This Sunday, some 40,000 runners will line up at the start of the London Marathon for a gruelling slog over 26.2 miles on the streets of the capital.
Many participants will be aiming for a personal best; others will be hoping to simply make it to the finish.
But nutrition will have an important role for all those hoping to fulfil their ambitions by the time they cross the finish line in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. And the boss of one of the UK’s biggest sports nutrition success stories provides City A.M. with some sage advice.
“It’s a physiological fact that we’ve got enough energy in us to go for an hour and a half. After that you’re in trouble, your energy stores become depleted. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an elite athlete or an old banger like me,” says Science in Sport (SiS) chief executive Stephen Moon.
SiS started from humble beginnings in Nelson, Lancashire in 1992. The firm’s original owners passed the business on to Moon by way of a management buyout (MBO) in 2011. Moon, also hailing from Lancashire, then masterminded the firm’s float on the Alternative Investment Market (Aim) a year later.
Six years ago SiS products were mainly sold through a network of independent cycling retailers in the UK. Now it has a global presence and sponsors a raft of elite athletes across everything from football (it is the official sports nutrition supplier to Liverpool FC) to rowing. The UK’s big five supermarkets stock SiS products and it has an online model that is shaking up the market.
Over my shoulder Moon points to a large poster on the wall of the firm’s London offices that says “£50m by 2020” in bold letters.
“That’s where we’re going,” he says, adding there is an even bigger version of the message on the walls of the firm’s factory in Nelson.
Moon, who has seen annual revenues more than triple to £12.2m, says:
We’ve taken a traditional family kitchen startup and tried to build into a decent international business.
Together with marketing chief Naomi Mills, the pair explain the largest post-MBO evolution has been the development of SiS’ online channel. The norm, as with many sports clothing and nutrition brands, was that retailers sourced products from suppliers.
However obvious it may seem, going direct to the customer was, and perhaps still is, a foreign concept to many in the sector.
SiS’ website generated £300,000 of sales in its first year in 2011 and now shifts £500,000 of online products each month. Three per cent of sales were made online six years ago; nowadays it’s 49 per cent.
“It’s a huge swing in channel,” he says. “And yet, the rest of the competition have stayed wedded to retail. And we’ve gone: ‘Come on, let’s go. It’s digital’.”
It isn’t just the sales process that has been shaken up. Instead of splashing out on marketing at athletic events up and down the country, SiS now has tieups with the likes of British Cycling. Members can sign up and receive free products paying only for postage.
Moon says: “It’s a great marketing tool. We can either do a great outdoor campaign, or we can get products in people’s hands. For us to get 12 gels in people’s hands is remarkably economical for us. And once people have sampled it, they tend to stick with it.”
Everything seems to be going rather swimmingly at SiS. However, people question how long London 2012-fuelled enthusiasm for endurance sports can go on. Like many successful athletes, would it not be best to go out at the top? To perhaps find a larger partner to create a springboard for further success?
That is what a couple of SiS’ rivals have done recently.
“We’ve had informal interest from some pretty large businesses as well. And we’re flattered by the interest but we’re not interested. We think we can push on.”
Olympic surge myth
Moon says his investor base is comfortable with the approach to grow revenues rather than profits and take a long-term view.
“Sports participation in the UK at the time of the 2012 Olympics had only just got back to the level it was at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So this Olympic surge is a bit of a myth when you look at the hard numbers,” he says.
“There’s always a new sport emerging. Running has just got past swimming as the biggest participation sport in the UK, probably of the back of Parkrun.
As we get fatter we get fitter. That’s the dichotomy of the world. Australia is a great example. Per capita consumption of sports nutrition is three times that of the UK.
The global sports nutrition market has been valued at $28.7bn (£22.9bn) and by 2022 it is expected to expand to $42.3bn.
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But Moon is not so big-headed to think SiS is a challenger to some of the brands backed by global corporate behemoths such as Glaxosmithkline or Omega Pharmaceuticals.
He does, however, worry about staying agile, staying sufficiently nimble that a straight-shooting boss such as himself doesn’t get bogged down in red tape.
“One of collective biggest fears is that decision-making starts to slow down,” he says.
“The way we survive is that we are a mouse running between the feet of elephants like Lucozade. We’ve got to be careful we don’t lose our edge."