Since starting as a Saturday boy, Harvey Jacobson has built a formidable footwear empire – and all while remaining an ‘absolute gentleman’.
Explaining why he has always been involved in the footwear industry, Harvey Jacobson says: “I’ll tell you what’s true about the footwear business and that’s that shoe people are nice people.”
The executive chairman of footwear supplier Jacobson Group and the recipient of this year’s Outstanding Contribution to Footwear accolade at the Drapers’ Footwear and Accessories Awards, was born into the trade. His father owned a shoe shop in Moss Side, Manchester, where Jacobson started working as a Saturday boy when he was 12 years old.
“Being born into it meant I never really thought about it, but as the years have gone on I’ve realised I love the footwear industry and I love the people. Over the years I’ve got involved in other types of businesses away from footwear, and I’ve come across some real tearaways and some real underhanded ways of doing business,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the shoe business hasn’t had the odd rogue – there have been a few rogues over the years – but generally shoe people are really nice people.”
And judging by what those who work for Jacobson and those who know him in the industry have to say about him, this is a sentiment that applies to him too. “I don’t think he has any enemies in the industry and there’s a lot to be said for that when you’ve been in this game as long as he has,” says Tony Evans, managing director of Jacobson Group.
Evans took over the helm of the business last year when Jacobson decided to step back and take on the role of executive chairman. “He has always conducted himself properly and has always been, and remains, extremely well connected,” says Evans.
Mark Husted, sales director of footwear brand Base London, added: “He is an absolute gentleman and one of the most hands-on business owners I’ve ever worked with.”
In a varied and colourful career in which Jacobson has gone from Saturday boy to market trader in Manchester, then on to running a wholesale business before working as an importer and distributor, and finally to acquiring some of the world’s best-known footwear brands including Lotus, Gola and Ravel, Jacobson has experienced every facet of life in the footwear industry. But if anyone were to suggest he is retiring, they couldn’t be further from the truth.
Not only does Jacobson have interests in several other businesses away from the footwear industry, including investment in a flat-pack furniture business, a sticker business and his most recent venture as an investor in an £8.4m deal to acquire the Westgate shopping centre in Stevenage, he also continues to take an active interest in Jacobson Group. “What I don’t want to do is stop, or intend to stop; I just want to slow the pace down in quite a big way,” he explains.
The company sells more than 10 million pairs of shoes every year, but Jacobson firmly believes there’s more to be done. “From a market share point of view, most operators haven’t got such a big piece of the action that they cannot endeavour to get a bigger slice of the cake,” he says. “I don’t need to go looking for those types of statistics about us selling
10 million pairs of shoes because we haven’t got such a big market share. We’ve come a long way but we can still go a long way.”
Jacobson believes he has the right team in place to ensure this can be done. “One of my goals, which I do now believe I’ve achieved, was for the business to keep on moving forward without me. Now I believe the structure and the team we’ve got can move the business forward, and the general principles I’ve adopted for the business will continue because I’ve got confidence in the people that they see things the same way I see things. I’ve got a great deal of confidence in Tony Evans and the team.
I still contribute, and I’m still there when people need to ask me anything.”
Although according to Evans, sometimes it’s best not to ask for Jacobson’s thoughts when there’s a lot to get through. “He has fantastic knowledge of this business and of the industry as a whole. He has an opinion on everything and he will give that opinion whenever he is asked, sometimes at great length,” quips Evans. “We often joke that if we have a busy meeting, it’s best not to ask Harvey as we won’t get through everything on the agenda.”
Evans even jokes that a 90-minute interview slot with Jacobson for this feature might not be sufficient and, sure enough, Drapers manages to miss its scheduled train back to London.
“When I think of a lot of our successes as a business, I always tend to think of ‘we’ and not ‘me’. So I would say that my biggest success is putting a really great team together,” says Jacobson. “Because very often it’s not me, I’m now more of a guiding character within the business. We’ve had lots of successes and I’ve got a lot of people in Jacobson Group who have really contributed to that.”
The appreciation is obviously mutual. Evans tells Drapers he has been at Jacobson Group since 1994, but he is by no means the longest serving member – some staff have been there for almost the full 30 years since the business started trading. “There are a lot of very loyal people here,” he says. “Having a low staff turnover definitely says something about the culture of the place and that ultimately comes from Harvey.”
Says Jacobson: “I think my management style is probably firm but fair. I’m not an easy touch but I hope I’m quite considerate and I like to see that going through the business.”
And if his team are his biggest success, what does Jacobson consider to be his biggest failure? “There is one incident that springs to mind. In about 1993, we were approached by a gentleman who had a raft of big Russian buyers with big money. He was going to fly them all over, from Russia, on a jumbo jet and we were going to take enormous orders, or what to us were enormous orders at the time.”
Jacobson describes the gargantuan mission he then undertook in arranging for these buyers to travel to the UK. “I felt like the general,” he jokes. “The military operation included flying 100 people from Russia on a jumbo jet, where the rest of the jumbo jet had been stripped out so it could be used for air freight and they could take all the stock with them. I had 16 40ft trailers lined up. We felt we were a bit weak on men’s footwear, so I got into cahoots with one of our competitors and got them to provide the men’s footwear.
“We had it all planned. I had dollar counting machines, which I’d borrowed from the bank.
I had infrared equipment so we could check the dollars to make sure they weren’t forged.
It was all geared up. The target was that we were going to do orders of a minimum of $300,000.” He pauses. “We took $500. I look back and I can laugh about it, but it just proves how wrong you can get it.”
Back to successes though, and Jacobson cites 1996 and the acquisition of the Gola brand – Jacobson Group’s first foray into the branded footwear market – as a key moment in the company’s history. Speaking about the acquisition of Gola in a previous Drapers interview, he once famously said: “I didn’t realise what we had bought and didn’t understand the branded market. I thought I’d bought silver, then I realised I’d bought gold and now I realise I actually bought platinum.
“How many more times can you write that quote,” he jokes now. “Although it’s true. We didn’t realise what we had bought and we learnt a lot from our experience with Gola. Since then, we’ve used what we have learnt with Gola and done the same thing with other brands we’ve subsequently acquired.”
“Harvey’s got a fantastic nose for a deal,” says Colin Temple, chief executive of branded footwear retailer Schuh. “He seems to know exactly what is going to work and when an opportunity comes up he just goes for it.”
The formula, according to Jacobson, is simple. “Bear in mind we didn’t know what the formula was when we bought Gola, but we’ve been able to replicate it since then. It’s all about great heritage. All the brands we’ve bought have got great heritage and a great history, and that’s very important. The other part of the formula is [that the brand has] gone sleepy. We want something we can wake up. If it was never awake once before, then you can’t wake it up.”
Jacobson has a quirky way of approaching acquisitions, in that he insists he makes no direct approaches but lets businesses know of his interest and waits for them to get in touch. “Have we got one or two that we are watching? The answer would be yes. Am I going to tell you which ones they are? Certainly not,” he laughs.
As a successful businessman, Drapers is interested to know what other firms in the footwear industry Jacobson admires. “I’m a big admirer of Schuh. Schuh has got, at first glance, what is a sea of shoes and they have got umpteen brands. Their IT is such that the feedback on the sales means they can trial lines and they can see how lines are performing, but they don’t need to take big risks.
“I call fashion ‘black bananas’. You just see how quickly bananas go from being beautiful, to getting a few spots on them, and then leave them out long enough they’re black. That’s fashion for me. With a fashion product you’ve got to be careful. Schuh are well into the fashion business and I don’t believe they have massive stock write-downs because of their systems. Right, Colin Temple owes me a pint.”
So will there be plenty of time for pints now Jacobson has taken a backseat at Jacobson Group? Although he tells Drapers that he likes to take in the odd rock concert, does some charity work and has a season ticket for Manchester United, he says: “I’m spending my leisure time on totally different businesses and if I’m not working on a Sunday, I spend my time reading the business press in the Sunday papers. I want to know what’s going on. Business is my hobby as well, I don’t even need to be involved in it.”
2012 Buys Dolcis and wins Drapers’ Outstanding Contribution to Footwear Award
2010 Opens the Jacobson Group London office and showrooms
2009 Opens first Gola standalone store in UK
2007 Buys the Ravel brand
2004 Buys the Lotus and Frank Wright brands
1996 Buys the Gola brand
1982 Opens his first trade cash-and-carry outlet
1978 Takes over two market stalls and family business
1972 Leaves school and starts work in the shop full-time
1968 Begins working as a Saturday boy in his father’s footwear shop