Olympic figure-skating stars don’t win gold unless they constantly strive to stay a step ahead of the competition - and take risk after risk.
Ditto the 300-year-old Sheffield company which creates the specialist blades on which the medallists carve out their careers.
Down in Neepsend, a small and unremarkable-looking factory makes the best figure-skating blades in the world.
Every World and Olympic gold champion over the last 30 years has skated to glory on blades handcrafted by the two famed brands created by HD Sports.
Robin Cousins won his world and Olympic titles in its MK Gold Stars. John Curry dazzled every time on its John Wilson blades. And when Torville and Dean won gold in the Sarajevo 1984 Winter Olympics, they glided to glory on xxxs from the small engineering company in Rutland Way.
Since November, though, a dashing young American blade has been at the helm of the company forged in 1696.
The firm was taken over last year by a US-based private investment group - and putting one of their own, not least one of just 25 years in age, could have sent the business spiralling out of control. But new CEO Tom Cantwell seems to be cutting it. He has two vital commodities; a dynamism his older peers probably wish they could bottle and splash on like aftershave. And also modesty.
Tom flew over from New York in November for the biggest role in his young career and is the first to admit that his team have in spades the experience and industry know-how he lacks.
Tom’s right-hand man is dapper 68-year-old George Brumpton, the company’s former operations director and majority shareholder who is now back at the company as a consultant:
George knows his stuff. He worked his way up from engineering division foreman and invented the world’s first parabolic figure-skating blades after taking the shape of the carver ski that first revolutionised skiing as his inspiration.
“I have learned more in my first six months from people like George than I probably will in the rest of my life. People here have the expertise I lack and they are invaluable to me,” says Tom.
But George has learned from Tom, too: “There is a big age gap between us but he has taught me the importance of having younger people onboard. He brings massive enthusiasm. We are a well-established business, we’re ridden out three recessions but since his arrival I have realised that we need a more dynamic approach,” says George.
“In business I would always surround myself with young, dynamic people now. They have a different attitude, different skills that we can embrace. And that energy they have... When I feel tired, I i just bring out the jump leads and wire myself up to Tom.”
Tom’s golden opportunity - one that doesn’t happen often to folk from sleepy, upstate Saranec Lake, he says - was down to the faith of his bosses, the US-based private investment group who recently bought out HD Sports. Robert Donahoe and Paul Harrity, who have businesses in manufacturing, retail and distribution in the States, had snapped up Tom at 22, after recognising his business acumen. While in college, the hockey player took over a student laundry service and grew its revenue by 25 per cent.
Bob and Paul figured he had something and made him operations manager of their brand Arrow Hockey at just 22 as they set about their intention of branching out into the figure-skating market. They went on to link up with the Sheffield manufacturer with the steely reputation, creating HD Sports North America to distribute skating’s oldest and most successful blade brands, MK and John Wilson across North America, before buying out the Sheffield business.
All manufacturing, research and development is being kept in Sheffield, which is why Tom found himself heading to the UK for the first time in his life.
His girlfriend, an environmental lawyer, came with him and they have set up home in Dore. Tom is loving both the challenge, and the city. “It has this vibrancy, and a wealth of manufacturing knowledge which I’m keen to tap into,” he says, his Upstate drawl such a contrast to the South Yorkshire accents that surround him in Neepsend.
Already he has been in contact with the City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and is entering into a dialogue with Rolls Royce, one of its key investors.
The team must be impressed. HD Sports’ products stay on the medal podiums thanks to the company’s continual quest to reinvent, rework and fighting for ever better performance.
George explains: “When I started at the company in 1976 a double jump was the very best a skater could perform. Now it’s the quadrupal. The athletes are fitter, faster and stronger than those of 20 years ago and they need that extra performance from their blades. The subtle changes we make can be the difference between a gold or a silver medal.”
Not forgetting city heritage, though, Tom and his team are also keen to find a way of getting the sprung steel needed for the company’s world-beating ice blades from a local source.
This may be the home of steel, but the company can no longer find a local company to provide the small quantities it needs - and has to import from Germany.