Outdoor distributor Ram Mountaineering has turned 20. Since it was founded in MD Simon Larsen’s garage in 1996, Ram has grown into a prominent distributor of well-known technical outdoor brands, especially mountaineering, to Southern African retailers.
The birth of Ram Mountaineering coincided with a historical shift in the local outdoor industry: in the early 1990’s outdoor retailers imported the gear and brands they wanted to sell directly as there were no local distributors. The establishment of the Outward Ventures distributorship by Geoff Ward, however, signalled a turning point in the industry, Larsen told his customers in a newsletter: “We realized that the market was changing and that there were some opportunities to take up.”
He had helped Duncan Pattenden establish Orca Industries on a shoe string budget in the early 1990’s after the Adventure Centre, where they worked, closed. Orca directly imported brands such as Edelrid, Wild Country, Boreal, Simond and Petzl, which other retailers also wanted to stock, and they therefore started a small wholesale operation, supplying these brands to other retailers.
Larsen took a small loan from his bond and financed a shipment of products from the premium American brand Black Diamond to distribute locally. From then onwards there was no looking back as the retail demand grew, also for new brands the company subsequently signed.
After eighteen months Larsen realised that it was simply too much to run the hiking /climbing department at Orca Industries, as well as the Ram Mountaineering distributorship and the Cape Town School of Mountaineering (CTSM), which he founded – and also keep the books for both companies in order.
He therefore resigned from Orca and moved Ram Mountaineering into a small 2x3m store room in his home in Mowbray. “Initially, our store rooms were so small that when shipments arrived we had to unpack on the lawn outside and stuff the product into the store,” recounts Larsen.
Business grew and he invited Etienne Pietersen from Abseil Africa to join him. Alterations to the garage at his home increased the storage area significantly and they added a training room/office. “It was an exciting time – full of new opportunities,” he remembers. “There were more independent retailers than chain stores, the economy was being managed well and the market was growing. It was also a very challenging time – particularly in cash flow terms as we have always avoided running an overdraft.”
In addition to training climbers at the CTSM they did everything required to run the wholesale business themselves, from “building store room shelving, to repping, shipping, unloading shipments, packing, dispatching and delivering orders, doing the books and managing tax.”
Ram Mountaineering now employs thirteen outdoor enthusiasts and adventurers, as well as two reps. They are gear freaks who live and work the outdoor adventure lifestyle personified by the more than 20 brands they distribute, and can therefore share meaningful expertise and insights in the use of the various products. In addition to Black Diamond, some of the well-known technology-driven brands they supply include Jetboil, SteriPen, Singing Rock, Nikwax and Beal ropes.
“Our staff includes Tony Mills and Richard Turkington – two of the original ‘oldies’ who were part of the industry when I started,” says Larsen. “Tony was involved in both Varsity Sports and Camp & Climb in the early days and Richard ran Drifters during its ascendancy to the premier specialist outdoor store in South Africa.”
In 2007 Larsen offered a partnership to Ryan van Niekerk, who started working for Ram as a rep in KwaZulu Natal while he was a post grad student between 1999 and 2001. A keen adventure racer with his wife Nici and lover of the outdoor lifestyle, Van Niekerk joined the company full-time in 2004.
Shaun Wakeling, who joined in 2007, has been instrumental in the creation and growth of Vertical Safety Systems, founded as a sister company in 2009 to do industrial safety installations. As Industrial Sales Manager a large part of his time is spent on the management of Fallprotec permanent cable and rail lifeline installation projects, which has become a very successful business.
At the end of 2012 they also established another sister company, Traverse Outdoor Gear (TOG), to distribute international climbing and outdoor footwear brands Boreal and Zamberlan, as well as Fire Maple cookware and Travellunch food products.
Rapid growth had necessitated various moves to bigger premises. In 2011, for example, the Ndabeni office and warehouse space Ram Mountaineering had shared with fellow outdoor distributors Adventure Inc since the mid-2000’s became too small to house both companies and Adventure Inc moved to new premises in Muizenberg. Ram Mountaineering stayed on, but two years ago they bought and custom-converted a warehouse in the same Ndabeni business park to house the whole group – products and people – and also show their wide range of products in comfort to customers.
During the past two decades Larsen has experienced the transformation of the South African outdoor industry first hand. For example:
- Before the turn of the century all the shops focused on gear and equipment, as there was very little apparel available. People who wanted really good clothing would buy it on overseas trips. One of the biggest changes in South African outdoor products had been the arrival of good outdoor apparel, for example, the first Polartec jacket introduced by Charl Gold at First Ascent. “It was the start of a significant shift in the market from equipment to apparel,” says Larsen.
- The local outdoor retail industry was run by outdoor enthusiasts in independent stores, for example people like Duncan Pattenden (Orca Industries), Palma Cesare (Ventures for Africa), Chris Wind (Berg Sports), Leni Hamilton (Hiker’s Paradise), Richard Turkington (Drifters) the late Chris Mostert (Leotana) and Cesar Carvalho (Outdoor Centre).
- The only chain, Camp and Climb, was a training ground for many of the future industry leaders, like Geoff Ward, Tony Mills, Dave Davies, John Fontyn, etc.
“These people were psyched about the outdoors and were keen to share their knowledge. They attracted enthusiastic young people to work in the stores – and encouraged them to get out and have adventures of their own. Most of them got involved at some level with the emergence of training programs and standards and there was a sense of passion for the outdoors. As a result – when one went shopping in those days, it was easy to find good quality advice from enthusiastic people who had been there and done that.”
Apart from Ward and Gold industry people like Butch de Bruin (BackPacker and Hiker), John Fontyn (Eiger Equipment), the Dott brothers (Drifters), Andrew Baxter (Cape Storm), David Davies (Mountain Mail Order), Robert and Patricia Breyer and the City Rock team, as well as the Krawitz family and their teams at Cape Union Mart, were inspirations to the rest of the industry, reminisces Larsen.