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FOUR SEASONS: TISO TURNS 50

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 15 September 2012

CHRIS Tiso is showing me the edited highlights of the Tiso family scrapbook. There’s a black-and-white shot of his dad, Graham, standing outside his first outdoors gear store on Edinburgh’s Rodney Street in the 1960s, rocking an outrageous pair of stripy bell-bottoms. There’s also a series of colour pictures showing Graham helping Sir Chris Bonington prepare for his Everest expedition of 1972 – one taken in the Tiso family garden, with the crew messing about with a prototype Whillans box tent, another showing a huge wall of snow rolling towards Everest Base Camp following an avalanche of unimaginable proportions. The pick of the bunch, though, is an image from a Tiso’s catalogue produced in the mid-1960s. Graham is pictured modelling what must have been a cutting-edge waterproof jacket at the time, the hood pulled up, a faraway look in his eyes and a cigarette dangling incongruously from his right hand. You can just imagine the photographer saying: “OK Graham, now let’s try a couple without the fag.”

Next month, the chain of outdoors gear stores Graham founded will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Chris, who is now the company’s chief executive, is putting on a series of lectures from three Tiso-sponsored athletes: skier and mountaineer Polly Murray, cyclist and rower Mark Beaumont and all-round outdoorsman Guy Grieve. The trio made appearances at Tiso stores in Aberdeen and Dundee earlier this week, and are due to appear in Glasgow on Tuesday and Edinburgh on Thursday.

The thought of a network of stores all over Scotland – not to mention annual profits of around £1,000,000 a year – would have seemed like pie in the sky to Graham 50 years ago when, with his wife Maude, he swapped a Turner kit car for a van so the couple could transport purpose-built climbing and skiing gear from locations all over Europe to their new shop in Edinburgh. At first, they operated out of the back of a boat shop on Dundas Street. Business was brisk, however, so they were only there for a few months before moving to their first stand-alone premises on Rodney Street.

“There had been people climbing in Scotland since the Twenties,” says Chris, “but by the stage they opened there was a very active scene. What [my parents] did was identify that there was a real dearth of equipment available. In those days, people were buying army and navy surplus gear and then modifying it. There was nothing suitable for climbing being produced or sold in the UK because there wasn’t a mature market, so they were sourcing equipment from all over the world.”

All of which made for some interesting family holidays for Chris and his two older brothers.

“When we were kids my parents used to pack us up in the old camper van they had and drive to the continent,” he says. “We would drive to Italy, visit the boot manufacturers, buy the stock, put it in the back of the camper van and then bring it back and sell it.”

Over the next 30 years, the business continued to grow, moving to larger premises on Wellington Place in 1972 before adding a flagship store on Rose Street in 1978. Then, in 1992, disaster struck when Graham was killed in a boating accident. Just 21, Chris suddenly found himself running the family business.

“There was no particular discussion about who was going to do what,” he says, “we all just mucked in to try and hold everything together. Really, it just slowly sort of evolved that I was the one taking the lead.”

Under Chris’s leadership, the company has expanded significantly, acquiring the Alpine Bikes chain in 2006 and the George Fisher store in Keswick in 2007, as well as opening Tiso stores around the country. The core principles of the business, though, have remained the same.

“Obviously there’s been this huge shift to what I call ‘outdoor lifestyle products’”, says Chris. “It’s a big opportunity for us, of course, but it’s also a big challenge, because we’ve built up a reputation as specialists. If you’re a serious climber and you come into Tiso you expect us to sell quality, technical ice tools, and the minute we lose sight of that we lose our status as a specialist and we start to lose our credibility. We’ve got 50 years invested in that, so it’s certainly not going to happen on my watch.”

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