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Finding the right balance

In beautiful west Cumbria, footwear brand New Balance ensures an attractive working environment and variety for its employees.

Essentials

1.2m Pairs of trainers made in Flimby each year

38 Steps in process of making one shoe

One Hours it takes to make one shoe

Three Days it takes to make

500 pairs of shoes for a customer order

Half an hour before the train from London reaches Penrith in west Cumbria, the scenery becomes rather dramatic. Lush, bucolic, mountainous - it’s a million miles away from London and Drapers feels its heart rate slow to a peaceful calm. Maybe this is why trainer brand New Balance, whose factory sits on the edge of the Irish Sea in Flimby, does not struggle with recruitment, unlike many brands that manufacture in the UK.

“We can’t let [recruitment] be a problem because we choose to manufacture here,” manufacturing manager Andy Okolowicz says bullishly from his office, which looks out over the sea and a field full of sheep. “There used to be a stitching course 10 years ago at [nearby] Lakes College, but now we train all our staff internally because we’re in a very remote area. People start on the factory floor and work their way up. It takes a year to train a stitcher, for example, and it’s a massive investment.”

The brand has invested £330,000 in training over the past year. Since last April, 33 people have been trained from “nothing” says Okolowicz, who adopts a practical, rather than emotional, approach to UK manufacturing. About 65% of New Balance’s UK collection - the higher-priced lifestyle and technical ranges - is made in Flimby, with the rest produced in the Far East. “It’s right to make these products here [in the UK] because of the quality [we can deliver] and we can react quicker if there’s a problem. We’re also extremely competitive on price,” he says.

“We currently make 1.2 million pairs of trainers here and I’d love that to grow to two million by 2014, but the business is growing overall and I don’t see that ratio [between the UK and China] changing. At the end of the day, it’s all about the product.”

Sales in the UK in 2010 were up 27% from the previous year and the business is pleased with this year’s forecasts. Yet for all Okolowicz’s practicality, he admits the business would “make more money” if the entire collection was made in Asia. But local manufacturing underpins the New Balance ethos. It began as an arch support company in the early 1900s in Boston, USA, becoming a footwear manufacturer in the 1970s. Today its family of brands includes New Balance, Dunham, PF Flyers, Aravon, Warrior and Brine. It manufactures 25% of footwear destined for the North American market from its US factories and opened the Flimby site in 1982.

Soldiering ahead

Okolowicz believes it would be “very feasible” for more businesses to move production to the UK if they operate in the “higher value and niche markets”, but winces when Drapers asks about those that trade on high volume and low prices. He also thinks the Government could support the industry by ensuring it kitted out the army and the navy, for example, in UK-made uniforms.

Like David Attwood, the sales director of hosiery brand Pantherella, which manufactures in the UK, Okolowicz insists demand for the ‘Made in the UK’ label is growing globally. “The Japanese, in particular, want ‘Made in the UK’,” he says. “And the trend is also coming from China - it’s all about quality.”

In general, Okolowicz is confident about New Balance’s future as a UK manufacturer. The challenges, he says, are less about recruitment and funding and more about the rising costs of raw materials. “[The cost of] leather is up 15% and cotton and oil prices have gone through the roof,” he says.

The other problem is the contraction of New Balance’s UK supply base, says manufacturing operations manager Chris Hodgson. “In the 1980s there were about a quarter of a million pairs of shoes made in this part of the country each week; we’re the only ones making shoes here now, so the supply base disappears - the laminators, tool makers, dye makers.”

But on the factory floor in Flimby, it is easy to see why recruitment is not a problem - the beautiful countryside, high ceilings and natural light create a pleasant working environment. The fact that 38 steps are needed to make a shoe ensures variety on the production line, requiring different skill sets and personalities, and creating a real dynamism.

Each team chooses its own name; they range from Skiddaw (a mountain in the Lake District) to Ellen (the river flowing into the Irish sea). And, unlike many UK factories where the workforce is predominantly female, at New Balance the split it 50/50, contributing to that factory-floor variety. At Christmas, everyone gets a turkey and, at Easter, a chocolate egg.

But it’s not all fun and games; staff work hard to deliver on quality. Factory manager Jim Fox shows an example of a rejected shoe - Drapers struggles to see the problem. “It’s because of the crease here,” he says, pointing to the tiniest of marks. Like its finished product, it’s hard to find fault in the New Balance approach and way of life.

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