the one hand she is intensely - almost obsessively - reclusive, on the other she is the architect of one of New Zealand's most pervasive mass-market consumer brands.

She's New Zealand's most successful businesswoman, yet has eschewed any association with mainstream business networks.

She's reputed to be a hard-headed, aggressive operator in her commercial dealings, yet retains a legion of loyal advisers, friends and associates who resolutely guard her privacy.

She's a savvy, entrepreneurial woman who stormed into the insular, elitist, male-dominated outdoor-equipment market in the 1970s and revolutionised it with a business model built on boutique retailing, sharp marketing and mass discounting.

This week, Cameron capped off what has been a stellar business performance spanning three decades with the sale of Kathmandu to a consortium involving two private equity funds, Goldman Sachs JB Were and Quadrant Private Equity.

The leveraged buyout values the company at $275 million, leaving Cameron with 49 per cent, a seat on the board and some $230 million in cash.

This figure may seem high but is likely under a leveraged buyout.

On the basis that most leveraged buyouts are two-thirds debt to one-third equity, the cash cost to Cameron of buying back her 49 per cent is about $45 million, leaving her with the $230 million.

But even in the glare of a multi-million-dollar buyout, 53-year-old Cameron remains invisible. True to her past form, she has refused to be interviewed, which only heightens the public interest in this faceless woman, whose fleece jackets and baggy pants hang in almost every New Zealander's wardrobe.

There are few insights into why she is so acutely averse to the limelight but one former business associate said: "She's comfortable in her own skin and doesn't really give a toss."

Former business partner John Pawson suggests her bid for privacy is part of a sense of intrigue that she has actively cultivated. "She wants to be the mystery person in the background."

Uncharacteristically, Cameron entered Kathmandu in the 2001 Unlimited Deloitte Fast 50 survey, ranking 18th and propelling her and the company into the headlines. Since then, she's dodged the survey after apparently being surprised at the level of attention it attracted.

Among the cadre of close associates who stalwartly defend Cameron's privacy is her accountant, Bruce Irvine of Deloitte in Christchurch, who has advised her for the past 15 years and took a seat on the Kathmandu board last June.

Although he wouldn't be interviewed about Cameron, he made allusions to Jim Collins' management book, Good to Great, which characterises great leaders by humility and a tendency to put the company ahead of themselves.

"I would say both those things are true about Jan ... I have built up a huge amount of respect for her."

Pawson, Cameron's business partner for 14 years until they parted company in 1994, paints a different picture. Rather than humility and selflessness, he describes her as "driven, entrepreneurial and [she looked] after number one ... She's very aggressive, astute and hard-nosed."

Pawson linked up with Cameron in the early 1980s, after she had already been operating in the outdoor equipment retail market for several years. Cameron had moved from her home town of Melbourne to Christchurch in the early 70s, where she launched the first Alp Sports store, the first shop of its type to offer modern, specialised tramping and mountaineering gear.

IN THE early 1980s, Cameron and Pawson opened jointly owned stores in Wellington, Auckland and Queenstown, cementing the Alp Sports' name as the pioneer in the outdoor-equipment retail segment.

In 1987, they sold to the Development Finance Corp for about $2.5 million. DFC already owned the Great Outdoors brand of equipment and the plan was to hook the two businesses together as a vertically integrated operation. Instead, DFC collapsed and Alp Sports was sold to Geoff Gabites.

Gabites in turn - by his own admission - "made a mess of things" and the company went into receivership, opening the way for Cameron and Pawson to re-enter the market.

After the DFC sale in 1987, the pair headed to Melbourne and set up an outdoor-equipment shop in Hardware St under the name Kathmandu.

They were later joined in partnership by Bernard Wicht, Cameron's ex-husband, a climber and the owner of outdoor gear manufacturer Alpine Accoutrements, which made Gortex, fleece and thermal clothing under the Kathmandu label.

When Alp Sports went into receivership in 1991 they bought the company back from the receivers for, according to Pawson, the price of the stock minus 15 per cent.

The stock was liquidated and the stores rebranded Kathmandu.

By then the business model was well established - product was designed by Kathmandu, sourced either directly from Asia or manufactured by Wicht's operation, and sold only through the company's stores. Mass discounting was also pioneered at this time, with Kathmandu's 50 per cent sales drawing huge crowds.

Wayne Martin, who had worked for Cameron in the early Alp Sports days and by the early 90s was involved in outdoor retailer Bivouac, recalls the remarkable scenes of shoppers lining the pavement outside Kathmandu stores in the early years of the sales. "[Cameron] discovered the formula of 50 per cent off. At that time, a 15 or 20 per cent discount used to look great. But she realised people liked big numbers and it was very successful.

"People were just bringing armfuls of stuff to the counter and they were taking money from them. In the outdoor industry, we weren't used to that sort of turnover."

Gabites, whose roots in the outdoor retail industry also go back to the 1970s, credits Cameron with revolutionising the industry when she launched Alp Sports.

"She came into the industry and turned it on its head. She grabbed a bunch of middle-aged men by the balls and shook. She dragged manufacturing and design into the real world.

"Back in the 70s, if you were into the outdoors, you would be characterised by a prickly bushshirt, black oilskin Japara parka, a mountain mule pack and a Fairydown 20 Below sleeping bag. Jan basically came in and made all the things that make the outdoors comfortable available in New Zealand. She spearheaded the development of the small, specialised outdoor retailer, because until then all that gear was only available down the back of a sports store and sold by someone who was last year's rugby hero.

"She realised everyone else was hung up with ego and image and an undue focus on the technical side of the gear, but she could see the real growth was going to be in clothing the masses," he said.

Although the likes of Martin and Gabites tend to credit Cameron with the Kathmandu phenomenon, the business model was perfected while Pawson and Wicht were equal partners in the business. Pawson describes the three-way partnership as highly complementary and said the years he was involved were exciting.

"We had a good strategy and good product, and that strategy and product is still there today."

But disputes began flaring up between him and Cameron, the pressure of managing the fast-growing business was intense and, by 1994, he wanted out. Cameron bought his share and a few months later Wicht also exited, leaving Cameron as sole shareholder.

Pawson describes Cameron as a "trader of the first order - she'll buy and sell anything". She took time out from Kathmandu in the late 1980s when the business was getting established in Melbourne and set up a company called Jacaranda Trading which dealt, among other things, in Persian rugs, Chinese slate and word products.

She also loved to travel and Pawson said she would always stock up on duty-free cigarettes and on-sell them for a profit.

"She'd never miss an opportunity to make a dollar."

MARTIN also observed this instinct for deal-making when, in the early years of Bivouac, it used to team up with Kathmandu to import day packs from Asia. "She was a consummate business woman. A lot of people in the outdoor industry were climbers who just wanted to do something they really enjoyed. Jan bought some business nous to it."

Martin said some in the industry didn't like Cameron's way of operating. "You wouldn't do a deal on a handshake with Jan. You would make sure it was written down and signed. If it wasn't signed it wasn't a deal to her. The industry wasn't used to that.

"She was always a really hard negotiator. If you had an agreement with Jan, you'd always worry that you hadn't negotiated hard enough."

Clark Perkins, head of merchant banking with Goldman Sachs JB Were, who has been in negotiations with Cameron for seven months over the Kathmandu buyout, says the private equity partners in the deal are "delighted". He is aware, however, another bidder - understood by the Herald to be Deutsche Bank and Pacific Equity Partners - was on the scene in the final stages of negotiations. Like Cameron's other present business associates, he refuses to talk about her other than to say she is clever and astute.

Plans are afoot for expansion of the brand in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, adding to the 46 stores already in operation, and Perkins says they're looking forward to working with Cameron around the board table.

In characteristic Cameron style, however, there's a hint of mystery at the fringes of the deal. In late March, three weeks before the Kathmandu sale was announced, Alp Sports - still owned by Cameron - bought Fairydown's outdoor-equipment business, which includes the Great Outdoors label in New Zealand. The Fairydown business isn't included in the deal with Goldman Sachs and Quadrant.

There's intrigue as to what Cameron plans to do with the brand. But as she has shown over the past 30 years, she's a master at spotting an opportunity to make a buck.

 

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