Home Money Ruling the waves: Ratsey & Lapthorn is a great British brand for the YouTube generation

Ruling the waves: Ratsey & Lapthorn is a great British brand for the YouTube generation

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Heritage: Ratsey & Lapthorn is now owned by Jim Hartley, left, and Simon Brazier, right

Sailing high above the ocean under a magnificent billowing cloud of canvas, the Gucci family’s classic Creole yacht marks a milestone. The display is the work of the world’s oldest candlemaker, Ratsey & Lapthorn, dating back to 1790.

The company, based in Cowes on the Isle of Wight, made sails for kings and queens and even for Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The topsail of the flagship HMS Victory remains at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, with cannonball holes.

Heritage: Ratsey & Lapthorn is now owned by Jim Hartley, left, and Simon Brazier, right

The company later became synonymous with the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest international sporting trophy, manufacturing sails for yachts on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a century.

Heritage is very important to Ratsey & Lapthorn. In his candle loft in Cowes hang the words of Tom W. Ratsey dating from 1833: “In this loft there is only one standard of work: the best.”

It’s something its current owners – former City fund manager Simon Brazier and Jim Hartley, founder of sailing clothing and accessories brand Quba – are keen to emphasise.

And no wonder. Ratsey & Lapthorn is proud to be one of the few lofts in the world that can still make a traditional candle. A set can cost upwards of £300,000, depending on the size of the boat.

Therefore, the emphasis is on “craft” and passing on the skills to the next generation.

“Our candle makers are world-class craftsmen,” says Hartley, 51. ‘We focus on making sure our apprentices understand everything about how to make a candle. He has been a master of apprentices since 1790 and I don’t think there are many companies in the world that can say that.’

The candle makers working when I visit are in their twenties. Matthew Robinson, 27, is now the master sailmaker and started as an apprentice at 16. He is putting the finishing touches on a new mainsail for a West Solent One Design.

New apprentice Hattie Dumas, 23, is repairing sails in a “well” sunken into the attic floor. Hartley says retired workers regularly return to help.

New direction: the Gucci family's Creole yacht, whose sails have been manufactured since 1927 by Ratsey & Lapthorn

New direction: the Gucci family’s Creole yacht, whose sails have been manufactured since 1927 by Ratsey & Lapthorn

But for many years, the future was far from certain. The business fell on difficult times after the introduction of synthetic fabrics into the industry. When Hartley bought it in 2017, its annual turnover had fallen to just £79,000.

This was not his first business venture. Hartley, a keen sailor, founded Quba in Salcombe, Devon, in 1996 and opened the first store in Cowes in 1999, near Ratsey & Lapthorn’s loft.

He knew his then boss, Paralympic gold medal-winning sailor Andy Cassell, and upon leaving Quba asked him if he could take part.

“I thought it was a wonderful old business and felt like it needed a little help,” Hartley says. She required, in her words, “a lot of love and money.”

Early on in his search for investors, he sought advice from his old friend Brazier.

As a fund manager for 25 years, whose successful career included stints at top City investment houses Schroders, Threadneedle and Ninety One, where he managed the UK’s Alpha fund, he is very used to “proposals” from companies that They look for cash.

But this time Brazier was so impressed that he told Hartley: “That’s great, don’t show it to anyone else, I want to do it.”

So what did you see in him? He says: ‘I bought for one simple reason. We were buying an intact heritage brand. In the back of my mind was how to use that. It has a lot of latent value in it.

However, the first job was to put him back on the map as a sailmaker.

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“If we’re not a leader in our candle making, then we can’t use the brand anywhere else,” says Brazier, who left the city last year and is now focusing on his new company, of which he is president, with Hartley running the company. day to day as CEO.

The founding Ratsey family is still involved with life president Mark Ratsey.

Outside investors have been attracted and now own 10 percent of the company. Brazier and Hartley own the remaining 90 percent.

“The brand only works because of who we are,” Brazier continues. ‘We are one of the best artisan candle manufacturers in the world. Simple as that.’

They set out to raise the company’s profile again and remind people what it can do.

“We’ll make candles for anything,” Hartley says. ‘But our superpower is in the classics. That’s why we need to be much more visible where they are.”

That meant settling in Barcelona, ​​where the firm now has access to the huge fleet of Mediterranean classics. The unrivaled heritage, of course, helps.

The mammoth task of restoring the Cynara is a case in point. The 100ft ketch was built in 1927 across the Solent at Gosport at the famous Camper & Nicholsons shipyard.

It was recently being renovated in Japan when Ratsey & Lapthorn received word that the contract for the sails was about to be signed by a competitor.

“Jim goes through the archive and finds the design of the sails when the boat was built,” Brazier says. ‘We went to the owner in Japan and said, “We heard you’re changing sails, but you realize we made your original sails and we’d love to talk to you about it.” Out of the jaws of defeat we won the contract.’

Hartley says the vast archives held at the site are “part of our maritime heritage” and also “a great selling point” to owners restoring classic yachts.

He adds of the Cynara’s owners: “They were particular about authentic restoration and I think that’s why they loved that we made the original sails.”

Another recent coup involved the restoration of Tally Ho, which was built in 1910 and won the Fastnet race in 1927.

Bought by boatbuilder and sailor Leo Goolden, 34, for just $1, the project to rebuild her (and equip her with Ratsey & Lapthorn sails) has become a YouTube hit, attracting 500,000 viewers so far.

“These are interesting projects we want to get into,” says Hartley. They also hope to rekindle real connections. The late Duke of Edinburgh used to go to sea under Ratsey & Lapthorn sails, as did the young Prince Charles.

The Royal Warrant was lost after the Duke stopped sailing, something Brazier hopes to address.

“Knowing that the new generation of royals is setting sail, one of our long-term ambitions is to regain our royal warrant,” he says.

Ratsey & Lapthorn made sales of around £500,000 last year and Brazier says they are “heading towards £1 million”. But with two years of profits after years of losses, the couple sees opportunities to go beyond candle making.

The company also boasts of being the oldest bag manufacturer in the world. Hartley says: “We’ve been making bags since 1790. We made bags for carrying coal and ice to yachts from pieces of strong canvas.”

But, Brazier and Hartley say, any return to bags will only be of the highest quality.

“In this loft there is only one standard of work: the best,” they say in unison.

Perhaps the most striking example of Ratsey & Lapthorn craftsmanship are the sails of the Creole, a three-masted schooner which, like the Cynara, was built by Camper & Nicholsons in Gosport in 1927.

The 214-foot masterpiece, the world’s largest wooden sailing ship, was purchased by Maurizio Gucci of the Italian fashion house in 1982 and lovingly restored. Only Ratsey & Lapthorn have adapted it since its launch in 1927, and the latest sails have done well: they were manufactured in the 1990s.

‘Anyone can start a traditional brand. “Just the first hundred years are a challenge,” Hartley jokes, adding, “We’ve been around for 230 years, but we need to be around for another 230.”

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