In his 55-year career in footwear Steptronic managing director David Corben has gone from factory floor to global stockists, making him a worthy winner of this year’s Drapers Footwear Lifetime Achievement award.
“There is opportunity everywhere, it’s just that some people don’t see it,” Corben tells Drapers over a cup of coffee in Rushden, Northamptonshire, where his men’s footwear brand, Steptronic, is based.
“I rose from the factory floor, where I glued the soles and inked the edges, and I worked my way up. You have to put the work in.”
And over the last five and a half decades Corben certainly has worked.
In 1962 at the age of 16 he joined a shoe factory in Northampton called White & Company which manufactured Dr Martens.
“The owners [brothers], Keith and Don White, pushed me to get on and said they would pay for my bus fare if I went to night classes at the college. So I did.”
Corben gained experience of every part of the manufacturing process and credits the early support from the White brothers for his career progression: “Why have I been successful? I love what I do and I was very lucky to have been taken on by them. A lot of people have ability and are never given the opportunity – but I was. They saw something in me and pushed me and encouraged me.”
Following a trip to London three years later Corben was inspired by the fashion of the swinging sixties fashion and began to get involved in the design aspect of the business.
“I was always passionate about shoes but, after seeing the styles in the shops in London, I used to come back to the factory and say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen these marvellous shoes. We should do them.’ So they made up a few samples. The buyers liked my ideas and I got involved in the development meetings.”
At the age of 23, Corben decided to move on to Frank Wright in Kettering, where he applied for the role of supervisor.
“In my interview I told the production director I could work all the machines and I showed off what I could do. Then I got a call to say that I didn’t get the supervisor job but they were making me assistant production manager, reporting to the director,” Corben recalls.
“It was a big responsibility as we were making 15,000 pairs of shoes a week. But I wasn’t frightened as I knew I could do it.”
After a few years Corben became tempted to get into sales, after seeing his colleagues “coming into the office in their suits and new cars”.
He joined Loake in 1976 at the age of 30 and was tasked with elevating the label to focus on the higher end of the market.
“At the time Loake was selling footwear to the mid-to-lower market under two brand names: Qualitone and Superior Victors. I wanted to change it to sell under the family name and pursue the higher end of the market. I persuaded the family and we went from 800 accounts to a few thousand in two years.”
Corben stayed at Loake for 25 years, moving from sales assistant into product development, to key account manager, to exports then finally to managing director.
“I loved my time at Loake and remain great friends with the family, but I could see the younger generation coming through, and it was their turn to do what I was doing.”
In my lifetime I wanted to build something that would go around the world and Steptronic can
In 2001 Corben bought shoe company John White – no relation to White & Company. He remains a major shareholder in the business but is no longer involved in the running of the company, which is now handled by Craig Dunkley and Stuart Parrish.
“I still felt that I hadn’t achieved what I wanted for me”, explains Corben.
“I got talking to Simon Dickie, [former managing director of Pod], and we put our heads together to come up with something.”
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That something was Steptronic. Founded in 2009 the brand is now in more than 3,150 doors in 32 countries and is on track to grow sales 25% year on year in 2017 to £5m.
“I wanted to combine the look of Anglo-Italian classic men’s shoe with the comfort of athletic shoes. The name comes from an ad for BMW I saw abroad, which mentioned the steptronic – an automatic transmission that allows the driver to shift gears. We call it ‘tiptronic’ in the UK. ‘Step’ linked with footwear and ‘tronic’ with the technical aspect of the shoe, so it was perfect,” Corben laughs.
This year international sales will make up 70% of the total. In 2016 the brand launched with Dubai-based Apparel Group in Dubai Mall, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Vietnam, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Indonesia are also new markets.
Winning the Drapers Footwear Award for Mainstream Men’s Brand of the Year in 2016 was very important for our growth
Corben says there are 10 more international markets on the hit list: “We’re looking to move into a few more territories, including South Korea, Latin America and Eastern Europe. We also want to gain more traction in Australia and New Zealand.
“In my lifetime I wanted to build something that would go around the world and Steptronic can. The comfort factor and lightweight design means they sell just as well in hot countries, which isn’t always the case for traditional men’s Goodyear-welted brogues.”
“Now is the time for us. Slogging it out at every trade show pays off, you can never give up. In Germany we currently have 180 doors that will jump to 300 over the next 18 months if current trading figures are anything to go by. I can honestly say that winning the Drapers Footwear Award for Mainstream Men’s Brand of the Year in 2016 was very important for our growth. We had German buyers in Germany coming on to the stand because they had seen we won. It was incredible.”
Justin Morgan, managing director of HB Shoes, which distributes Steptronic said the brand’s international success was down to Corben’s knowledge of and relationships within the industry: “He can land in almost any country in the world and know someone he can call who will know the exact factory that he needs to make the exact shoe the market wants.
“David is one of the most knowledgeable people on men’s shoes I have ever come across. He is happiest with a man’s shoe in one hand and a passport in the other. People have favourite seats in restaurants and theatres – David’s is 4C on a 737, 3F on a 747 and 2G on any Airbus!”
Corben says the fall in the number of footwear-only retailers in the UK in recent years – Stead & Simpson went into administration in 2012 followed by Barretts in 2013, to name two – has contributed to the swell in exports for UK brands.
“The fact that the UK market has gotten smaller has forced a lot of companies to up their exports. The business has changed. If you don’t export at the better end of the market, you don’t stand a chance.”
“The biggest change I’ve seen is the fact that so many of the UK [footwear] chains have gone. The industry is slimmer and fitter. Those that are still going are doing well for the most part. I have tremendous respect for Dune and Ted Baker – you see them all over the world. Others are fighting it out.”
The fall in the value of sterling since the Brexit vote last year has resulted in prices being nudged up. Autumn 17 wholesale prices start at £39 and go up to £57, compared with £35 to £53 previously.
My life has been fabulous. I always wanted to travel the world and meet people, and I get to do that
“Prices have had to increase but the retailers we work with are sympathetic and understand the situation. We’re trying to lessen our exposure by buying in dollars and selling in dollars.
“It has hit anyone making abroad and or selling abroad. It costs much more to do business now, but I believe we will find a way.”
If anyone can find a way it is Corben, believes Richard Wharton, former managing director of Office, who first met Corben when he was starting out in the business.
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“As a man you couldn’t ask for a better fella,” he says. “I was a nobody at the time, and he was always so friendly and open. And as much as he is a lovely man he works his nuts off and he is still hard at it.”
John Saunders, chief executive of the British Footwear Association, says Corben gives a lot of younger people in the industry “a run for their money”: “He is from the roots of the industry and is a footwear industry stalwart. He knows the business inside out, as he has worked in every part of it, making him unique among his peers. His love for the business, his skill and energy are second to none.”
Indeed, now in his 71st year Corben shows no sign of slowing down. The week before Drapers visited the Steptronic headquarters, Corben had been in Dubai, Belgium, Holland, Germany and France ,and was preparing for a trip to Portugal the following morning.
“My life has been fabulous. I always wanted to travel the world and meet people, and I get to do that. I love what I do and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. The shoe business has given me everything.”
'The shoe business has given me everything' – David Corben, Steptronic