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Tony Linford

The managing director of comfort footwear brand Van Dal’s parent company explains why he wants to build a closer relationship with indie stockists.

Three UK footwear retailers falling into foreign hands in the last six months is no coincidence,” says Tony Linford, managing director of The Florida Group, parent company of British footwear brand Van Dal.

Referring to recent deals including UK high street mainstay Jones Bootmaker sold to Dutch retail conglomerate Macintosh Retail Group, premium retailer Kurt Geiger bought by US retail giant Jones Group, and branded retailer Schuh snapped up by US footwear group Genesco, Linford thinks there will be more consolidation to come.

“We haven’t seen the last of these sorts of deals and I don’t think it is exclusive to retailers. I think it will happen with brands too,” he says. “I would look towards the German market as an example. The consolidation of brands there is happening very rapidly.”

State of independents

Linford believes the traditionally fragmented nature of the British footwear industry is a thing of the past. “Historically the industry has been made up of small players, small factories, lots of little brands and lots of small retailers, but now it is consolidating. We need to look at how we work in this new environment and adapt to it,” he says from his stand at mainstream trade show Moda Footwear in Birmingham last week.

Linford is a keen advocate of the independent sector – no real surprise given that many of Van Dal’s stockists are independents – and he says they need to survive in order to keep the UK’s high streets varied.

“I have no problem with footwear multiples but it’s got to be balanced with a healthy independent sector,” he says. “I am not convinced as to how healthy the independent sector actually is at present.”

According to Linford, it is up to footwear suppliers like The Florida Group, which also owns the Origa, Filippa Scott, Pikolinos and Marc brands, to help keep the independent footwear sector going. “In the past, the way we and other footwear brands have worked is we make a product and sell it to a retailer, and they sell it to the customer – but simply doing that isn’t going to be right for the future,” he says. “Everyone who works in the industry is on the same team because no shoe is really paid for until the consumer buys it. That applies all the way back to the factory and even back to the leather maker.”

The solution, Linford believes, is for brands to work in partnership with indies to help them achieve the sales they need to survive. “We have done our first two shop-in-shops with [footwear retailer] Hobson & Bates in Grantham and department store Jacksons of Reading. That’s not a new idea in terms of the consignment of stock but it’s not been done with these guys before and we are running the experiment to see if this can be a new way of working together.”

Step into the future

Innovation is also a key part of Van Dal’s brand development. The Florida Group celebrated its 75th anniversary this year with a vintage-inspired collection based on the brand’s archive for spring 11.

The company also released a TV advert in March. “We have got decent brand awareness in the sense that [Van Dal] is thought of as pretty good shoes but people often think they are not really for them,” explains Linford. “The ad campaign was about bringing people’s perception of the brand up to date.”

Linford says he wanted to make people aware that Van Dal was no longer simply the smart, comfort-led court footwear business it once was. “The traditional court shoe business has dropped off a cliff and been replaced by much more seasonal product,” says Linford.

He says sales of court shoes used to account for about half of the business but now represent less than a quarter. “We wanted to make people aware that we still have a solution for smart occasions but that now it might be in styles like loafers, sandals or wedges.”

Supply and demand

The 75th anniversary also marks three-quarters of a century of The Florida Group making footwear in the UK. The company continues to manufacture about 15% of all its products (across all of its brands) in its Norwich factory, a great selling point for the brand, says Linford. The remainder of the range is manufactured in Italy, India and China. The Van Dal vintage range is all made in the UK.

“There is a social movement going on in the UK at the moment around local manufacturing,” says Linford. “If there was sufficient demand for it, we have the capacity to increase our UK production.”

Linford estimates it costs an extra £5 per pair to manufacture shoes in the UK. Once mark-ups are factored in he says this works out as an extra £20 per pair being passed on to the end consumer.

“Is the consumer prepared to pay that premium for something made in the UK?” asks Linford. “I think if you asked people they would say yes but whether they would actually pay it, I don’t know. If one of the big players like John Lewis or Marks & Spencer were to start having a made in England section, I think the consumer would respond to that.”

Linford acknowledges that if footwear manufacturing takes off in the UK it could present a skills gap in five to 10 years’ time. At the moment he says he has enough skilled employees in his Norwich factory but that most of them are in their 50s.

Linford has some strong views on this too and spoke out in support of Drapers’ recent Save Our Skills campaign. “I have an issue with the Government encouraging so many people to go to university but I don’t see the same energy going into giving people vocational skills,” he says. “I don’t want someone who can just draw me a pretty picture of a shoe. Who is going to do the development for those shoes and make the lasts for them if people are not being equipped with the technical skills to deal with it?”

Indeed. But with a resolve like that, the UK footwear industry has an excellent ambassador in Linford. 

CV

2008 Managing director, The Florida Group

2004 Global brand president, Hi-Tec Sports

2001 Kids’ footwear division director and global marketing director, Ecco

1996 Global business unit manager for kids’ footwear, Adidas

1991 General manager, CICA (part of Clarks)

1988 Product manager, running division, Reebok

1986 Management trainee, P&O Ferries

Q&A

How many UK stockists do you have?

Approximately 400 accounts, which works out at about 500 different stockists as several of our key accounts have multiple stores. In terms of the multiples, we supply retailers such as John Lewis, Jones Bootmaker, and comfort footwear retailer Shuropody. Some of our key independent stockists include Shortlands in Banstead and Cobham in Surrey, and Hobson and Bates in Grantham.

Do you have any international stockists?

We sell shoes through retailers in Australia, New Zealand and Canada and I am in the process of exploring other territories in mainland Europe. This is our third season selling in New Zealand and we have been doing very well there. I think the fact that some of our shoes are made in England definitely helps us in foreign markets.

How much profit did you make in the last financial year?

For the full year to December 31, 2010, The Florida Group had a turnover of £10.7m, up 15% from the previous year. We made a pre-tax operating profit of £493,000, up 78% on 2009.

What percentage of your total sales comes through your multichannel business (website and catalogue)?

Between 3% and 4%. We only started selling online in 2008 so I would expect this to grow further, but we are not aggressive with our pricing and promotions on our website as we don’t want to compete with our stockists.

Smart move: comfort brand Van Dal has diversified from courts to other styles, such as wedges and sandals

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