For fencers, our equipment is a central figure in what we do. We talk about this all the time – our swords are an extension of who we are. For fourth-generation Leon Paul co-owner and Director Ben Paul, making top quality fencing equipment with compassion is clearly an extension of who he is.
Though we at AFM strive for neutrality and thus do not endorse any one equipment manufacturer, at the same time we recognize the good that everyone brings to the sport. This interview provides fencers with an inside look at what is really behind the fencing masks and swords that we can sometimes take for granted. Though there is a clear competition in the marketplace, it’s pleasantly surprising to hear that the philosophies of fencing that we hold so highly such as camaraderie and constant growth are mirrored at equipment manufacturer Leon Paul. It’s also fascinating to get an inside view into the impact of the pandemic on this storied and historic company.
The future of fencing is a subject that we are all interested in as we work to navigate the present ups and downs of COVID. What technology might bring to the sport and how we can expand access and excitement to fencing, it’s a subject that we are all interested in. Thank you to Ben Paul for his openness and insight into what might be on the horizon, as well as for his dedication to the sport of fencing.
Interview with Ben Paul
Igor: Good afternoon, or evening where you are. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview, I think it’s fascinating.
BP: You know, my dad lives by the sea in England. He’s read your stuff, hundreds of miles away.
IG: Wow, thank you for sharing that! It’s a very small niche, and it’s a community that is easy to reach all over the world. Let’s start with the pandemic. How did you manage to weather this period? How are you doing in the midst of everything?
Ben Paul: We’re doing alright, ticking along. Like everyone, we’re waiting for the cases to hopefully come down so that we can start opening things up again. It’s a long, slow process.
IG: When everything closed down a year ago, the feeling was that it would be a couple of weeks, maybe a month.
BP: At the start, you think one month. And then I was like, oh, it’s quite bad, maybe six months. And then it’s a year through. It’s been a challenge, but it is what it is.
At the start, we knew that we would have long periods of low sales because people wouldn’t be fencing. We made a plan of how we could survive. The UK government had helped with a wage subsidy system, and we were able to use the people as they were needed. Our government has been hugely supportive of workers and wages. That’s helped. We’ve got good staff that has been with us a long time and they’ve been very understanding and supportive. When they come in to where they’ve worked extra hard, extra safe, followed the guidelines. Those two things are the main things.
Fencing is a passion. It’s not necessarily just a hobby. It’s not something you can just turn off. So people were still buying stuff, maybe to train at home, upgrading bits and pieces of their kit. I think we actually sold slightly more than we would have predicted in that time frame. I think that’s just because the customers are so passionate about the sport, they’re not prepared to give it up. Even if they can’t really do it, they’re still trying to find ways to do it.
IG: How much of a toll did it take?
BP: In the full course of the year, at times we were between thirty and forty percent down on normal sales and sometimes all the way to sixty percent down and a bit more. We are global and we sell everywhere, and everyone reacts differently at different times to the pandemic, so we could sell bits and pieces as the pandemic moved and spread and changed across the world. Just a little bit of sales here or there could tick us over and keep people working.
If someone said to me two years ago, “You know, there’ll be a time when you’re sixty percent down,” I would tell them that couldn’t be possible. You must have gotten your wires crossed. There’s no chance as we’ve been a business that’s been growing. Since I started many, many years ago, we’ve consistently sort of got between five and ten percent growth every year.
2020 was also an Olympic year, so I was hoping we were going to be ten to fifteen percent up. We were planning for that. We’d bought more steel, more fabric, done all of the numbers. To go from being fifteen percent up to sixty percent down was such a hit. I suppose it’s demoralizing for everyone. People might be in this for twenty or thirty years and you’re building towards something, only then to just see it gone like that. There was no fencing, no competitions, no clubs, just nothing. It was a real kick.
An unexpected opportunity to innovate
BP: For a month there I was particularly down and fed up. That’s when I realized it was a chance to reset everything, start again in a weird way. You suddenly have time, and you can start doing things that you’ve never had the time to do before because you’ve been so busy doing the things that you needed to do to meet demand. We had purchased some old forges from France and they were being sat in our factory. We weren’t sure what to do with them. We had ideas about it, but we never had time. The thing about old machines is that they use lots of steel, great machined parts, but the technology behind them was terrible. It was old switches, old solenoids, old wiring. So we ripped them all the way out, put in new computer control systems that are really accurate, and then we had the important parts of the machine. We had time to redesign them. For this March, we’ve produced these sabre blades and they are great. To be quite honest, if it hadn’t been for the pandemic they wouldn’t be as good as they are. They would be a completely different thing. In some ways, by having that time to fix things, we’re able to go through each product and we’re trying to make each one better.
We’ve got some more work to do on foil blades now, but then we’re moving on to masks and we’ve got a plan for upgrading lots of equipment. Not necessarily massive upgrades where it’s a whole new product, but taking a step back and saying “Why is it like that? Why was it made like that?” Some of the time it’s because that’s how we did it twenty years ago and no one’s ever looked and said “That’s before you could get a plastic injection molding machine and make the parts half the size.”
I think we’ve got an opportunity to improve and develop, especially in the technological side of it. Then hopefully when everything kicks off again we have a lot of interesting upgrades to a lot of products.
IG: I’ve always thought of your products as innovative. I think everyone can mimic, but your innovation is the element that makes you stand out. Where do you think the sport will move and how?
BP: If I could do any one thing to change the sport, I would get someone to rewrite the rules. They started in French and then were translated into English, and then they’re added onto every four years, so that some parts of them don’t make any sense. For example crocodile clips, they are pre war technology for moving electricity. Instead we could move to some kind of rules that allow us to offer really good electrical connection between two points. Instead maybe move to a USB key or a magnetic key, or some sort of technology that’s much faster and half the size. It’s not easy. Writing rules is very hard.
In terms of technology, I think the main thing is to go wireless. Kids today, they’re playing computers with perfect graphics and wireless controllers. If you gave them a controller and connected it to a spool and that’s got a big metal reel, they’d just be like “No, that’s not new technology.” So my feeling is we’ve got to go wireless and get good, reliable wireless technology so that people can fence more easily, in different spaces, and with more freedom. Instead of always having to have set clubs, you could go to a school and move people around as and how the space fits.
With that we could add in different games. For example, you could have different modes. Maybe if I was fencing you and you wanted to practice your defense, you start with two hits, but I get two points. Sets of rules that would encourage me to attack you and you to defend. Or testing time. You’ve only got ten seconds and you’ve got to get a hit. You’ve got to get two hits in ten seconds. These kinds of things so that kids could look at a screen and choose a game that is teaching fencing, but there’s a goal at the end of it. I think if we can do that, we can capture more of the kids that are playing lots of computer games whose parents are desperate for them to get some exercise. You could mix the two.
Fencing is already a technology-driven sport in terms of how it looks and how it feels. We can really tap into that market of this new generation of kids that have technology everywhere.
IG: Exactly. It would make a huge way to engage the population. I’ve never seen anyone just dry fencing in the park.
BP: Fencing in the UK is different than in the U.S. where you have lots of set up spaces. Here you have lots of mixed use sports halls, so wireless is important here. With wireless it’s just in your pocket. You pull it out of your pocket and you get fencing.
IG: What else do you think we need to be doing?
BP: One of the things that a pandemic can do is again, to give us the opportunity to reset. What we’d like to do and what we can do better. I think in youth competitions, that experience for kids is not always great. They turn up, it takes hours, it’s not fun. There are people shouting. You might do four matches and then go home. I kind of feel that the competitions are designed in a way that aren’t necessarily fun for kids and for families. Certainly at a younger age, I’m talking sort of eight to thirteen, the age where you’re going to get someone who would be a fencer their whole life. We could use this as an opportunity to reset what we think a junior fencing competition should be and make sure that the kids always leave them really happy. I think twenty percent of them leave happy and they stay and they fence forever. The rest don’t really enjoy it and sort of drift out of the sport. I think we can improve the enjoyment of fencing competitions for kids.
Some crazy ideas of how to make fencing popular
The other thing would be to help coaches. Especially young fencers that have had a fencing career, a high level, they then finish their career. How do they make money from doing fencing? If you are a fencer and you want to become a coach, how are you going to make money and how hard is that? What will your life look like? Will it look like you work every single hour that is available in the day and at the end of the day, you come home with no money? Can make a system where the coach can make a really good living comparable with other good quality jobs?
If we could help talented young coaches learn how to make successful businesses, the talent grows. Whereas if you start as you know, “I came out of fencing, I went and tried to set up a club. I didn’t have any money. I couldn’t borrow any money. I didn’t have a business plan. I went to the bank. They laughed at me. I went and joined someone else’s club for a bit. They paid me peanuts just to keep me, you know, because they could. Then I quit the sport and went and got a job in a bank.” That’s not what we want. We want to change it around so when you finish your fencing career, you’ve got a path to become a successful coach.
IG: That’s great thinking but it’s a huge challenge.
BP: It’s a challenge. One of the reasons is because fencing is not that popular to have a demand for all these fencers who retire from the sport and want to become coaches. If you did a really in depth study of people who had never seen fencing before, got some information from them, and found out what you needed to do to make it really popular, it still wouldn’t work. For example, we might find that the complex rules should be changed and simplified, so the sport will be easily understood by everyone, like a football.
You’d take that to the fencers at the very top and they would never go for it. Because they’re already at the top. They would say “No, because I’ve spent 20 years of my life learning how to do this thing really, really well. Please don’t change anything. I’m winning every year. I love it. It’s quite hard to change.” I kind of think that if you’re going to change something, it’s going to have to be done from grassroots up. I think what we would need to do is start at club level. If it’s super fun fencing invented by us in an afternoon. Then they can take that sport that changed rules set up to the top. Then eventually the people at the top say, “All the kids are doing this new thing.” My feeling is that, yes, we could change something and make it more, let’s say, visually appealing or appealing towards an audience so they can understand the rules that may be, but anything that has to be done has to be done from the bottom.
Then the challenge that you have is when you say to someone at the bottom, why are you doing fencing? They always say, because I want to go to the Olympics. I want to make sure that I’m doing what the Olympic guys are doing. The more I thought about it, the more I was like, I’m not going to be the one to change this. I’ve had crazy ideas. I thought we could do that. I can’t see an easy way of figuring out how we get a change that will make everyone happy. It’s sort of a Catch-22.
Fencing as A Cultural Thing
[BEN – Here would be fantastic to have anything from Paris CIP]
IG: What do you think about how fencing is in different areas in terms of popularity and success?
BP: It’s a good question. I think culturally, France have had this history of the Musketeers. Paris has the huge tournaments, and even then when you go outside of Paris, they’ve had National Championships and the World Championships. I’ve tried to copy that in the UK, and we can’t get anywhere.
I wish we had the same kinds of things going on here that you have going on in America. I came to your national championships in Atlanta, Georgia, 20 years ago now, I was probably about 20 years old then. There were like thousands of people entered into this tournament. In the UK, on a lucky good day, we would have like one hundred and fifty to two hundred. America’s done very well in getting lots of people fencing and at national championships, which I think has helped grow the sport and has helped you win medals.
That’s a cultural thing. America is about everyone having an opportunity and doing things bigger and better. It’s very hard to copy culture in other countries and where they’ve done well, and I wish we could just do that. I guess it’s maybe adapting the sport to the culture of that region and making it more relatable to those individuals.
In Japan, it’s playing this love of technology and Kendo, the history. New Zealand is completely different. They’re very outdoorsy people, they love being outdoors, but some of the time it’s miserable weather. Why not do this wireless cool sport that’s indoors when it’s really cold? I don’t think we could just go and say, let’s be a bit like Paris and we’ll just make a massive event.
Innovation to promote the sport
IG: What do you as a manufacturer think you can do to influence this world?
BP: I suppose that some of the things we touched on in terms of the technology. Wireless I think is key. Helping direct the rule set to be more exciting when there is an opportunity.
For example, in the 2012 Olympics we did the big light up floors. That cost us a bunch of money. We got some money back, but nowhere near the amount we spent. It’s important that when we have these limited opportunities to show the sport that it looks way better than anyone else. A few days later on the radio, there was a famous Olympic runner who said he took his daughter to see the fencing and it just looked so amazing and how all she wanted to do was fencing.
You need the infrastructure behind it to have more coaches and all, but I think with the limited opportunities we have, we need to absolutely smash it. We need to be laser light show. We need fencing to be fun. Just trying to blow people away. The FIE, we’ve got some money because they’re very lucky and a person interested in endorsement [Editor’s Note: FIE President, Russian Oligarch Alisher Usmanov, is a former fencer and a huge patron of fencing]. I think if they show him something of the future, something of Star Trek or whatever, and said we can deliver it, he would probably spend the money.
That’s the easiest thing, and then everything else is way more complicated in terms of getting better coaching systems, trying to make tournaments cheaper to set up so they’re easier to run. Years and years of work and often very hard to tell what return you actually got for your investment.
IG: I totally agree. The show component of the Olympic Games is huge.
Insights into Manufacturing and Positioning Philosophy
IG: So often we are competing against each other and not thinking about the bigger picture.
BP: There was a manufacturer’s guild that my dad started years ago. Eventually less and less people joined in and they called it a day. Then I started one again and I didn’t want to be the head of it because of biases and it kind of petered out again. I think everyone likes the idea that we all hate each other. I get on very well with, like, PBT, FWF . I also think the more that time has gone on, people have seen that with fencing it’s easier to grow the sport than it is to kill the opponent. In terms of working collaboratively, I do think it does happen more than people think.
IG: You manufacture everything in London, which drives prices up. I did a post years ago “What to do when your child wants a fancy Leon Paul Gear.” I understand the price and the reasons, and I also understand the high level of quality.
BP: We have this thing in London called the London Living Wage, which we were paying years before it became a thing, and it’s an amount of money that someone would need to have a decent standard of living. With rent on the factories and everything is expensive, and it’s only going one way.
We also do try to make everything the best we can and there is a cost to that. So for example, you can spray paint a mask and it costs nothing. But we do a thing called nylon dipping where you statically charge to the mask and you vibrate the plastic powder and the powder sticks to the mask. Then you hang the mask up and you run it through a giant oven and the plastic melts and sticks very nicely onto your metal and it doesn’t chip off so easily. This whole process is very time consuming and expensive.
I always thought that one day we would maybe do a sub brand, but we’ve never needed to because we managed to carve out a space for us. We’ve got our part of our business, so there are other businesses that can do the other parts so that we don’t end up with a monopoly of just one company.
It’s about the people and the passion
IG: So your foreseeable future is more high end.
BP: Yes, but there’s a big challenge coming in the world where machines and computers are going to take jobs and make everything much cheaper. As machines get better and processes get better, less people are needed to make things and the machine costs overall become less. I don’t want to be a company that is just machines making product. Part of the company is people. It’s not just about money. It’s not just about making things for money and making them cheaply. You could do it cheaper than we’re doing it. Some of it has to be about a reason for this company to exist. I see that, as we push technology forward for the sport to keep it interesting and exciting, we are also about passion. It’s a passion of my family’s one hundred years and generations of people putting effort into the sport.
As a society, people are going to need jobs, need stuff to do. We can be a company that is sustainable and not destroying the planet, and something that will be part of the community of fencing for a long time. That’s something I want to do. Rather than just make some money. I’ll make more money buying Bitcoin and selling it at the right time.
IG: That’s a great statement to make, and I sympathize with you. You can’t take all this money with you to the grave.
BP: That’s exactly how I feel.
When the pandemic started, there was a time when we were open and France was shut and my friend called me and said “We’re all shut down here. How is the UK still open?” and I said “Well, the government is just saying just to get on with it and don’t worry about it. So I think it’s all right.” Then one of my employees came in and had a neighbor that got COVID going into hospital and died four days later and they never saw him again. At that point I said, we’re shutting everything down. We shut up before the UK shut down as a whole because no one’s life is worth that. There are more important things. Fencing equipment can wait.
That’s the space that we need to grow the sport rather than the money monopoly capitalism way.
IG: It’s a fantastic statement, Ben, that comes from one of the oldest equipment manufacturers currently working. I feel very privileged to talk to you.
BP: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
This interview has been edited down for time and readability after our wonderful interview with Ben Paul. It is published with his approval on this blog.
Thank you so much to the thoughtful and candid co-owner of Leon Paul, who spoke with us about the important issues that are facing fencing and the great possibilities we can see ahead. AFM is grateful for your time and your dedication to the sport!