The Drapers Footwear Awards Lifetime Achievement winner salvaged that great British footwear institution Clarks and put UK retail on the world stage.
Peter Bolliger’s big break came about because the infamous entrepreneur and former Harrods owner Mohamed Al Fayed “believed in shoe people”.
“He used to say he liked shoe people,” explains Bolliger. “He always said good shoe retailers took care of lots of detail and knew every inch of a store.”
Bolliger believes Al Fayed’s theory that footwear retailers are the best type of retailers in the world definitely chimes true. “Shoe retailers have got to have stockrooms, 12 to 15 sizes of each style, different colours, different widths. People manage that, not machines. Shoe retailers care about customers and details,” he says.
It was for these reasons that Al Fayed courted Bolliger, who was at the time boss of South African chain A&D Spitz but who had earned his stripes at Bally Shoes, to join Harrods as managing director in 1990.
His initial reluctance due to the grandeur of the role - “I was just a little shoe boy from Switzerland,” he says modestly - eventually led to a four-year tenure, which turned out to be one of the longest in history under Al Fayed. Fortunately, Al Fayed “liked the Swiss too” and the partnership proved incredibly influential on the decisions Bolliger went on to take during his time at footwear giant Clarks some years later.
Bolliger, who rocks up to meet Drapers wearing a leather jacket, shades and Hermès boots, looking every bit like a sophisticated Crazy Heart-style Jeff Bridges, had already developed a friendship with Lance Clark, Clarks’ most charismatic shareholder, having encountered him “at some shoe fair in Bologna”.
At the time of Bolliger’s arrival at Clarks in 1994, the footwear company was in the pits of despair, hanging onto UK production while its competitors had long since left for Far Eastern shores, and selling fuddy-duddy footwear to the blue-rinse brigade, who were popping their clogs left, right and centre. There was also a war
raging between shareholders over whether they should float the business. Pre-tax profits are said to have fallen as low as £100,000 in 1993.
“But Clarks had a great brand and reputation,” says Bolliger of his decision to join the business basket case.
Shortly afterwards, the curly-haired Tim Parker arrived as chief executive. It was Parker who grabbed the headlines (his cost-cutting earned him the nickname Prince of Darkness), although Bolliger, as his deputy, was at the heart of the ruthless strategy to salvage the business.
“We had a huge clean-out of people. It was brutal. We opened things up for the young people at the business whose previous best career hope was to become secretary to the chief executive,” says Bolliger.
“It was all numbered parking spaces and pinstriped suits. The shoes we were making [in the Somerset factory] were made to suit the factory manager. We had almost the same number of retail shops as Clarks has today and we couldn’t make a penny.”
Clarks’ UK factories were controversially closed, leading to the loss of 600 jobs at the factory in Street, Somerset.
New systems were introduced - a huge undertaking for a business of the scale and complexity of Clarks - to manage stock, logistics and distribution effectively while allowing for growth.
Bolliger also opened a buying office in Florence, to ensure Clarks was on the fashion pulse, while in the early 2000s radical advertising campaigns such as “Act Your Shoe Size, Not Your Age” emerged, which targeted a younger 30-something customer. Bolliger also led a strategy to introduce sports category product to endear the newly youthful Clarks further to the public.
Separately, while recognising the importance of Clarks’ wholesale business, he developed a new model encouraging its independent stockists to turn their stores into Clarks franchises. It proved a win-win solution, helping Clarks manage its difficult retail business profitably while settling the nerves of indies competing with Clarks’ own stores. His attitude to indies today remains the same. “You can’t rent a shop and go out and buy a few brands. What independents are great at is being on the shopfloor selling, rather than buying,” he says in his defence.
By 2002, pre-tax profits had swelled to a healthier £46.9m and the turnaround was complete. The Clarks family, pleased at healthier dividends, ruled out an IPO and a salivating Parker, frustrated, departed for car repair chain Kwik-Fit, handing the reins to Bolliger.
Parker’s departure enabled Bolliger to kick off his long-held global ambitions. He encouraged aggressive expansion into the wholesale market in the US, where very few UK brands have scored any success, under Clarks’ US chief executive Bob Infantino.
The North American region contributed a whopping £54.9m of the company’s record £108.7m operating profit in the year ended January 31.
Bolliger was among the first to seriously enter China, having recognised the spending potential of the Chinese consumer. It is an undertaking he seems unfazed by. “I would always attack potentially the biggest market. Why wouldn’t I?” he asks nonchalantly in his transcontinental accent, which veers between South African, English and Northern European.
His achievements, though, are as much about people management and team building as they are about product, branding, sales, profits and business scale. He mentored Melissa Potter, his replacement as chief executive when he retired last year, having tested her wits by having her oversee the vital systems overhaul project years earlier.
He says of Infantino and the US market: “The secret is to have Americans running your things in America,” as if you’d have to be stupid not to see that.
“You have to delegate and not look over shoulders. If you believe in people, they will believe in you. That meant there was a ‘Peter says so, so we can
do it’ mentality,” Bolliger explains.
Having managed to handle the notoriously volatile Clark family for 16 years as well as having worked for the tempestuous Al Fayed proves he must also be something of a diplomat. But he feels fortunate to have worked for a private, family-owned business in a modern private equity-dominated retail world.
“Cost-cutting then selling a company for double when it isn’t worth double gets businesses into trouble. How can any business have a proper vision [with that structure]?” he says passionately. As a result, Bolliger’s crystal ball tells him there is more consolidation to come.
He also believes the supermarkets have much ground to gain in footwear (coincidentally Clarks began testing concessions in Sainsbury’s last month), but that clothing retailers will never kill off the specialists, because they don’t have the wherewithal to devote enough space to the category. It’s refreshing to meet someone as matter-of-fact as Bolliger and someone who isn’t still wedded to the business he ran. He is now working as a non-executive director at Chinese footwear leviathan Stella International, among others, but is also clearly enjoying retirement.
“It’s very sad when people can’t let go,” says Bolliger, who spends much of his spare time shooting pheasants, playing golf and flitting between his homes in the UK and France rather than in shops. “Once succession is planned, people should go. That’s just the way it is,” he remarks emotionlessly, before adding: “I didn’t leave everything done. But the management team now could go for another 15 or 20 years and that’s great for the family.”
It’s clear that this is the legacy Bolliger is most proud of.
2010 Non-executive director, Stella International Holdings
2009 Non-executive director, GrandVision
2002-10 Chief executive, Clarks Group
1994 Head of Clarks UK
1990 Managing director, Harrods; chairman, Kurt Geiger; director, House of Fraser
1982 Managing director, A&D Spitz, South Africa
1978 Managing director, Bally Shoes, Scandinavian arm
1970 Divisional merchandising manager, footwear, Edgars, South Africa
1964 Management trainee, Bally Shoe Factories, Switzerland