Norfolk Network stories

Next steps: new CEO Ian Watson takes Start-rite Shoes on a modernising journey

Jane Chittenden
Business Writer and Editor

Start-rite Shoes – one of Norwich’s great family businesses and the oldest children’s shoe company in the world has seen an exciting change over the last 17 months. With the shoe market changing at a rapid pace, the company Board decided to bring in outside help in 2016, recruiting Ian Watson, whose challenge as the new CEO was to develop and lead a transformational change in the company.

Ian shares his story of the Start-rite journey with Norfolk Network at an evening event in the heart of Norwich’s former shoemaking district, St George’s Works – which is now Norfolk Network’s new home.

Start-rite has an illustrious history. It was founded in 1792 by James Smith, who spotted an opportunity: ready-made off-the-shelf shoes. If most people’s feet were much the same size, they didn’t need made-to-measure shoes. One size – or rather, just a small range of sizes – really could fit all. This was a revolutionary idea – until then, the only choice was expensive bespoke shoes or nothing. And the market loved it.

The company prospered, leading the way for Norwich’s hugely successful shoemaking industry. Its Start-rite brand, specifically for children, has been trusted by generations of families to care for little feet – including those of Prince George. But despite the accolade of the latest of many royal feet to wear the brand, it needed fresh direction to keep the company current and relevant in today’s tough shoe market.

Ian Watson shares his vision for Start-rite Shoes with the Norfolk Network

Start-rite has been owned and managed by the same family for eight generations over its 225-year lifetime, so it took courage for the family to bring in an outsider as CEO for the first time. Watson has a background in running private equity-owned brands – most recently in Germany, where he’d been the European managing director of Britax.  His mission was to create a bold vision and three-year strategic plan to modernise Start-rite. Watson said: “The shareholders have given me freedom to do what needs to be done, and they have been incredibly supportive.”

When he started as CEO, in February 2016, it was a very different culture from what he’d been used to, so he used his experience of running private equity backed businesses to help turn the company around. “It was apparent we had to change things very quickly and develop a better performance culture.” Watson said. “You’re only as good as your last quarter, you’ve got to deliver results.”

Watson built a strategic plan with key staff members before rolling it out to the whole company. They also brought in new graduates, upskilling the workforce of 86 people, who are now being rewarded for results. “It was important that we communicated our new vision to all staff. We re-introduced appraisals and set objectives so everyone knew they had a part to play in the company moving forward.”

“We’re doing research into what actually happens to children’s feet and family-based studies to understand how children live and move today.”

Ian Watson

Brand messaging is also key. The company have undertaken a large amount of research to understand consumer trends and raise brand awareness with a new generation of parents who aren’t familiar with the benefits of multiple shoe sizes. “We’re doing research into what actually happens to children’s feet and family-based studies to understand how children live and move today.” explains Watson. “We know the market for children’s shoes is changing phenomenally. Children are much more brand-aware, there’s more technology in the market now and their daily activities are changing. Girls are playing as much football as boys and are just as tough on their shoes, so we need to ensure we cater for that. Forest schools are also a big trend, where the focus is on learning through outdoor play, so our products have to reflect this changing market.”

The company are also driving towards ‘best cost’, consolidating the sources of just under a million pairs of shoes a year from multiple suppliers around the world. They’re planning to increase their e-commerce sales to 20 per cent in three years, and invest in state-of-the-art e-commerce fulfilment – with help from Norwich’s digital sector. They’re speeding up the prototyping process too. “We used to take seven weeks to build prototypes for new styles, using wooden models. Now 3D printing enables 24-hour turnaround of a prototype.”

Start-rite are also re-branding later this year. The existing identity is perceived as old-fashioned and expensive. The original concept of the twins going off together on an adventure from the 1930s is still valid, but modern versions have lost that critical message of movement. The heritage element is important, so they’ve created new fonts for the logotype, ‘playful but mature’, and changed the style of photography so it’s all about movement in the shoes.

Two big challenges remain: the first is the long lead times in retail fashion and footwear. Buyers select stock months in advance, yet fashions change so quickly. Right now, in summer 2017, Start-rite are selling spring/summer 2018 styles to the wholesale buyers and developing the autumn/winter collections for 2018. (Back to School is Christmas in the children’s shoe industry.)

The second challenge is currency fluctuation in dealing with their overseas manufacturers, which can have an enormous impact on gross margins and are fixed far in advance. Effective currency and price management is essential.

Summing up, Watson is pleased with the steps that Start-rite are taking: “We’re really re-energising this business and everyone is excited by the progress so far. We’ve got a very strong brand and we’re very proud of our roots here in Norwich. We’re building a performance culture, but at the same time, we’re being respectful of the past.”

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Event photographs: Joe Lenton Photography