The winner of this year’s Drapers Footwear Award for lifetime achievement has made his family’s heritage brand fit for today’s market.
“If you can find something you really enjoy, it won’t feel like work. We are a craft industry, using a natural material, making something useful and beautiful in a reasonably environmentally friendly way. We are not causing anyone else an inconvenience and the people we work with are craftsmen and share our values. I can’t think of a more congenial way to make a living, and I’ve been very lucky to do it for the past fortysomething years,” says Andrew Loake, the recently retired managing director of Loake, as he shows Drapers around his family’s footwear factory and headquarters in Kettering, Northamptonshire.
Loake, one of the pre-eminent British men’s Goodyear-welted footwear manufacturers, was established in 1880, just a few streets away from the current base, in an outbuilding at 62 King Street. Brothers William, Thomas and John Loake – Andrew’s great-grandfather – were supervising different areas of the local Charles East footwear factory when they decided to branch out on their own. Armed with a few samples, the trio went to market and, within 14 years, Loake had outgrown two factories and moved to its present location in Wood Street.
The only way to establish a business in the UK is with a strong brand
The illustrious history of the business, 139 years in the making, is evident from the family photographs lining the walls of the offices. A distinctive smell of leather pervades the factory floor.
“I’ve never dreaded going into work on a Monday morning. If you set out in life and your main aim is to make money, you will fail. If set out to do something really well, you will probably succeed and if you’re lucky you will make a bit of money out of it. We have never been shrewd businessmen, we have been crafters and hard workers, and we love what we do,” insists Loake during the tour.
Loake joined the family business in 1977, aged 18, after a short stint studying accountancy. He started in the clicking room, where the leather shapes are cut out. He studied pattern cutting and design at the Leicester Design Centre and became a pattern cutter. He was then made factory manager and went on to be a leather buyer for several years. He also looked after export sales and marketing before he was made managing director in 2004 – a role he held until his retirement in September, although he remains a non-executive director on the board.
Engaging directly with the consumer means having your own shops, website and social channels
The business has been transformed during his 41 years of service. It now employs around 170 people in the UK factory and head office. In the year to 2 March 2018, it had a turnover of £24m and an operating profit of £3m. The brand has almost 700 stockists worldwide, a growing portfolio of 17 UK stores – a mixture of wholly owned and joint venture, four of which are in London and the rest spread across key cities – and 10 international franchise shops. It counts Selfridges, John Lewis, Slaters, Tower London and Charles Clinkard among its UK stockists.
Loake says the biggest shift within the business has been transforming the business – renowned as a footwear manufacturer – into a brand in its own right.
“For most of our time we have been a shoe manufacturer – and we still are – but it is different now. If you manufacture in the UK, what you make will be more expensive than products made in factories overseas. If you try to compete on price, the likelihood is you will fail. If what you make is good, someone will copy it, so if you try to compete on product, the likelihood is you will fail. The only way to establish a business in the UK is with a strong brand. The only way to build a brand is being prepared to engage directly with the consumer.
We had too many stockists and you can’t give the same service to 1,000 retailers as you can to a few hundred
“You can’t rely on other shoe shops to speak with the Loake voice. Engaging directly with the consumer means having your own shops, website and social channels. That has been the main thrust of Loake over the past few years. It means you are in control of your own destiny.”
Loake launched its first transactional website in 2007 and opened its first retail stores in 2011. The business declines to reveal the sales split between wholesale and retail.
It has rationalised its UK wholesale portfolio over the past couple of years to provide a better service to its customers.
“It is important not to have saturation. We had too many stockists, and you can’t give the same service to 1,000 retailers as you can to a few hundred.
“The average price of men’s shoes sold on the UK high street today is around £50 [Loake’s retail prices range from £110 to £400]. If someone buys our shoes, they are making a conscious choice to spend more, so we have to justify the price.
“If you are building your brand on that basis, everything needs to be excellent – not only the product, but also the service and the communication. You can’t give a fantastic service if you are trying to look after too many retailers. You have to focus. Now we are dealing with fewer retailers, but they are more important to us and hopefully we are more important to them. We have a better relationship with our customers now than ever before.”
There has been a growing interest in UK-made shoes from both UK and international shoppers
Charles Clinkard, owner of the eponymous footwear chain, agrees: “Loake is good to work with because it supports footwear retailers like ourselves who have a high street and online presence. Loake actively controls its account base to the detriment of some businesses, but to the benefit of its brand overall.
“They do not like the brand discounted and I commend them for this, as it puts everyone on a level playing field, and helps protect the brand and all the effort that goes into producing the shoes. They are our number one formal shoe supplier and support us to develop our business with them.”
Another significant shift Loake experienced during his career is the dramatic reduction in UK footwear manufacturing.
“After World War II there were 30 factories in Kettering making shoes, but many closed down in the early 1980s,” he recalls. “At the time a lot of people blamed the fall of British shoe manufacturing on unfair competition from imports. At Loake we took a sterner view: it was the climate in which you succeed or fail, not a reason for failure.
“When I joined Loake, what we were making was a commodity – everyone wore Goodyear-welted shoes to school. Without any action from us, what we made changed from a commodity item to a luxury. If shoppers were going to buy it, they needed to understand it and the product had to be excellent. Some businesses in Northampton achieved that and thankfully my family business was one of them.”
The business was not immune to the changing manufacturing landscape, however, and to stay competitive it started producing some of its welted styles in India 25 years ago.
“At that time a lot business we did was price sensitive and we realised that if we did nothing, our customers would go elsewhere to buy shoes cheaper from abroad,” he explains.
“We decided to start producing shoes in India. Initially they were for other high street brands, but when we realised how good the shoes were, we started to do a range of Indian-made shoes under the Loake brand. We subsequently set up a joint venture factory with our Indian partner.”
More than half of Loake’s production is still in the UK, and the remainder is made in India and Europe.
Loake believes UK manufacturing will ultimately prevail: “For a while overseas production was bigger than the UK production but it is the other way round now. There has been a growing interest in UK-made shoes from both UK and international shoppers.
“The UK manufacturing industry is a lot smaller than it was when I came into it, but it is more conscious of its place in the world and its identity is stronger. The shoes we make in Northamptonshire are as good as anything you can find anywhere in the world. As long as that continues there will be some kind of future for us.
“You need to ask yourself: do you know who your customer is, what can you do for them and will you enjoy it? If you can put those together you have a business.”
The modest businessman says he is “amazed” to be given the Lifetime Achievement award at this year’s Drapers Footwear Awards.
“It isn’t something anyone expects, and I can think of some far more worthy contenders than me. I’ve turned up and done my job for 40-odd years and I’ve done it in really interesting times. There have been huge changes to our business and the industry.”
But to others working in footwear, the accolade comes as no surprise. One industry veteran says: “Andrew is a massively respected person in footwear, he is very knowledgeable. He has not only shown fierce commitment to his own business over the years, but also to the wider industry as a former board member of the British Footwear Association.”
“I know everyone says that if you find something you love it won’t feel like work, but I can honestly say that’s how it has been,” says Loake.
“The best thing is the people I’ve shared the ride with. The shoe trade, and manufacturing in particular, is full of really nice people who have their feet on the ground. I can’t think of many people that I’ve come across that I haven’t liked.
“We have tried to engender a culture where people who work here feel they work with us rather than for us. We have pride in what we do. It might be my name above the door, but we’ve done this together.”