If you’re aged under 35 and have been on enough stag/hen dos or have kids aged ten or older, chances are you’ll know what Go Ape is – or with the summer holidays coming, may well be about to.
Founded by husband and wife Tristram (an ex-Army officer and now “chief gorilla”, no less) and Rebecca Mayhew in 2001, it operates 27 courses on Forestry Commission land across the UK, made up of zip wires, tree-top ladders and walkways and bridges between trees.
We catch up with Rebecca Mayhew shortly after the company has attended a dinner hosted by Sir Richard Branson for companies listed in this year’s Virgin Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table. This is Go Ape’s third consecutive appearance in the annual listing of companies with the fastest growing turnovers in the UK and, this year, the business was also shortlisted as one of the top three “best brands” among those companies listed.
So, how does Mayhew think the company managed to achieve its ranking?
“It’s our third year in the Fast Track and we are number 100 this year,” she says. “It’s an amazing achievement to have been in for three years, and also to be shortlisted for best brand because there are some fantastic brands in that top 100. So that’s just really enormous.
“I think sometimes when you’re in the business, and being the co-founder you’re there from the beginning, you don’t stand back and realise how your business has grown and how many people really know it and identify with it.”
Does she know what the criteria are for the “best brand” shortlist?
“Well I don’t exactly, no,” she admits. “I was just very happy to get there.”
The Fast Track listing itself, however, is easier to explain – being turnover based. Last year, she says, the company turned over about £11 million, with earnings before interest and tax of over £1 million. Go Ape has a permanent staff of around 90, which scales up to about 450 with seasonal staff between February and November.
“We’ve been opening five courses a year for three years,” she says. “We’ve now slowed that down a bit to two courses for Go Ape. That’s really because, if you look at the whole of the UK, there is now a Go Ape course near you.
“So we’ve realised that we’ve probably come to our peak with Go Ape. What’s exciting for us is that we’ve now looked at the business and where exactly we should go with what we offer, and it’s much more now about using the ethos and the values of Go Ape but providing other adventure activities for our customers.”
One recent launch is Forest Segways – all terrain stand-on electric scooters – which apparently is “going very well”.
“We’ve won the tender with the Forestry Commission – part of our success at the beginning with Go Ape was that we had an exclusive partnership with the Forestry Commission and now we’ve got that for Forest Segways as well. So I think we’ll have quite a rapid roll-out if they prove to carry on being as successful as they have to-date.”
The Mayhews originally founded the company after growing tired of their “corporate” life in London and, having been looking for a business opportunity for some time, came across treetop “parcours” while on holiday in France and decided to bring the idea back to Blighty.
“It was strange that nobody was doing it here,” she says. “So we set our minds to doing it, and then we were amazed that the Forestry Commission didn’t laugh and say, ‘That’s far too dangerous.’
“They just said, ‘That’s absolutely brilliant, that’s just what we’re looking for.’” So Mayhew sold her flat in London, which paid for the start-up of the Suffolk-headquartered business.
Rebecca and Tristram Mayhew still own the majority of the company, with the remainder owned by operations director Will Galbraith and Rebecca’s brother-in-law Jerome Mayhew, a former personal injury barrister who gave up the bar to buy into the company as operations director in 2006, plus a small percentage held by the firm’s finance director.
In addition to its 27 UK treetop courses the business last year opened its third course in the US.
Go Ape’s expansion into the US is, Mayhew says, part of a wider strategy. “We have a 50/50 partnership – and my husband Tristram is in America this week travelling around with our partners looking at potential sites,” she explains.
“It’s proving much more difficult to roll out fast, more difficult to get the planning permission, but our first course has done incredibly well so we know that the opportunity is there. I think there’s huge potential.”
The fact that ten years ago the Mayhews came across the idea in France, meanwhile, gives an indication as to why Go Ape has had to look across the Atlantic for international opportunities.
“There are 400 courses in France – Europe is absolutely done and dusted,” she says.
“Whereas America has, amazingly, not only vastly more opportunity in terms of scale but there are very few other courses. It’s absolutely open for development for us.”