Sportlink founder and owner Neil Featherby has been running from a very early age winning several area and county titles during his early teens as a school boy. However, he has also ran every single day of his life since September 1st, 1981 – and it was while pounding the roads during one such training stint that he was given the inspiration to start his unique business, now occupying its fourth home and entering its 26th year.
A chance encounter with a passing motorist led to the former Great Britain and England international athlete and multiple marathon title-winner setting up his new venture in tiny premises in Horsford in 1994, sowing the seeds of today’s thriving enterprise at the Taverham Garden Centre, shopping complex where Sportlink celebrated its silver anniversary on November 16th, 2019.
In addition to being a top-class distance runner competing in events across the world, Neil had a background in the sports shoe and sportswear industry along with an in-depth knowledge of coaching, fitness, nutrition and sports management which convinced him to go it alone in a competitive environment.
"One of my best moments during my running career – with the legend Emil Zatopek in Malta."
He had previously worked as a Sports Consultant for Bupa in Norwich and at the World of Sport store in Grove Road before setting up the Runners Centre with fellow athlete Nigel Arnold in Nelson Street, Norwich, and then managing Norwich City captain Ian Butterworth’s Run Kick ’N Jump sports shop in Timberhill, close to the city centre.
He explains how the Sportlink story all started from a roadside conversation with a local businessman and potential customer who flagged him down that early autumn day over a quarter of a century ago.
Neil recalls: “I had gone out for a run and for whatever reason I decided to head out on the busy main Holt Road when a car came along in the opposite direction, with the driver shouting out of his wound-down window. He drove past and while I was thinking ‘Who was that?’ the next thing I knew was that he had turned round and come back, pulling over just in front of me, so I had to stop. ‘Where am I going to buy my running shoes now you’re not in the trade any more?’ he said ‘Can I come round your house and have a chat?’ I said ‘Yes, if you want’ and told him where I lived before heading off to finish my run. Then, lo and behold, he came round later that day.
“His name was John Russell and he was a director of the ECS factory in Horsford, 150 to 200 yards from where I was living at the time. He said they had a spare room, an old canteen, so why didn’t I set up a running shop from there? It was at the far end of the village in Horsford and I thought ‘Do I really want to go into business? Am I experienced enough?’ Being on my own was quite scary.
“The premises were at Pinelands Industrial Estate, which is now mostly covered by houses. I had a look, the rent was cheap and I thought ‘Why not?’
“They put a new door in and made it all ready for me. The room was just 7 x 5 so not really much space to do too much, but it was worth a gamble.”
Sportlink opened its doors – or door – on November, 16, 1994, and Neil sold one pair of running shoes on the first day. He still remembers his first customer and the very shoe, not untypical as anyone familiar with Neil’s prodigious memory for names, faces, races and events over the decades will testify.
He recalls: “November 16 was our first day of trading and I sold one pair of shoes. I still keep in touch with the first customer, Danny Kelly. I sold him a pair of New Balance shoes and in my desperation, I did it as a trade-in because he had a pair of rubbish training shoes on his feet. He got a great deal and a great pair of shoes and if I am honest, I lost money, but I needed to go home and say I had made a sale.”
From the outset, however, Sportlink was not merely about selling sports shoes.
Says Neil: “I was also involved in sports management at the time and it was seen as an ideal place from which to run my sports management company while selling running shoes as a side-line, along with a few football boots and court shoes. Horsford had a middle school and a first school and lots of other schools in a five-mile radius, so we brought in other items to sell for school kids too.
“Roger Ryan, a friend and broadcaster, was involved with me in setting up the sports management business and he came up with the business name. That in a nutshell is how it all started, and we now had a company called Sportlink.
“It soon became apparent that the unit really was not big enough and even though I suppose the main source of my income was from sports management, my background was still all about trying to give the very best advice and service when it came to selling running shoes along with football boots or any other items of sportswear. We didn’t have computerised video analysis equipment back then, but my experience was still good enough to determine what should be the right shoe for each person.
“At the same time, the most important component was comfort because at the end of the day, running mile after mile in a shoe most certainly needs to be comfortable, irrespective of what all the branding and marketing says on the box.”
The new business became a magnet not just for athletes, runners and other amateur sportsmen and women, but for the professionals, among them Norwich City’s rising stars, who were looking for a wise head to represent them and to manage their affairs.
Says Neil: “Because I had connections with the footballers, they kept coming to the shop. All the young lads, like Craig Bellamy, Darren Eadie, Keith O’Neill, Andy Johnson, Danny Mills, Daryl Sutch, Andy Marshall, Ade Akinbiyi and Jamie Cureton were coming out to see me almost on a daily basis at times. There were very few football agents around at the time and certainly not in Norfolk.
“There was a lot of talent at the club and the young lads fancied having an agent. The next thing I knew was that I was being asked to represent several of them. I agreed, but if I am honest it all came about just because they asked and I loved football – and of course I was a big football fan. I had my own agents as an athlete so I had an idea of how the business would operate.
“It was a different sport, and bigger contracts, but it was more about sponsorship deals initially. They all fancied having boot deals, which was absolutely easy for me, being in the trade.”
There was a spin-off benefit for the growing Sportlink business, too.
“Having all those footballers in the shop brought a huge amount of trade in. As you can imagine it brought all the kids in as soon as school was out,” says Neil.
“They were piling into our little shop in the village of Horsford. Back then footballers only trained in the morning and being young lads of 17, 18 and 19, and a long way from home, they had nowhere else to really go. They used to answer the phone and help the customers and it really did become somewhat surreal. It got to a point where Match Weekly magazine came and did a feature on the Norwich City footballers in the shop. I brought in some of the children from Horsford Middle School to be part of the feature with the players, which went down really well with everyone. Parents also kept asking if their sons and daughters could have a part-time job. Therefore to keep as many people as possible happy, I took one on for each day of the week, giving them a fiver for a couple of hours work after they came out of school.”
In less than two years, Sportlink had grown so fast it had become apparent that the business really did need to expand.
Recalls Neil: “We outgrew the shop and in August 1996 another unit, dead opposite but much bigger, became available. It was basically an old cattle shed which had been modernised of sorts. It was 700 square feet and it was absolutely freezing in the winter, but it gave us more opportunity and a much bigger space so as to work more efficiently and continue to grow the business.”
Sportlink was very much more than the place to pick up the perfect pair of running shoes and first-class advice on fitness and training.
“Here we were, a little business on the outskirts of Horsford, which back then was a small village, and runners were coming from all over East Anglia. We had the woods on our doorstep and I was taking people out for runs at lunchtime or after work. We had also made some brilliant connections with football clubs throughout Norfolk and had also somehow connected with Norwich and North Walsham rugby clubs,” says Neil.
“I ran the business and Steven Halton Farrow was my silent partner. Suddenly we were becoming a much bigger business than we had set out to be, but in truth it was perhaps happening too quickly. Eighty hours-plus had become the normal working week for me, for which I seemed to be spending most of my life at that time working, be it instore or out and about doing promotional events”
At Horsford in 1997 with another one of our sponsorship handovers….25 years of helping local sport.
It was not long before Sportlink was on the move again – and by then the business had a string of new partners.
“In late 1997 a unit became available at Drayton Industrial Estate, which was bigger with two floors. We officially opened for business at the new unit and of course new village on January 1st, 1998, staying there for the next 11 years,” says Neil. “At this point the retail side was going really well. The internet and online selling was still being viewed with suspicion by many back then. It certainly meant that lots of people were making their way to Drayton Industrial Estate for all their sporting needs. The football connection was bigger than ever and Danny Mills and Daryl Sutch had both become partners in the business. At one point I think there were seven or eight partners involved in total.”
It was then that Neil and Sportlink ventured into new territory, climbing into the ring with the big names of the fight game.
“It was then I got caught up in boxing. I was approached to work with the kickboxer Gary Briggs, followed by professional boxers Jon Thaxton and Herbie Hide,” he explains.
NO CHRISTMAS FOR HERBIE HIDE - THE NORWICH BOXER IS KEEPING TO HIS TRAINING SCHEDULE THROUGHOUT THE HOLIDAY AND WILL BE OUT RUNNING WITH SPORTLINK'S NEIL FEATHERBY.
Herbie Hide at Sportlink before a training session.
Hide was twice WBO world heavyweight champion in the 1990s and Thaxton became WBF world lightweight champion, as well as winning the British and European lightweight titles, before retiring in 2009.
In store with footballers at one of our many promotions down at Drayton.
Says Neil: “This is all part of the Sportlink history. My work with boxing was initially about nutrition and fitness, but because I had a reasonable idea about business and learned a lot from the football management side, I was now being steered into the management of boxers too, while also promoting professional boxing shows under the name of Sportlink Boxing.
“I have never been scared to have a go at anything and the shows we put on at Norwich Sport Village were a match for any small hall show, even if I say so myself. I remember getting 3,000 people in the Sport Village for one of our shows and never less than 1,500. It was just crazy. I worked well with the media - newspapers, radio and TV – and we made stars of some of the local fighters. In total, we promoted 13 professional shows with one of them at Carrow Road, home of Norwich City. By this stage we also had a small but very good stable of boxers, all trained by Graham Everett. The team behind the promotion was superb too and so very professional. I am under no illusions when saying that if it wasn’t for them, it would have all been impossible. ”
Training Group with professional footballers and professional boxers.
It was here that Neil admits the sports fan in him sometimes worked to the detriment of the business.
He says: “Sportlink was becoming a brand but I took my foot off the gas on the retail side, the more I became involved in boxing, I suddenly found that I was being pulled all over the place. I worked with the boxer Paul Ingle in Scarborough as his conditioner and was promoting shows and training with lots of boxers and professional footballers during the close season.
“When it came to the football management side of the business, I was meeting some unbelievable people, too. Players who I had admired years earlier and had now turned to management like Kevin Keegan, Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce to name but a few were regularly calling me at Sportlink or at home. As a fan this was amazing, but I also had to try to remember why they were calling me.
“I travelled the world with my running, but it was now boxing and football which was taking me off all over the place and as I said earlier, the retail side of the business was getting a little neglected.”
The year 2009 brought a move from Drayton as Sportlink switched to its current premises at Taverham, home number four. Neil had foreseen a running boom on the horizon and it was time to re-focus totally on his first business aim – that of providing the best possible all-round service to runners and athletes, a holistic approach that goes far beyond selling the customer a pair of shoes.
“2009 was almost like starting again,” recalls Neil. “After lots of long discussions we decided to move the business to the shopping centre behind Taverham Garden Centre and we sold the unit we owned at Drayton.”
By this time former England World Cup star Mills and Neil were the only partners in Sportlink and the business had by this stage become Sportlink Specialist Sports Ltd.
“It took us 18 months to really establish ourselves in Taverham because people still kept going to Drayton, but we did it. Every day half a dozen people came into the new shop and said ‘We have just been to Drayton’ but for every six that came in and said that, how many didn’t?
“I could see that there was definitely going to be a running boom but frustratingly not too many people around me were listening. I was talking to banks and other potential investors, but let’s just say that most of them thought I was doing my usual and being over-positive about my future plans and ambitions. However, within four to five years of moving, we were completely on track and the running boom really had happened. The business is now at a level even I didn’t think it would get to.”
Three major factors have helped Sportlink to thrive – the Olympic Games being staged in Britain for the first time in 64 years, the emergence of the park run as a means of mass participation in running, regardless of ability, and of course social media, particularly Facebook.
Says Neil: “Sportlink is now totally focusing on running. The year 2012 was when it really turned. A lot of people knocked the Olympics before it ever took place and said it was going to be a disaster and we would mess it up.
“But the 2012 Olympics really were so very special and I can honestly say one of my all-time favourite sporting moments. The whole country came together and as a nation, we did so well in just about every sport.
“At the same time we organised it so well that the legacy is the fact so many people now take part in sport and are having a go. People who wouldn’t have dared pick up a pair of running shoes in the past are now out there running and cycling while taking part at their own level without the worry of thinking that they would never be good enough. The park runs have been awesome – although I also think that the Race for Life in the early 1990s helped influence more ladies to take up running too.
“Running means so many different things to so many people. It’s used for well-being, staying fit and healthy, feeling good about yourself, mental health, and of course on a competitive front. At the same time, several people have actually found that even in later life - beyond 30, which used to be considered the time for hanging up your shoes - they actually have a talent and are now competing at a very good level.
“Most importantly, though, people from all walks of life and ability are now more than comfortable to go out running. Whereas years ago it was a case of worrying about what your neighbours might say, now the likelihood is that your neighbours go out running themselves. Attitudes really have changed, that’s for sure.”
The conscious decision for Sportlink to return to its roots has paid handsome dividends.
Explains Neil: “I really am so very pleased that I made the decision to fully focus on Sportlink as in truth I was getting worn down by all the other activities and the enjoyment was starting to wane.
“Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved doing all the other things and in many respects it has been an absolute privilege. I look at my running career as a privilege, that’s for sure, travelling the world and meeting so many fantastic people, but to then find my way into professional football and professional boxing was such a huge added bonus, especially as it came about at the end of my competitive running career.
“To have met superstars like David Beckham along the way or to have gone to the 2002 World Cup and to have been part of a corner team in Madison Square Garden in New York with Paul Ingle, when defending his World IBF Featherweight title as chief support for Lennox Lewis that night, is all just something else. Then of course the very memorable and even crazy adventures with Herbie Hide, Jon Thaxton, Sam Sexton, Danny Smith, Jackson Williams, Gary Briggs and of course Graham Everett, just to name a few, have left me with so many great memories.
“In truth, there are far too many people and special moments, but like all things you need to know when enough is enough. At the same time it really was all becoming more about business than fun and as I said earlier, underneath it all, I am just a fan.”
So despite – perhaps because of – rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in world sport, Neil has the greatest respect of all for the club athletes and keen amateurs who simply want to run, to improve, to achieve new goals or simply to feel healthier, fitter and better about themselves.
“I don’t care how good you are or who you are,” he says “If you want to run I’m with you all the way. That’s what we do. I would have to say 90 per cent of the people who come to us are not elite athletes. Probably 35 per cent on any day of the week are if not complete beginners, then certainly fairly new to running. In most cases, it is obvious that they are a little overawed upon walking in for the first time, but within 30 seconds or so, we have settled them and assured them that they are just as welcome as anyone else. Most importantly, when they leave they have a smile on their face and are far more confident than when first walking in. In a nutshell we have the utmost respect for anyone who wants to put on a pair of running shoes and have a go.”
This philosophy is reflected by Sportlink’s involvement in the community and continued support for events on the running calendar.
“We have our outside running groups and we sponsor the Sportlink Norfolk Grand Prix series as well as supporting about 80 per cent of all the other races in the county, along with the county cross country and track and field championships. We have a great relationship with the running community so it’s another way for us to also give something back at grassroots level” says Neil.
“When it comes to advising on equipment, we most certainly don’t go out of our way to sell the most expensive product. We are only interested in making sure that we get it right for each person by way of their needs and indeed at a price which matches their budget.
“As for footwear, the technology really is now moving at an even faster level. Whereas in the past I have always laughed at the idea that a shoe can help you run faster, many of the brands are all now looking at technology which really will help to give that little extra advantage, particularly on the back of the recent sub two-hour marathon challenge. From a personal point of view, I do not think it is right, as for me running is one of the most natural sports and pastimes anyone can take part in.
“In other sports where mechanical equipment is used, we know that sportspeople are always looking to improve through better equipment, but a pair of training shoes which supposedly helps you run quicker, through aids and extra special materials built in to the midsoles, just doesn’t seem right to me. However, you have to move with the times as there is no way a competitive athlete is going to be happy standing on the start line thinking that the guy beside him has an unfair advantage.
“At the same time, none of the manufacturers will want to be left behind by their competitors either, so watch this space as they all now push to be the number one running brand with the number one running shoes.
“What I will say, though, is that all runners should always remember the importance of getting the right shoe for them while not forgetting to focus on all the other fundamental benefits you expect from a running shoe.”
So, after trading for one year for nearly every mile of the marathon course, what does the future hold for Sportlink, for those who work in it, and the running community served by it?
“Having now completed our first 25 years in business (Nov 16th 1994 – Nov 16th 2019), for me the future is all about never ever taking anything or anyone for granted as things can change very quickly, even more so nowadays,” says Neil.
“At Sportlink, we will always keep doing our very best to improve on our standards and trying to be that little bit extra unique. I really do have fantastic staff who I rate so very highly. My son Craig is a senior manager and, needless to say, I hope he stays in the business.
“I still have lots of plans myself for Sportlink, but I am also trying to let others develop their own ideas as well. Chas Allen, who has an absolute wealth of knowledge when it comes to all things health and fitness-related, is also on hand as a consultant.
“Our business has gone to another level and this is also down to the amazing staff. Apart from the many qualifications and degrees within the business, it is their enthusiasm and passion for running which all makes for a really excellent service and, I like to think, a truly amazing experience. They are all very experienced runners themselves, belonging to various local running clubs. That is another reason why we always say we don’t just hear what our customers are saying, we feel what they are saying.
The new look superstore in Taverham
“We’re now going into our 26th year. The shop looks awesome and it is also now double the size of when we first moved to Taverham. As a runner, I love what we have done. “Everywhere you look there is running. Not just product, but just lots of great stuff. It really is an amazing place for runners to come to, a real runners’ hub.
“I am also so very proud of all the charity work we have done over the years. I am not sure exactly how much money we have raised, but I do know that it goes into several thousands of pounds. At the same time we have had some awesome fun with our fund- raising efforts, which I always think helps to engage people much more while raising awareness of some of the causes which we support.”
2017 World Speedway Champion Jason Doyle at Sportlink.
Neil’s business aim is as clear as it was a quarter of a century ago.
“I want Sportlink to continue to be the best it can be,” he says “After 25 years, it really has been a marathon and just like any good marathon runner, you have to be durable and roll with the highs and the lows while always retaining the belief that you will get across the finish line, knowing you have done your very best, irrespective of whether you are on a high or most certainly if and when you have to encounter one of those little rough patches during the course of the journey.
“In business you have to learn to change and evolve and see the changes coming – just as I saw the running boom coming. People say ‘How do you compete with the internet?’ The fact is we don’t want to compete with the internet. We don’t run an internet sales website. I’m not interested in making millions on the internet without any thought or feeling going into the sale. I don’t work like that. Sportlink doesn’t work like that.
“If people say I’m a good salesman I get offended. I’m not. I’m just passionate. It’s all real. That’s important in business. It’s all about keeping to your principles. All our staff are so very genuine too and are more than happy to go well beyond the extra mile when required.
“The refit isn’t finished yet. I want to let others have a bit more free rein in the business and to step back a bit. I’m doing a lot of coaching and have upped my qualifications to allow me to spend time doing more personal things.”
So are there still personal milestones to achieve in business and in running for Neil Featherby?
“Having run at least once every single day since September 1st, 1981, I think there is only one person in the world ahead of me now,” he says.
He may even be world number one in another sense, according to one trade insider.
“Mark Ash, who works for Saucony Originals, reckons I’ve sold more pairs of running shoes than anyone else in the world. He travels the world. I’ve been in the game more than 30 years and while I know I have sold a lot of shoes during that time, I am also sure that there are many others who have sold more than I have. I think it is perhaps fair to say I am in the top ten in the UK, certainly as far as independent specialists go.
“With regards to the future of the industry, all I am going to say is long may the independent specialists keep going as what you see is most certainly for real and more often than not, run by runners for runners.”