Running a clay ground’s easy, right? Or maybe not. Ben Lycett talks to Southdown owner Shaun Miller to find out what it takes to succeed
This month a road trip takes me down to the beautiful countryside of Sussex. The destination has been voted ‘Favourite Shooting Ground in the South East’ by Clay Shooting readers over five consecutive years, and has an enviable selection of competitions and unrivalled layouts.
First opened in 1983, and then taken over by the current owners in 2010, Southdown Gun Club has it all – well thought out layouts, multiple discipline options, countryside surroundings and wooded walks, not to mention a gun shop, café and inclusive access to facilities for all shooters. One of the owners, Shaun Miller, sits down with me to tell me the realities of running a popular ground, discuss his enthusiasm for turning the ground’s fortunes around and give a little insight into himself.
When did your interest in shooting begin?
I started shooting when I was 15. I shot for five or six years, after which, realising it was an expensive sport and knowing my performance wasn’t as strong (laughs), I gave it up. However about 18 years ago I took the sport back up and undertook some lessons to improve, doing the things you need to do to get better.
How did this interest then move forward, morphing into a career and with you becoming an owner?
More by chance than judgement; I used to be a member and shoot here at Southdown, shooting around three times a week. At the time I shot reasonably well, but since I took over my shooting has declined as I’m concentrating on the ground, always on the look out to make sure all is well here.
As a member over the years, numbers started to decline and the previous owner had lost interest. One day we were chatting and I uttered the words, as you do, “If I owned this place, I’d…” I don’t know how it happened but a conversation was struck up and it became apparent a deal could be done, and before you knew it, we had bought it. I have a business partner, Greg Swan, who introduced the deal in the first instance and here we are eight years later.
On the Monday after we bought the ground, we looked around noticing we had more staff than customers, so we began by condensing the shoot days, having Monday and Tuesday off, so we could work on the ground. My background is mainly in businesses and running them, so we now have a good team helping to run the place and always looking to improve things.
Is being a director and owner of a shooting ground all you’d hoped it would be?
It has it plus points; you get invited to sporting events at other grounds and get preferential treatment. You know people in the business, other ground owners, shooters, brands, gun shops, so all those things introduce you to a lot of possibilities. The down side is obviously that it’s a lot of hard work, which some people don’t appreciate – they just see running a ground as earning loads of money, but I have to say most of the money we’ve made here goes back into the facilities, which I’m happy to do. You also realise you can’t please everyone.
What’s your day to day routine?
Well I actually don’t do anything! (laughs) I have a couple of other businesses, but I spend every Wednesday here, meeting with our team, the social media managers, ground managers and course setters, making a plan for the week. But now we are at a stage where we have an amazing team helping to run the place for us.
Does your routine change for Competition days?
My role is only the marketing and promotion really, I get involved with the social media manager working on promoting the ground and events. We use social media to great effect, working on creating something inspirational. We find this works better than having block adverts. We like the inspiration of social media and the human element that comes with it, including the sharing and peaking interest.
With regard to other elements, I don’t directly get involved in much else, for example course setting. We have one of the best, Bob Clarke, so he doesn’t need any input aside from the obvious: what we don’t want and where we can’t have layouts. He just gets on with things. The ground staff and office staff are also managed and get on with their jobs, so my role is really orchestration, and of course meet and greets, shaking hands and being available should I be needed.
Do you take inspiration from other grounds, here or abroad?
I have shot in previous years at other grounds, but we have our own unique way of setting targets and how we like to set our format. We do go our own way, although we have noticed for example that other grounds have sped up the FITASC process, which can be drawn out and last all day; the old school love it, so we are now running the system so that it can be shot in the morning, allowing you to do other things with your day.
Has your perspective on shooting changed since owning a ground?
I don’t enjoy shooting as much now, if I’m honest. I only get time to shoot two or three times a month now. Having your own ground, you focus on other things when walking between layouts, always wanting to be on top of any potential problems that may occur, so your focus moves away from the enjoyment of the sport and more on the business aspects.
What is the biggest challenge in operating a well known shooting ground?
Without doubt, the weather. It’s completely out of your control. You can put on the most fantastic event and at any time of the year you can have ridiculous weather. If it’s a pre-booked event people will still come, but this also brings its own host of problems – mud, keeping people dry and so on.
And biggest reward?
The opportunity to sponsor and help young shooters. We sponsor six people and seeing them achieve good results is very rewarding.
Do you find it easy to encourage young shooters to join the sport?
We find that our sponsorship scheme really helps to encourage youth in the sport. Seeing them do well and benefit through social media helps carry the message. We hold young shot days run in conjunction with the CPSA and that’s also a good way to show young people the enjoyment of the sport in a controlled and safe way.
What brands are associated with Southdown?
We have a groundbreaking initiative called Talent Pool, which promotes the shooting school and its tuition. In essence its an X Factor-style competition to be the next person, aged 18-80, that we focus on. The idea is the competitors are not shooters, they are C class or below, or don’t shoot at all, and then over a year we take them to a position where they can enter the British Open. It’s a free to enter competition. Through this, Zoli guns (imported by Edgar Brothers) were very keen to support us and they sponsored the event and the shooting school along with providing NSI cartridges.
Our traps are provided by Promatic, who gave us a great deal, and we have become a sole Promatic ground with about 135-40 traps that we can distribute through all disciplines without moving any.
What are your thoughts on the current rules and regulations surrounding operating shooting clubs?
There are definitely a lot more now! In comparison to when we bought the club, certainly. The first thing I did when I took over was have large signs made displaying the basic nine rules of shooting. As a layout we are safe shooting either side of a long lane, east and west, so there’s no shooting down the line or circular courses.
We adhere to health and safety so we enforce the wearing of glasses on the layout, which comes with different reactions, as some people don’t like wearing glasses. These are the things we have to do, which are there for good reason, but I think inherently shooting is one of the safest sports. Our team of setters and safety officers know what they are doing and do a superb job.
What are the future plans for the club?
We’ve made some amazing changes, but I’d like to have a nicer road into the ground, upgrade the balcony and convert the barn in the car park into a space for corporate events. We are always revitalising the ground, aiming to hold bigger and better competitions, sponsor more up-and-coming shooters… it’s a never ending job, but one that we love.