Alistair is an antidote to the old line that ‘early success is a terrible teacher’. He details his ‘extreme’ journey as the business heads into its 25th year.
Finger-wagging types would say that an enthusiasm for extreme sports and a fulfilling, remunerative career are seldom easy bedfellows. Alistair Gosling has proved the naysayers wrong, building a multi-million pound sports and lifestyle brand from a passion for all types of sporting endeavours.
Alistair’s extreme sports obsession started young. His father was a farmer and he rode bikes round the family farm from an early age. Early ski trips built a love of the mountains and nature. He went to boarding school, Gordonstoun in Scotland, and while the academic side left him cold (he was dyslexic), he loved being outdoors in the wilds of Scotland.
He left school with a handful of ‘A’ levels and not much of a plan. He spent some time working in the city in telecom sales and then in the music business. None of it stuck and he realised office life was never likely to suit him. After a couple of years travelling, spending time working in the Bahamas as a yacht pilot and dive master, he returned to the UK, aged 24, still without a firm plan for his future.
However, he noticed interest in adventure and extreme sports was on the increase. Companies such as North Face were emerging and doing well. “The basic idea was that I would smash work and play together.”
He roped in a friend and fellow extreme sports fan, Tom Hussen, and together they came up with an idea for a TV distribution and production firm covering everything from snowboarding to surfing to mountain climbing. “We reasoned that music had been done with MTV, nature through the discovery channel, news was well covered, but no-one had done this genre and we felt it was an opportunity.”
Nevertheless, it took time to get going. They needed to convince production companies to let them act as distributors of their programmes and “everyone said we were too young.” But they raised money from friends and family, got their heads down and made it work. His hunch about extreme sports proved right. Within four years, the business was turning over £4 million. “I just had utter belief in what we were doing. I knew what I loved. I thought it was underserved by the mainstream media.”
Alistair lived the dream for many years, flitting between Switzerland and the UK, skiing in his spare time, sailing a lot and flying round the world. In 1999, the group launched its own sports channel, which quickly built a vast audience across the globe. “We initially had a plan to launch in four or five countries. We ended up launching in 68,” he says.
He admits that from an entrepreneurial point of view, he made lots of mistakes. Cash flow was tight in the early years and they nearly went bankrupt a number of times when clients were slow to pay.
“In the US, I got the management team wrong and that created all sorts of problems. The shareholders tried to take the business off me at one point. I have battle-scars!”
“I seemed to have a certain mental toughness. Boarding school helps build a rhinoceros skin. I also have an astonishing capacity for hard work when the moment demands it. I could work from 4:30am to 11pm for weeks and months on end. I didn’t like it, but I could do it if I needed to. When the chips are down, I quite enjoy it.”
The chips were definitely down during the pandemic. Events were cancelled and the group’s nascent adventure parks business was hit hard. Alistair admits he had to work hard, and make fast decisions. Ultimately, however, the pandemic saw extreme sports swell in popularity alongside more mainstream activities such as running and cycling.
The pandemic also helped drive a focus on many of the social and environmental forces that Extreme has long held at its core. Alistair says: “We want to drive positive change through extreme and adventurous sports. We look to have an impact.” That means improving health, reconnecting people with nature and encouraging them to pursue their passions. He adds: “My wife is an environmentalist and she sets the environmental and social agenda for the business. She’s been involved in sustainability since she was very young.”
Now a number of strands to the business: there are branded adventure parks indoor and outdoor extreme and adventure sports destinations across the world. There are also Extreme events. This part of the business creates, produces and promotes live events, festivals and competitions. The third part is the media business, which runs a series of OTT (Over The Top) channels. The final part is a mobile phone service for extreme travellers, Extreme Connection.
Alistair is an antidote to the old line that ‘early success is a terrible teacher’. The business is now in its 25th year and has seen a significant acceleration over the past 12 months. In this, the lockdown may have helped: “Before lockdown, I was running round the world travelling and moving all the time. But lockdown has really given me the ability to spend time with each of my teams and make time for junior members of staff. It has given me time to stop and work with them in real detail. The team spirit is as strong as it has ever been as a result.”
Does he still get time for extreme sports?
“Life tends to get in the way. I’m out on my bike a lot, in the hills around Winchester or on the water, wind-surfing when the wind blows.”