Relaunch will signal start of a new era at Norfolk shoe firm laced with history

PUBLISHED: 05:00 31 January 2018 | UPDATED: 14:40 01 February 2018

Start-Rite shoes chief executive Ian Watson with the newly branded range of childrens shoes.
Picture: Nick Butcher

Start-Rite shoes chief executive Ian Watson with the newly branded range of childrens shoes. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

Centuries ago, Norfolk was renowned for its shoe-making​. But while much of that world has vanished, one brand has endured. Mark Shields reports.

Start-Rite shoes chief executive Ian Watson with the newly branded range of childrens shoes.
Picture: Nick ButcherStart-Rite shoes chief executive Ian Watson with the newly branded range of childrens shoes. Picture: Nick Butcher

When the headhunter’s email arrived in Ian Watson’s inbox just over two years ago, his eye was caught by two words.

A chief executive was required to lead “transformational change” in a family-run company which had been trading for more than 200 years, and counted the Royal family among its loyal customers.

Having led turnarounds in his previous two posts, the challenge appealed to Mr Watson, and – after agreeing to become the first chief executive of Start-Rite Shoes from beyond the founding family since 1792 – he has spent two years reshaping the business to survive and thrive in the fiercely competitive arena of children’s retail.

Tomorrow, in London, Start-Rite will be relaunched with a new brand and new look which the company hopes can drive sales and profits.

Start-Rite shoes chief executive Ian Watson with the newly branded range of childrens shoes.
Picture: Nick ButcherStart-Rite shoes chief executive Ian Watson with the newly branded range of childrens shoes. Picture: Nick Butcher

“We have been through quite the transformation,” says Mr Watson at the company’s revamped offices on Broadland Business Park.

“We went back to our roots, speaking to two-and-a-half thousand customers and consumers, asking them what they thought of our range and what it meant to them, building a picture of the perception of what we were.”

Combining that feedback with ethnographic research into how customers were using their shoes has led the company to a relaunch Mr Watson describes as “different and the same”.

“Going back to the 1940s, we were a pioneer in understanding children, and what we are doing isn’t fundamentally different.

A promotional image for Start-Rite Shoes' relaunch in February 2018. Picture: Start-Rite Shoes.A promotional image for Start-Rite Shoes' relaunch in February 2018. Picture: Start-Rite Shoes.

“Our new position is still about shoes fitting the foot, and foot health, but we also want to fit the child.”

He said: “We’ve been here 226 years and we understand children and children’s shoes: that’s the cornerstone of what we are trying to do.”

Start-Rite’s range has been rearranged into three segments – the traditional Classics, versatile Kicks and active-inspired Pioneers – to meet the demands of children who might be wearing the shoes “from 6am until bedtime”.

“Children are using shoes for multiple purposes – they don’t have a pair ‘for best’ any more,” said Mr Watson.

A Start-Rite poster featuring the famous twins. Picture: Start-Rite Shoes.A Start-Rite poster featuring the famous twins. Picture: Start-Rite Shoes.

Reflecting the change, the Start-Rite twins – trapped hand-in-hand in the company’s logo for decades – have been broken free and will feature in the company’s advertising materials, heading off in search of adventure.

The new logo and branding has been developed by Jim Sutherland, a visiting professor in design at Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) who has previously worked with the likes of the Williams Formula 1 team and the rebrand of NUA.

The public rebrand will be launched tomorrow, exactly two years since Mr Watson’s arrival, but it reflects changes which have been going on within the business over the past 18 months.

A series of senior appointments and promotions have been made, including operations director Gavin Price, tasked with improving the efficiency of the distribution centre, and new financial director Jo Westaway.

The company’s Peachman Way headquarters have been redesigned, with small office cubicles ripped out and the 86 staff encouraged to collaborate in an open-plan design.

An investment in new technology, including £20,000 on a professional Skype video conferencing connection, means that products sourced abroad can be inspected by the senior team without the time-consuming process of samples being sent around the world, while HD cameras at its factory in India allow the production line to be monitored in real-time.

The distribution centre, which ships 900,000 pairs of shoes a year, has been reorganised under Mr Price’s leadership – a key part of Start-Rite’s ambition to drive up online sales from 15% of turnover to 30% within three years. It also answers retailers’ demands for timely deliveries of orders, especially at the peak back-to-school season, while a new website has been launched so they can place orders directly around the clock.

“Utilising IT to give us better algorithms so that we can predict demand better is going to be one of the key things to drive improvements in profit for us,” said Mr Watson. Automation of certain finance tasks, such as invoicing, has also freed up staff to “stop looking in the rear view mirror so much, and focus on the road ahead he added.

At the heart of the changes is a change of pace, and Mr Watson expects 2018 to be key in showing whether the company is making the progress it needs to.

Shortly after he took over in 2016, Start-Rite’s parent company James Southall & Co disposed of its One Small Step, One Giant Leap retail chain, at a cost of around £1.2m, to focus on its core business. That led to a loss of £877,000 in 2016 on sales of £18.2m, though unaudited figures show 2017’s profitability has improved, said Mr Watson.

“We are still transforming,” he said. “Our customers and consumers have yet to see all we have done. From February, they will.”

• Updating logistics brings benefits

Perhaps the most notable new arrival at Start-Rite is Doris – the nickname for the company’s new £130,000 packing and dispatch machine.

Running at its peak, the machine can pack and label an order every 15 seconds, a significant time saving on the three minutes-plus it previously took to do by hand.

The distribution centre now runs two shifts, and an automated system is being implemented to make sure stock levels are in line with demand.

It runs on lean principles, so that staffing is kept as low as possible and scaled up for peak periods. The warehouse has also been physically reorganised so that high-volume styles are within easy reach and workers don’t waste time walking long distances between shelves - making order-picking twice as fast.

The changes are not revolutionary, admits operations director Gavin Price, but update practices which had fallen out of date.

• History of Start-Rite Shoes

Start-Rite Shoes began life in 1792, when James Smith established his shoemaker’s stall on Norwich Market.

But it was his great-great-grandson James Southall who rechristened the company Start-Rite in 1921, and the company’s famous twins appeared on their first poster with the slogan “Children’s feet have far to go”.

Start-Rite began to make its name in the post-war years by challenging accepted wisdom about children’s shoes, carrying out the first nationwide survey of children’s feet, and changing the way shoes were made.

In 1955, it was awarded a Royal Warrant to supply footwear to the young Prince Charles, a move which gave the brand a significant boost in exposure.

Since then, the company has gone on to fit more than 1,500 pairs of shoes for the Royal family, including most recently for Prince George.

In 2003, the company outsourced manufacture of its shoes to India and Portugal, ending 200 years of shoemaking in Norwich.

• Profile: Ian Watson

Ian Watson began his career in 1989, and spent the first 10 years of his career at speciality chemical company Shipley Ronal.

After a number of commercial roles, he moved on to Irwin Industrial Tools, a division of Fortune 500 consumer goods company Newell Rubbermaid.

In his role as vice president for Europe and Asia Pacific, he worked and lived throughout the world.

In 2007 he joined Britax Childcare, the manufacturer of child car seats, which was then owned by Carlyle Group private equity, and as European managing director implemented strategies which improved profitability by more than 80%, eventually leading to its sale in January 2011 to Nordic Capital.

Mr Watson joined Start-Rite Shoes in February 2016 as the first non-family member to head up the 226-year-old business, and was set the task of developing and building upon the success of the historic brand to make it relevant to today’s consumer.

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