Ten years after taking it over, Jonathan and William Church have turned Joseph Cheaney & Sons from a private-label business into a thriving modern consumer brand built on heritage.
Machines whirr, needles rattle and shoes are buffed to a mirror-like shine amid the rich, earthy aroma of leather and the sharp scent of shoe polish as Jonathan Church shows Drapers around the thriving factory floor of premium footwear brand Joseph Cheaney & Sons.
This bustling workspace is the heart of the business he acquired with his cousin, William Church, in a management buyout from the Prada Group-owned luxury footwear company Church & Co – which trades as Church’s – 10 years ago.
Jonathan is the great-great grandson of one of the founders of Church’s, which still exists today and remains owned by Prada.
Since 2009, the cousins have run Cheaney as joint managing directors from the small town of Desborough in the English footwear heartland of Northamptonshire, where it was founded in 1886.
By focusing on direct-to-consumer sales and opening retail stores, they have transformed it from a loss-making, private label-focused business into a thriving British footwear brand in its own right. They are building on these foundations through a combination of bricks-and-mortar stores – and award-winning store design – a strong digital offer, and the heritage appeal of “made in Britain” for overseas shoppers.
EBITDA for the year to 31 July 2018, the brand’s most recent results, was £1.9m – up 230% on the 2009/10 financial year, when the buyout took place. Turnover reached £10.7m in 2017/18, up 4% on the previous year.
Cheaney has 10 own-brand stores, and works with 100 stockists in the UK, including Matchesfashion, Mr Porter and a range of independents. The brand has around 200 stockists overseas, both online and bricks and mortar, including Isetan in Japan, Tassels in Hong Kong and Davide Cenci in Rome.
Japan is its biggest market outside the UK, and sales in Italy and the US are growing. International made up 21.8% of sales in 2017/18 – hitting £2.4m, up 4.7% year on year. The brand does not split out its international sales by country. Online sales are evenly split between the UK and international.
Cheaney is best known for men’s formal brogues and boots, although 15% of sales are from women’s styles. Retail prices range from £295 for shoes to £350 for boots, and retailers report bestselling styles as the Arthur III and Avon brogues, and the Cannon loafer.
Cheaney has occupied the same red-brick Victorian headquarters in Desborough since 1896. Of the 170 employees based there today, 140 work in the factory, crafting and assembling every part of its shoes – conferring it the valuable status of being entirely made in England. It uses leathers imported from the European Union, mostly from France and Italy.
Founded as a footwear manufacturer in 1886 by Joseph Cheaney, the brand has a rich history, which includes playing a pivotal role in World War I: the factory produced around 2,500 pairs of stitched and screwed boots and shoes for soldiers every week.
In 1964, the business was sold to Church’s, and, in 1967, launched its own branded shoes, under the name Cheaney of England, and is today known as Joseph Cheaney & Sons.
It had all the right ingredients, and we thought we could bring that back into the forefront
William and Jonathan spotted the opportunity to acquire and grow Cheaney when they were working at Church’s, as production director and finance director respectively. Prada Group was preparing to sell off any non-core businesses ahead of floating on the Hong Kong stock exchange.
“[Cheaney] was a wonderful business,” says Jonathan. “It had its own factory, its own workforce with skilled labour – which was absolutely critical – and the machinery. It was a good traditional heritage brand that was very well known in the industry, but less well known in the consumer market. It had all the right ingredients, and we thought we could bring that back into the forefront.
“We both looked at it and thought, ‘This is a really good opportunity.’”
At the time of the management buyout, the Cheaney factory was primarily producing shoes for other brands – including Church’s – and 95% of the business was wholesale of its own brand or private label. The plan was to grow direct-to-consumer sales organically by opening its own retail stores, before targeting new wholesale stockists with a trade show push and exploring international demand.
Underpinning this was the decision to step away from private-label production, to allow the brand to grow its own identity and benefit from the improved margins of own label.
Today, 60% of sales are from Cheaney’s own distribution in both retail and ecommerce. The rest is wholesale, plus a small private-label business that quietly crafts footwear for some of the biggest luxury players, although Cheaney does not reveal the names it supplies or disclose the percentage of sales that are private label.
Own stores are still a focus – it has eight in London, including its Jermyn Street flagship and its store at Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, which was named Best Store Design at the Drapers Footwear Awards 2019. A ninth London store is set to open in Marylebone before the end of the year. It has one shop each in Leeds and Cambridge, plus a factory outlet housed in a chocolate-box cottage of a store across the road from its Desborough headquarters.
William describes bricks and mortar as an opportunity to convey Cheaney’s values and quality to customers: “As soon as you have a store out there with your name above the door, the impact is really strong. We knew from the outset that a big opportunity was to get into retail.
It’s self-reinforcing because having a retail presence validates your wholesale. If you meet a foreign customer at a trade fair and they’re new to the brand but interested, they will without a doubt go to your store to experience the brand. It lends credibility to who you are and what you do, and hopefully gives them confidence.”
Each store evokes the craftsmanship and heritage of the brand. In Coal Drops Yard, for example, an imposing portrait of bearded founder Joseph Cheaney hangs at the back. In the Covent Garden store, walls are adorned with images of tooling patterns (the design details that appear on shoes) and leather backings. All store staff spend time at the Desborough factory, learning more about the craftsmanship behind the shoes and the process of creation.
However, although retail stores are important, Jonathan says there are no plans to accelerate the rate of openings, preferring instead to grow slowly and maintain high standards of quality and production: “You can’t suddenly switch production on for 10 new shops. Something would have to drop.”
Although the Churches decline to disclose the exact sales split, digital is a significant platform for the business and Jonathan notes that it is Cheaney’s “top performing store”: “We try to get the theatre across on the web that we do in our shops.” The brand makes use of sophisticated lifestyle imagery and design on the site to convey this.
“It’s about getting the consumer to engage and making [the shopping experience] as easy as possible for them,” adds William. “Shops are representative of the brand and the web is all of that and more. It is a window to the world and enables people to see Cheaney.”
This focus on communicating the brand’s heritage, craftsmanship and history has helped to build a strong and loyal base of wholesale stockists.
I like the history and heritage behind the brand, and customers see it as an investment item.
Ravi Grewal, Stuarts London
“Cheaney is one of the best manufacturers of shoes that we have come across – it has a long family history and over 130 years of shoe making experience,” explains Dale Allman, finance director of Liverpool menswear independent Union 22.“Our customers love the brand as it is British made with the finest materials, and has more than a century of know-how in manufacturing quality footwear.”
He adds that Cheaney’s “refurbishment” service, which reshapes, re-soles and re-heels worn-out shoes for a £115 fee – less than half the price of a new pair – is popular with customers.
“Cheaney offers amazing quality,” agrees Ravi Grewal, creative and buying director at menswear store Stuarts London, which stocks Cheaney. “I like the history and heritage behind the brand, and customers see it as an investment item.”
The 140 skilled craftspeople based at its factory are central to Cheaney’s reputation. Workers on the factory floor range from 16-year-old apprentices to 65-year-olds on the brink of retirement, who are helping to train up younger members of staff.
“Training is the biggest sustainability factor throughout our business. We’ve got to make sure those skills are always there at the level that we need them,” notes William. “That’s the future lifeblood of the business.”
The brand’s England-made credentials are crucial as it seeks to continue its overseas growth, says William: “Heritage, made in England, premium – those tick all the right boxes for the [Japanese] market. Heritage is something you either have or you don’t. You can’t make it up.”
There are no current plans to open international stores, but the cousins hint that it could be on the cards in the longer term.
Of course, no business can rely solely on its heritage. William says Cheaney has had to be flexible and blend tradition with new trends. Responding to changes to popular shoe shapes and fabrics has fitted the brand well, as has a range of collaborative “co-labelled” projects with brands including Toast and Vivienne Westwood.
One recent collaboration was with the Bolton-based trainer brand Walsh. Cheaney’s signature leathers were used on Walsh’s classic trainer shape to create three styles that retail for £225. For Cheaney, this collaboration paid reference to the sportswear trend while retaining both brands’ integrity.
“We all know there is a big casual trainer mood out there – but there’s no point in us trying to do it because that’s not what we are,” says William. “Walsh can do it, and can do it better. Hopefully the collaboration cast us in a new light for customers.”
Meanwhile, Brexit uncertainty casts an ominous pall over UK fashion retail. The cousins argue that Cheaney’s vertical set-up puts it in a more secure position than most to face any future headwinds, despite a potential 12% tariff on imported leather in the event of no deal.
“We have a huge advantage in that we own our manufacturing plant, and a lot of people who work in this industry don’t, so they are far more subject to currency swings than we are,” explains Jonathan. “We have full control of the production right the way through.”
Throughout their 10 years of running the business, the Church cousins have done an impressive job of revitalising the Cheaney brand – leveraging its manufacturing excellence and heritage to create a British brand to be proud of. While the market around them remains turbulent, the cousins’ measured approach and focus on what they do best should stand them in good stead for the future.