Holding court: a history of Slazenger

How did Slazenger became the largest distributor of sports equipment in the world?

The Slazenger brothers establish the business
Ralph Slazenger (1844 – 1910) was born in Warrington to a family of German Jewish origin. He attended Manchester Grammar School and Forster’s College in Cheetham before joining the family firm of tailors in Manchester.

Slazenger was a highly likeable and popular man.

The Slazenger & Sons name was introduced from 1876. Athletic clothing was produced from 1877.

Ralph Slazenger relocated with his brother Albert Slazenger (1857 – 1940) to 56 Cannon Street, London from 1879. The brothers began to produce sporting equipment from around this time. Ralph Slazenger renounced his Judaism at this time and converted to Anglicanism.

Tennis equipment was sold from 1881.

Slazenger tennis balls were used at the largest tournaments in England and Scotland by 1888.

British businesses controlled practically all of the European tennis equipment market by 1889.

Slazenger introduced golf clubs from 1890, followed by golf balls shortly afterwards.

Ralph Slazenger retired in 1901, leaving sole control of the firm with his brother Albert.

The Slazenger lawn tennis ball became the official ball of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament from 1902. The association continues to this day, and is the longest continually-running sporting sponsorship in the world.

Archdale Palmer (1865 – 1950), secretary of the All England Club, Wimbledon, was appointed general manager of Slazenger from 1905.

The Wimbledon tennis tournament was won with Slazenger rackets 16 times between 1890 and 1910.

Ralph Slazenger died with a gross estate valued at £56,137 in 1910.

Slazenger becomes a public company
Slazenger & Sons was registered as a public company, Slazengers Limited, with a capital of £265,000 in 1911. It was the largest manufacturer of lawn tennis balls in the world.

A factory was established in Sydney, Australia in 1922. A factory was established in Toronto, Canada in 1924.

H Gradidge & Sons of Woolwich was acquired from twin brothers Michael McMaster (1896 – 1968) and Humphrey McMaster (1896 – 1979) in 1931. Gradidges was strong in the cricket bat and golf club markets. The McMaster brothers joined the Slazenger board of directors.

Fred Perry (1909 – 1995) exclusively used Slazenger rackets throughout his career, and was sponsored by the company from 1935.

A factory had been established in France by 1935.

The Slazenger factory at Woolwich was the largest producer of tennis balls in the world by 1936. Slazenger was the leading tennis racket manufacturer in the world by 1937.

Slazenger established a factory at Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex in 1939.

Albert Slazenger died in 1940. His estate was valued at £444,263, and the bulk of it went to his son, Ralph Chivas Gully Slazenger (1914 – 2006). He was succeeded as company chairman by Archdale Palmer.

During the Second World War almost all manufacturing was dedicated towards producing goods for the war effort. When much of the London factories were destroyed during the Blitz, alternative sites had to be found quickly to fulfil existing contracts. Slazenger acquired William Sykes Ltd, a cricket bat manufacturer with a site at Horbury near Wakefield, and a controlling interest in Ayres Sports Goods, with expertise in badminton, for £149,270 in 1942.

A former war factory at Barnsley was also acquired in 1945, to establish a manufacturing centre for tennis balls.

After the war the Horbury site was modernised and extended. Slazenger closed its London factories in 1946 and concentrated production at Horbury, with 700 employees, and Barnsley, with a workforce of 200.

Archdale Palmer retired in 1946 and was succeeded as chairman by Michael McMaster.

Brand rationalisation meant that only the Slazenger name was used by 1951.

A significant proportion of production was exported by the 1950s.

Acquisition by Dunlop
Slazenger was acquired by Dunlop Rubber in an exchange of shares which valued the company at over £1.35 million in 1959. Dunlop Rubber had a large sporting equipment business.

Dunlop merged research & development and production between Dunlop Sport and Slazenger, but operations remained otherwise separate in areas such as sales and marketing.

Around 40 percent of sales were in export markets by 1960.

Slazenger was the largest manufacturer of tennis balls in the world, by a considerable margin, by 1962.

The Slazenger panther motif was introduced from 1963.

Slazenger was the largest distributor of sports equipment in the world by 1963.

Slazenger ranked among the leading tennis racket manufacturers in the world.

The sportswear market was entered from 1964.

The footballs for the World Cup finals in 1966 were produced by Slazenger at Horbury. The Slazenger ball was chosen amidst competition from eight other manufacturers.

The Slazenger football for the 1966 World Cup

Soccer and rugby ball production ended in 1969.

Export sales tripled between 1965 and 1970.

Product rationalisation saw production of equipment for niche sports such as boxing and archery end in the late 1970s. Areas where the Slazenger brand lacked strength, such as footwear, were also discontinued.

Price pressures in the mid-market saw production increasingly outsourced to low-cost manufacturers in the Far East from the late 1970s. A new tennis ball factory was established in the Philippines in 1977.

Horbury was the largest factory of its type in Europe by 1983.

Slazenger operations were fully merged with those of Dunlop Sport in the mid-1980s.

The Horbury factory was closed in 1986. Manufacturing was largely transferred to the Far East, although cricket bat production was relocated to Barnsley.

Recent history
Dunlop Slazenger was sold to its management for £300 million in 1996. It was the leading producer of tennis balls in the world, and employed 3,000 people.

The Barnsley factory was closed with the loss of 134 jobs in 2002. Production was relocated to Bataan in the Philippines, which was closer to the source of rubber and had lower labour costs. The felt coating for the balls is produced in Stroud, Gloucestershire, using imported New Zealand wool.

Sports Direct acquired Dunlop Slazenger for £40 million in 2004.

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