- - Monday, November 25, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

CLARKS, MADE TO LAST: THE STORY OF BRITAIN’S BEST-KNOWN SHOE FIRM
By Mark Palmer
Profile Books, $24.84, 288 pages

When brothers Cyrus and James Clark, rug merchants in the south of England, realized that the leftover woolen cut-offs made comfortable sheepskin slippers, one of the world’s most famous shoe stores was born.

Clarks shoes was founded in 1825 in the small town of Street, not far from the bucolic Glastonbury Tor, in the English county of Somerset. Its headquarters is still based in the town and from its offices on the high street opposite the Bear Inn, the private company presides over the production and design of 52 million pairs of shoes annually. Most of the shoes today are assembled in China and Vietnam, but the firm’s huge distribution center, with a capacity to stock 5 million pairs of shoes at one time, remains in Street, which has a population of just 11,000.

In his book, “Clarks, Made to Last: The Story of Britain’s Best-known Shoe Firm,” author Mark Palmer gives us an in-depth history of the respected shoe brand that now boasts 1,156 stores worldwide and employs more than 15,000 people.

The Clark brothers were devout members of the Quakers, a Christian offshoot faith that sprang up in the late 17th century in England. Quakers proposed a practical form of Christianity, focusing more on charity, rather than on dogma and the clergy. They often took up unpopular causes, such as opposition to slavery and war and the need for prison reform. They were also noted for their paternalistic attitude and ethical commitment to their workers. Still, working hours in the factory in the 1820s stretched from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a break for breakfast and lunch. On Saturdays, the day ended at 5 p.m.

It’s not surprising that many Quaker companies, including Clarks, helped fuel British capitalism in the 19th century. At the time, Quaker influence on British industry was hugely out of proportion to their numbers, and their progress became something of a business phenomena. Many of those Quaker companies still exist today, notably the confectionery and chocolate-makers Cadbury, Fry’s and Rowntree; cookie and cracker firms Huntley and Palmers, Jacob’s and Carr’s; along with major bankers Barclays and Lloyds.

Mr. Palmer, an editor at The Daily Mail, and a scion of Huntley and Palmers, has trawled the archives of Clarks and unearthed some novel insights. Ironically, Huntley and Palmers, the largest cookie factory in the world at the time, bailed out the shoe company in 1863.

Queen Victoria visited the shoe firm’s stand at the famed Great Exhibition of 1851. “Very pretty,” her highness commented.

During the Crimean War, the British government requested that the company make sheepskin coats for the troops. At first, Clarks declined the order based on moral principles, but then decided to use the profits from making the coats to build a school in the town of Street.

One of the company’s most famous shoes was the Desert Boot, invented by James‘ great-grandson Nathan Clark while he was serving in Burma with the Royal Army Service Corps in 1941.

The boot was described in a 1957 advertisement as the “world’s most traveled shoes” and has been sold in 100 countries. It was named one of the “Fifty Shoes That Changed the World” by the British Design Museum in 2009. Ten million pairs of the boot have been made, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as noted celebrities — former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, Rihanna, Robbie Williams and Bob Dylan — often donned a pair. Before them, Hollywood actresses Margaret Lockwood, Anna Neagle, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Marlene Dietrich all modeled Clarks shoes. Even soccer player David Beckham was a poster boy for the footwear in his Manchester United days.

The company has weathered some bumpy days. In the early 1990s, after a bitter feud, shareholders voted by the slimmest of margins to keep the company private and avoid going the way of so many other Quaker firms that had been bought out, notably Barclays and Cadbury.

The firm’s longevity is a testament to history, as family firms seldom stand the test of time. According to the United Kingdom’s Institute for Family Business, only 13 percent of family companies survive to the third generation. Clarks has gone on for seven.

The company now has more than 290 stores in the United States and Canada, with 130 more planned for opening by 2016.

Clarks has remained true to its Quaker foundations in its commitment to its workforce and the local community of Street. Around 80 percent of the shareholders are family members, and the remainder is owned by employees or former employees. The company’s brand awareness for comfortable shoes has remained intact for nearly 200 years. Clarks’ longevity deserved a book, and Mr. Palmer has produced a slice of British entrepreneurial history worth recording.

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