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Company profile: Opal Sports

August 2003
Family-run companies are rare today. Yet, one of the most prominent companies in the SA sporting industry only have family members in key positions. NICOL DU TOIT takes a look at what contributed to the success of Opal Sportswear

When the history of the South African sporting goods industry is written one day, the Prout/Vilas family name will feature prominently. The two generations have made an indelible mark — and in their own way personify the old and the new in the industry.

Herbie and Natalie Prout represent a bygone era. Anne and Doug Vilas, and Nigel and Robert Prout, are firmly planted in today’s Internet-driven chainstore-negotiating business environment — although their family-owned and managed business is rare today.

The Prout family’s relationship with the sports industry stretches back to 1946 when Herbie Prout left school to work in the sports department of Katz & Lurie in Johannesburg. To earn extra money, he also drove the lift at lunch times, and can still recall how embarrassed he felt when his richer mates from school saw him.

He was obviously a very dedicated and successful employee, because within two years he was offered the position of manager of the sports department.

Join father

Five years later Bill Knight of A & J offered him a job as representative for Slazenger. For the next ten years he traveled throughout sub-Saharan Africa on stints often lasting as long as six to eight weeks away from office and home.

In 1961 he joined Golfex, who then manufactured golf bags, and also had the agencies for Arnold Palmer, John Letters and Citation. In 1968 they also got the agency for Ping putters. Herbie can still recall the first consignment of 50, which he had autographed by Gary Player. They bought the putters R 13.30 and sold them to retailers for R 19.95. Recently Roger Manning sent one for auction at Southeby’s and it was sold for £ 3 200.

Anne Prout attended a private high school while her brothers, Nigel and Robert, were in public schools. This meant that the children’s holidays did not coincide and because she was alone at home, Anne used to accompany her dad on his trips through the country, visiting retailers, during her school holidays.

This is probably where she got hooked on the industry, because she was barely out of shool when she and her mother, Natalie, bought Opal Canvas and Webbing in 1978. The main product that Opal Canvas and Webbing manufactured was Mitsuko karate suits — a product still made by Opal Sports today.

Natalie Prout was an experienced member of the industry as she had worked for A & J for many years — but in the Durban office, while Herbie had been based in Johannesburg.

New beginnings

Opal — renamed Opal Sportswear — soon got their first sports agency: Durus soccer balls. Herbie was then still working at Golfex, but he also joined Opal Sportswear shortly after they bought the company in 1979. He managed to get the Munsingwear golf shirt agency as well as the distributorship of Taylor Made golf. In 1980 they got the prestigious Gunn & Moore agency, and since Unicorn darts was part of the same group, they got both agencies. Sportcraft, a family-owned business, had close links to the family who owned Unicorn and also became part of the deal.

Nigel joined the company in 1981 after completing his national service in the army and Robert joined a year later.

Gunn & Moore Success

In 1984 Herby’s restraint of trade with Golfex expired and he obtained the Ping Agency for Opal. In 1987 the Prout family sold Opal Sports to Interleisure, but stayed on to work for the company. Six years later they repurchased the company from Interleisure and Anne’s husband, Doug, a qualified engineer, also joined the family business.

That was also the year that Herbie Prout indicated that he wanted to take things easier after nearly fifty years in the industry and appointed Anne as managing director.

The Prout/Vilas marketing skills has made Gunn & Moore one of the most successful brands in South Africa. It has become an aspirational brand because of its close association with the national cricket team — and the successful identifying of the talents of stars like Jonty Rhodes, Herschelle Gibbs and captain Graeme Smith. The latter had been nurtured by Gunn & Moore long before he made batting and captaincy history … although Nigel Prout admits that he did not quite share the confidence of the ten year old Graeme’s mother when she first approached them for a sponsorhip with the promise that her son was going to make it big. He did, however, follow Janet’s advice and kept an eye on young Graeme who became a Gunn & Moore sponsored player in his matric year.

As official Gunn & Moore licensees, Nigel has also contributed to the range by designing soccer and netball balls suitable for South African conditions.

Unicorn is now also recognised locally as a top darts brand — it recently became the official dartboard of Darts SA.

Golf remains an important part of the company’s business and they are actively involved in developing the sport through the Golf4All organisation.

The family has also contributed to the industry through a long association with SASGAM and its predecessors. From January 1998 to January 2002 Anne served as vice-chair and then chairperson of the organisation.

What made the Prouts so successful?

They do things themselves and look after their customers themselves. There are virtually no non-family members in key positions in Opal Sports. They actually do not want to grow bigger, because then they will be forced to appoint extra non-family people. They are so passionate about what they do, that they believe that it will be difficult to instill this kind of passion in non-family members.

This passion is partly driven by their love for sport — Anne, for instance, swam for Transvaal until the age of 21 — and the family members are regular spectators at sporting events at all levels, especially where sponsored athletes are involved.

But, although a family business is more reminiscent of a bygone era than today’s unionised corporate world, they are very much rooted in the modern web-based business world where business trips often entail transatlantic travel.

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