How did a ‘scruffy urchin’ unloading shoes out of a van on the King’s Road rise to become footwear royalty? The man who helped build Office recounts his tale.
Richard Wharton has forgotten more about the UK footwear market than most of us know,” says Pentland Brands chief executive Andy Rubin, when asked by Drapers what he thinks of the man who helped build footwear chain Office into the business it is today.
Wharton, on the other hand, is more modest about his achievements, referring to himself as “the scruffy little urchin who was hanging about on the King’s Road and getting into trouble”.
The former managing director of Office and the recipient of the Outstanding Contribution to the Footwear Industry accolade at this year’s Drapers Footwear & Accessories Awards made his first foray into footwear when Office founder David Casey paid him £20 to unload some espadrilles from a van on the King’s Road in the early 1980s.
Fast-forward 29 years to the end of January 2012 and Office, the branded footwear retailer that Wharton was at the helm of for 23 years until 2006, achieved sales of just over £205m. Not bad going for a business run, for most of its existence, by someone who had no formal training and no real intention of getting into the industry.
Drapers meets Wharton in a small office in Soho, the HQ for the business he now runs - a footwear consultancy called, rather bizarrely, Richard Wharton’s Gone Fishing.
Among his current clients Wharton counts brand house Pentland Brands and Canadian footwear chain Aldo, to name a couple. He uses his extensive knowledge of the industry to advise both brands and retailers on everything from trends to range building.
He might never have intended to get into footwear but what’s abundantly clear, as he sits surrounded by shelves of shoes, is that this man can’t, and more importantly shouldn’t, do anything else.
“Office was my life and everyone knew it,” says Wharton. “I was never known as Richard Wharton, I was known as Richard Office. Most of my friends called me Lord Boot - even to those who weren’t in the industry I was the shoe guy, and my whole life revolved around that company.”
So how did Wharton manage to go from unloading shoes to footwear guru?
Office founder David Casey was running several market stalls when Wharton first met him in the early 1980s.
“After I’d unloaded the shoes for him, we went for a pint,” explains Wharton. “He offered me a job a couple of days a week working for him on the stalls he had in the markets.”
About a year later, Wharton says Casey transferred him to his new space at designer indoor market Hyper Hyper, just across the road from Kensington Market.
“All the booths in there were smallish and not big enough to run a shoe shop. There was a mezzanine floor upstairs that was pretty large, but no one else wanted to go up there because the staircase that led to it was behind everyone else’s stalls.
“Casey said to me, ‘There’s £200. You open on Friday.’”
The name Office came from the shopfit Casey used for the space in Hyper Hyper. With a budget of only £200 Wharton and a friend drove to a secondhand furniture shop and purchased a couple of desks, some swivel chairs and a hat stand.
“The first Office cost £200 to fit out,” says Wharton, laughing. “I think they cost several thousand pounds to fit out these days. I had no idea what to call it and a friend of mine said to me ‘it looks like an office’, so I called it Office and thought we’d probably change it one day.”
The business was built on the products that Casey had been having success with on his other market stalls - things like espadrilles, kung fu slippers and plimsolls. According to Wharton, there was a huge gap in the market for this type of footwear.
“At the time, footwear on the high street in this country was dominated by the British Shoe Corporation, so if you wanted to buy young fashion footwear, you had to get it off the markets.”
This is where Wharton and Casey carved out their niche and in 1986 the pair opened the first permanent Office store on Kensington High Street. However, even then Wharton didn’t think they were onto anything special.
“Casey and I were a couple of old scruffs.
We were basically Del Boy and Rodney,” he says, adding: “He was running the business with his wife Liz from his flat in Neasden [in northwest London] and we had a big white van - that was the big asset - and every Wednesday we went up North to buy shoes, and then every Friday we went up east London to buy shoes, and that was kind of it.”
Wharton has clearly always had an eye for trends and what is going to sell well - a talent he is still famed for today, hence the success of his consultancy business.
Describing Wharton, British Footwear Association chief executive Richard Kottler says: “His well-known mischievous sense of humour is only matched by his uncanny ability to spot the next hot brand or trend faster than anyone else.”
It was this ability to identify a trend that led to Office enjoying success with copies of the styles sold by many of the big brands of the time.
“It was the very early days of [cult footwear brand] Palladium Boots,” explains Wharton. “But Palladium only sold to posh boutiques.
I was a great secondhand shopper and so I bought an old pair of girls’ hockey boots with the black square studs on them and I started wearing them instead, because Palladiums were about £60 and those cost me £3.
“So we sourced these hockey boots in large quantities and branded them up as Office. We sold billions of them.
We were buying them for 30p or 40p and selling them for £4.99. I don’t think I’d ever heard the word profit margin but that was definitely a profit.”
By the late 1980s, Office had stores on King’s Road, Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road and Portobello Road, as well as in Kensington, Camden and Wimbledon. Then, in the early 1990s, Office opened its first store outside London, in Manchester.
In 1996 the business spawned a dedicated sports footwear fascia, Offspring, and that was followed in 2000 by high-end men’s footwear retailer Poste and its sister women’s store Poste Mistress in 2001.
However, in order to be able to expand further the business required investment.
In 2003 Casey sold the business to Sir Tom Hunter’s investment vehicle West Coast Capital in a deal reported to be worth £15m.
As a result of the deal, Hunter brought in current chief executive Brian McCluskey to run the business alongside Wharton. Wharton remained at the helm for a further three years before leaving in 2006 to, as he puts it, “go fishing”.
“I could run a business and I’m a very good creative person but I’m not the sort of business person to do all that wheeling and dealing and opening shops,” he explains. “I got out because it was becoming too focused on margin and expansion and that was never the reason I got into it.”
Wharton’s contract with Office stated he couldn’t work for a year and he admits he spent a lot of time fly fishing, hence the name of his current business.
As well as the consultancy side of his business, in the past seven years Wharton has also dabbled with inventing and came up with a patent for a portable cardboard toilet - aptly named the Shit Box.
“What I like about what I do now is that I get to help all sorts of people and be involved in all sorts of different businesses,” he says.
When Drapers asks if he would ever consider setting up another footwear retailer, Wharton is non-committal.
“What Casey and I put together worked but we only put it together by accident, so I don’t know if I could recreate that again. At the moment I’m happy doing what I’m doing, but in the future, you never know.”