The Dunlop and Slazenger brands remain prominent in sporting goods, especially in racket sports such as tennis, squash, golf, badminton, hockey and cricket. It remains the largest British-owned sporting business.
Dunlop was established as a rubber goods company in 1889. In 1909, it moved into sporting goods when it began to manufacture twelve dozen golf balls a day at Manor Mill in Birmingham. In their first year, Dunlop balls won five of the major British golf tournaments.
From 1924 the company branched out into tennis balls, and from 1925, tennis rackets. The decade saw Dunlop established as a leading sporting goods supplier due to a mechanised production line, which reduced costs, as well as a strong commitment to research and development. It was considered the foremost manufacturer of golf balls.
Production of the golf balls was temporarily discontinued in 1941 due to war work and a lack of rubber supply. After the war, Dunlop transferred production to Speke, Liverpool, where it had leased a former aircraft factory.
Dunlop’s Fort Maxply tennis rackets were used by more than half of the competitors at Wimbledon in 1952.
In 1959, Slazenger, a major English sporting goods rival, was acquired. In 1960, exports by Dunlop Sport totalled £1.6 million.
In 1971, astronaut Alan Shepard used a Dunlop 65 ball when he played golf on the moon.
Production of rackets at Waltham Abbey in Essex fell prey to cheaper imports produced overseas, and the factory was closed in 1979, with production concentrated on the Slazenger site at Horbury in West Yorkshire.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the company was slow to see that wooden rackets were going the way of the dinosaur. Eventually, it started manufacturing the new lightweight graphite rackets, and wooden racket production ended in 1984.
From 1981 to 1988, Dunlop Sports sponsored John McEnroe in the most expensive tennis sponsorship deal in the world, worth $500,000 annually, plus commissions on McEnroe branded rackets.
More tennis Grand Slams have been won with Dunlop rackets than any other brand.
By 1982 Dunlop Slazenger had annual sales of £100 million, but it was struggling to remain profitable. In 1983 the company lost £6 million. Alan Finden-Crofts was appointed chief executive, and identified the company weaknesses as a local (as opposed to international) outlook, weak marketing and a lack of a global strategy. By 1986 he had turned around the company to make an annual profit of £16 million.
The Slazenger factory at Horbury, Yorkshire was closed in the late 1980s.
During the breakup of the Dunlop empire between 1996 and 1998, Dunlop Slazenger was sold to its management, backed by the private equity firm Cinven, for £330 million. Cinven sold Dunlop’s rights to the Puma sports brand in the UK back to its German parent. Cinven invested heavily into the business to make it profitable.
In 2002 a large tennis ball manufacturing plant in Barnsley, Yorkshire was closed, and the machinery was shipped to a facility outside Manila in the Philippines. Token production in Germany and South Africa also ended, and the Philippine plant became the sole supplier of Dunlop Slazenger tennis balls. Due to Dunlop Slazenger’s high market share, the company estimated that 60 percent of the world’s tennis balls and 90 percent of squash balls were manufactured at the site.
By 2003 Dunlop was producing around 250,000 golf balls every day.
In 2004 Cinven sold the company to Sports Direct International for £40 million.