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From Cockerill to Rooster: Steve's story in his own words - part 2

by Mark Jardine 11 Nov 2016 13:11 GMT 11 November 2016
Steve Cockerill wins the RS300 Nationals in 2006 © Tom Gruitt /

We spoke to Steve Cockerill, the founder of Rooster Sailing, about how he first started sailing, where it led him, his career and how he started in business for himself and created the Rooster Sailing brand.

Read Part 1 here...

Mark: How did Rooster then expand after you'd started off in mainsheets and Laser distribution?

Steve: Well, my mother and I had always made my hiking shorts. I first spotted an early design in Holland which we developed and sold to my sailing friends in the UK. During my Laser campaign, I had developed my own hiking pads for wearing inside my shorts. There were more sophisticated neoprene shorts on the market but I couldn't get anybody in the UK to make hiking shorts the way I wanted them made.

The catalyst was when Laser said I wasn't going to get my discount anymore, probably around the end of 2001. So I jumped on a plane in January, went to a well-respected neoprene factory and lived in their research & development room for a week designing the Rooster Classic Hikers. I shipped some back by air, crossed my fingers and hoped it was all going to be okay. We sold loads of them! I spent the next two or three years at every sailing event asking, "why aren't you wearing hikers? Just try these on and give them back to me if you don't like them, but just try sailing in them." They'd go out sailing and would come back and say, "oh, they're amazing!"

It wasn't long before the majority of the Laser fleet were enjoying the benefit of pain-free hiking, at which point I think the mainstream manufacturers finally realised the market for them.

Mark: So the start of Rooster was really two leaps of faith - one with the ropes and one with the hikers - and then persistence?

Steve: Yes, I guess I was younger then and had an over-inflated ego which gave me the confidence to take the plunge! Now I look back on it and wonder how on earth did I get to that point there? Even with the Boat Whisperer DVDs, I catch myself thinking, "how did I have the confidence to go and create these DVDs and tell everybody how to do it?" But I did, and that's how it started.

Mark: During this time the Laser seems to have been the mainstay of your sailing, but you've had various classes that you've not just sailed in, but also done a huge amount with the class association on their development. Where did that start?

Steve: I guess it started with the Graduates. I wanted to take my son, Jack, sailing and I felt the Graduate was a nice boat for small crews. They were just about to hammer the last nails in the coffin of the class association at my first Nationals: they weren't planning on attending the Dinghy Show. I said, "hang on guys, this is a great little boat, why don't we put a big-head mainsail on it and make it less twitchy?" They asked me to make one so they could try it out. I had a passion for the boat and the whole class and was delighted I could help to get it going again.

Mark: More recently you seem to have done the same thing with the 4000 class.

Steve: I love sailing the 4000. I did a little campaign in the 4000 when it was in its heyday for a year. I was looking for a boat that I could sail with my wife and the great thing about a 4000 is that you can sail it if you're big or small, tall or thin; you just put the racks in or out and change the weight. It's a hoot to sail a boat that's high performance.

The class had stagnated a bit and needed a refresh so we just changed the sail a bit, made some tooling for the foils as they didn't make the foils anymore, and made sure the spare parts were stocked. You can pick up a 4000 for £1000, sometimes £2000 with a nice new suit of sails on. It's a great bargain as a play toy. I think if we could get a carbon rig on it, it would help the teams who are finishing 10th to 30th get closer to the top 10. The problem is it's a bit of a beast to handle over 20 knots and you see a lot of people falling over. If you take six kilos off the weight of the rig, it would be a lot easier to handle. However, we have to bring the European class with us. There are strong fleets in France and Italy and we would be stupid to bring a change in that they did not follow.

Mark: Going back to clothing, if there was one piece of Rooster clothing that I'd say changed the game it would be the Aquafleece®. Where did the idea for that come from?

Steve: Having sailed all over the world in a multitude of classes I've seen thousands of products from numerous brands – both large and small. You kind of get an eye for what works, what doesn't and what's missing, much in the same way the hikers came about. I wanted a spray top that wasn't just waterproof, but was warm and comfortable to wear. Traditional spray tops had no give or flexibility and often felt scratchy and harsh next to your skin. So we developed a fabric in the UK and had it for sale at the London Boat Show in January 2005.

In black, it had limited hanger appeal. So once again I just asked people to try it and promised they'd be enlightened. I did that the whole way through the London Boat Show and all the way through the Dinghy Show. When people put it on they were sold! That was how I convinced people to wear them. We were using the very end of the British manufacturer process. We had a lady in Manchester in a garage making Aquafleece® Tops and we had one guy, who was nearly retired, who cut patterns out. Then we had a swimming shop in Liverpool who did the screen printing, as he had the right inks to print on polyurethane. It really was a cottage industry and managing the whole process was a bit of a nightmare!

Mark: How did you find these people?

Steve: The lady in Manchester was the mother of the person making our carbon tiller extensions. He was a brilliant engineer and made the tools, sent them off to the factories to get made, and then finished them off.

Mark: At what point did Rooster Sailing change from just being you to having your first employee?

Steve: Quite early on, I had a part-time helper and packer and I remember at one Dinghy Show talk on the centre stage, I handed out pieces of Polilite® saying, "You can buy these at P&B." Every time I employed someone I thought of how many mainsheets I would have to sell to pay that person.

Mark: So your currency wasn't pounds or dollars - it was mainsheets?

Steve: Yes, it was mainsheets. How many mainsheets do I have to sell to pay for that person's wages. Now it's scary how many people work at Rooster and how big the wage bill is!

Mark: How big is Rooster nowadays and how many people work for you?

Steve: We have 13 full time staff split across Sales, Marketing, Design, Operations, Dispatch and Accounts. We rely heavily on casual staff to see us through the busy Summer months, Christmas and of course Boat Shows – it's always the same guys that come back and help us out. I'm really proud of the team we have at Rooster; they're all passionate sailors, really knowledgeable and full of ideas. The business was built on passion, knowledge and understanding our customer base and the team we've built here reflects these values.

Mark: What next for Rooster?

Steve: We have recently employed a very experienced technical director who will be concentrating on product development and liaising with the factories. She's a fabric technologist and has an excellent eye for grading, sizing materials. We're extremely excited and fortunate to have her on board. My physics degree and passion has got us so far, but to get ahead in this market, we need the best of the best.

Mark: The development of Rooster is very much about you talking directly to the sailors, and one thing you do huge amounts of nowadays is blogging and creating videos. Is that for educating sailors about the products you create and why they work, so you can reach a larger number of people than in the early days where you were focusing on them one to one?

Steve: Sharing knowledge, experience and helping people is a big part of sailing for me and it helps my business. I'm not looking for a bigger piece of the industry pie, I want to make the pie bigger - get more people sailing, help them, make sure they have great, affordable kit to wear. I believe that if someone knows how to splice, they should tell someone else.

When I do the Boat Whisperer talks, I want to help people sail quicker. The most interesting thing about sharing your tips and tricks is that there is always somebody who is desperate to tell you that they know a little more than you do, and they'll give you a little bit back. So my knowledge has grown a little bit each time I've given a talk. I do the same when I am training with other sailors. The more you give, the more you educate, and sometimes the more you get back. So my Boat Whisperer talks have developed over the years because of some clever sailor adding their little bit of insight.

Mark: What's the biggest challenge Rooster Sailing has had during its development and growth?

Steve: Would you believe that I started off juggling two credit cards! Passion only got me so far before I quickly realized I would run out of money. The challenge for me in the early days was to manage the cash flow. People really wanted the product but the cost of producing and getting it out there was a real challenge. Even big companies can falter with a large order book when they have cash flow issues. I am lucky to have been able to secure stakeholders who believe in Rooster and are keen to help us realise our potential.

It's been a challenge for me personally – after all, I'm just a guy with a Physics degree and no experience in business! My gran used to say, "the best thing to do at times is act daft because you might learn something." I'm always prepared to listen to other people's advice.

Mark: If you were going to give one piece of advice to a person who wants to get involved in the marine industry, what would you say to them?

Steve:: If I had the opportunity to start Rooster again from scratch, the first thing I would do is get a job with one of the big players to learn how they do things. I literally just started on my own and used my common sense.

Mark: But you made a success of it.

Steve: Yes, I made a success of it, but if I'd known how the big players play the game – it might have put me off! I probably would have thought, "I could never do that!" I guess starting with no knowledge was in itself a good thing, because I was keen to find out how to do it better.

It's such a diverse industry. I think you do it because you love the sport - the salaries in the industry aren't fantastic, but I guess the pay back is that we get to work with our sailing public who are a fantastic group of people.

I guess you could ask why I spent so much time doing a Europe, 470 and Laser campaign, what a waste of money that was! When actually, without that time and experience, I wouldn't have the knowledge and contacts that I have now to make Rooster a success. My Greek dealer is a guy who I used to sail Lasers against; he was the guy that beat me in the Radial World Championships in 1997. I guess it was my down payment and education for the role.

Mark: Well Steve I've learnt a ton here that I didn't know, thank you so much for your time.

Steve: Thank YOU very much.

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