Tristram Mayhew talks to Marcus Leach about escaping the corporate lifestyle, growing a business, and accepting emergency loans from his mother.

By Marcus Leach, Head of Editorial at Fresh Business Thinking

In normal circumstances, turning to your mother for a £40,000 loan to stop your business from going under after a single year would be a bad omen, but not for Tristram Mayhew, founder and CEO of Go Ape, who did exactly that to save his fledgling business, and then turn it into a national success.

"We had run out of cash six weeks before the summer holidays in the second year," explained Mayhew. "To save us from going under I had to go to my mother to ask for the money to bail me out. It was £40,000 and luckily she was in a position to help us, otherwise we would have gone bust. I paid her back as soon as the summer holidays came and we were into our main season. That was a key turning point and an invaluable lesson."

To even have reached that stage in the first place is a testament to Mayhew's attitude and desire to choose his own lifestyle, rather than being at the beck and call of corporate world bosses. At the age of twenty-nine Mayhew left the army to focus on building a career that would let him spend time with his family.

"I enjoyed being a solider but I didn't want to take a family through it," he said."I was twenty-nine and it was a natural time to leave. The problem then was that I never really found my feet in the corporate world. I wanted three components to my working life; to feel what I was doing was fundamentally worthwhile, to work with people I liked and trusted, and to enjoy what I was doing. I didn't get all three of those things in the corporate world.”

Having worked for big corporations Coca Cola and GE Capital, Mayhew realised he wanted his own business, one that combined his passion for the outdoor lifestyle with his aspiration to play an active role in raising his family. As luck would have it, on holiday in France, he saw a project similar to Go Ape, and so began a unique journey that has resulted in a £10 million a year adventure business, without a corporate lifestyle attached.

"I was looking in the right space, which enhanced our chances of spotting the opportunity when it came along," Mayhew said. "The key thing for me was I thought I would really enjoy it. So, successful financially or not I would have fun doing it. But it was more than just about business, I wanted a lifestyle that was simply not possible working for a boss."

"To be honest I am quite cynical about my experience with big businesses, it was against everything I had learnt in the army. The focus was on personal promotion, and there wasn't the team atmosphere that I had become so accustomed to. I have tried to learn the lessons from my experiences of corporate life. It has almost been a textbook case, in my view, of how not to do things. We have spent a lot of time not being corporate in our approach and it has reaped its rewards for all involved."

Convinced that if he accepted a single site offer from the local Forestry Commission his business idea would be open to copycats, Mayhew drove a hard and risky bargain in securing a 26-year multi-site deal, that ultimately gave him the security to turn his concept into reality without the danger of competitors taking over the market.

"My wife had a flat that we sold to raise £180,000," he said. "I remortgaged our house and we moved to the country. We didn't pay ourselves a salary for the first twenty months. Despite it being tight we felt terrific, like the kings of the world doing exactly what we wanted to do."

It was not all plain sailing though. From the small details of choosing the right staff, to the critical issue of finding a company that would insure them, the process was exhausting and ultimately nearly all in vain. Spurred on by a stellar first year, and his ambition to grow a nationally recognised company, Mayhew began the process of opening three more sites, a move that almost lost him everything.

"We overstretched ourselves too quickly," Mayhew admitted. "The next three sites didn't perform as we had expected, and that is when I was forced to approach my mother for a loan. That was when we decided to get a finance director, as I didn't really know enough to do it."

With the right support team finally in place Go Ape began to realise its potential and witness the sort of growth that Mayhew dreamed of before setting out. Now, with twenty-seven sites across the UK and expansion into the American market well underway, Mayhew is able to look back and reflect on a decision that has changed his life.

"I knew everything was on the line, I was happy with that," Mayhew said. “The stats said something like 8 out of 10 businesses fail, but for me the fear was not of failure but of never trying. A lot of people thought it was a crazy idea and couldn't understand it. But I thought that’s fine, I will take my own chances and see what happens, and here we are today.”

Watch the video below featuring Gerard Burke of Your Business Your Future, discussing the 7 pillars of a better business.


Create a better future for your business and yourself! Fresh Business Thinking LIVE! at Cass Business School is a one day event specifically designed for ambitious entrepreneurs and owner managers. Tristram Mayhew will be speaking at Fresh Business Thinking Live! at Casee business School.

To book for the event on 7th September, click here

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