Start-Rite shows that small steps can lead to big transformations

A back to basics approach has helped Britain's oldest children's shoe manufacturer find its feet.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 21 Sep 2018


'Anyone over the age of forty will be familiar with our shoes,’ says Ian Watson, CEO of Start-Rite Shoes. ‘Because somewhere along the line they’ve probably had a pair as they were growing up.’ 

It's not surprising because there aren't many companies with a history as rich and long as Start-Rite.

Start-Rite in brief:

HQ: Norwich

Founded: 1792

Employees: 80

Turnover: £16.4 million

The Norwich-based, eighth generation family business has been  manufacturing children’s shoes for 226 years. In 1943 the company conducted the first nationwide survey of children’s feet and was granted a Royal warrant in the 1950s to make shoes for Princes Charles, William and Harry.

Since moving its manufacturing operations overseas in 2003, the company has operated as a branded wholesaler, producing 800,000 pairs of shoes for clients including John Lewis and Russell & Bromley.

But it’s been through harder times in recent years. With a large consumer base in retail, the struggles of the high street trampled the company’s margins. It posted a £673,000 net loss in 2016, off revenues of £18 million.

In response, Watson was appointed as the first non-family executive in Start-Rite’s history with the brief of leading transformational change. It's been a rapid turnaround.

In 2017 the company posted a £324,000 net profit and, two years into the transformation, the company is well on track to retain profit by the end of 2018.

But how has it been done?

Back to its roots

Watson's initial six months were spent getting to know the business and setting out a vision of what needed to be achieved, the resulting strategy has been defined by a back to basics approach, with a strong emphasis on investments in people, standardisation of stock and an overhaul of processes. 

The first move was a research-led repositioning of the brand to make it more familiar to the modern consumer. The famed Start-Rite twins - present in the company’s logo since the 1930s - have been ‘set free’ and the website has been remodelled.

The 1930's Start-Rite twins

By standardising Start-Rite’s collection, the company was able to reduce the amount of materials and suppliers used during the overseas manufacturing.

It also disposed of its 13 brick and mortar 'One small step, one giant leap' stores - but Watson says this was already in the pipeline prior to his arrival - and is focusing on growing its ecommerce business, with the clear goal of making 30% of sales come from online within the next three years.

People, processes and systems

But some of the biggest gains have been through the changes behind the scenes, and £200,000 has been invested to reorganise Start-Rite’s distribution centre.

On the personnel front a new operations director has been appointed and the company has invested heavily in training and promoting existing staff.

A formerly ‘paper-based’ stock control system has been automated and the distribution centre has been redesigned to make the packing process more efficient, with fast-selling items now placed at waist-height, for example.

Investment in an automated packing machine has reduced the packing time of orders from one every two minutes to one every 20 seconds, and packaging costs have been reduced by 10%.

‘If you go on Amazon Prime or Next, you can place an order up to midnight and it will be delivered to you the next day,’ says Watson. ‘Those are the service levels we want to replicate.’

Norfolk is one of the few counties in the UK without a motorway, so Start-Rite’s ‘suboptimal’ location as an ecommerce operation meant that a lot of time has been focused on improving the output of the distribution centre.

The introduction of a new two-shift pattern - covering 16 hours instead of eight - and a change in logistics partner (to one that operates later in the evening) means that orders can now be processed quicker.

The challenge

The company still has a long way to go, with the biggest challenge being to grow the business outside of ‘traditional declining areas’.

Wholeselling to retailers still accounts for 80% of Start-Rite’s total sales, so opening new routes to markets - in particular the ‘international expansion of school shoes’ - while continuing to grow online business remains a priority.

There can be a perception that transformational change means a radical overhaul at a huge expense. But the fact that Start-Rite’s improvements have been made with ‘minimal effect to full-time staff’ and at an overall cost of £500,000 proves that sometimes, small steps rather than giant leaps can be far more effective.

Image credits: Start-Rite Shoes


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