Here is a springtime test for any of you with aspirations to being a better executive. Picture the scene. One day, Joe Plutocrat is manufacturing the same unglamorous commodity his family firm has manufactured, unbothered, for a century and more. Then it happens. Hovering somewhere over London's South Molton Street or Covent Garden, that tinselled drab, Fashion, lights upon the Plutocrat product. She picks it up, smiles a fickle smile, brushes it with her gossamer wing. Pouf. In an instant, the Plutocrat product is transformed. It is no longer the Plutocrat product. It has become a Fashion accessory.
At once Fashion's followers, freshly lobotomised, take up the cry: We, too, must have one. Deep in the shires, something curious begins to happen at J Plutocrat and Sons, Limited. Suddenly, Plutocrat's orders department wades knee-deep through dockets: its production lines glow red in an attempt to satisfy the unplanned for, unwonted demand. Where once the local postman pushed his trolley up the drive single-handed, whistling, it now takes an entire caravanserai of postmen to make the morning delivery. Much of it comes from venture capitalists offering expansion funding, commercial estate agents with details of tempting factories capable of coping with increased output, even the odd takeover bid.
You are Joe Plutocrat. What do you do?
It is a question that has exercised the mind of Don White, chairman and MD of White and Co (Earls Barton) Limited, for the past five years or so. White pere is refreshingly candid about suggestions that he and his firm have done something worth writing about. "Have we?" he says, with palpable irony. "It always seems to me that it's taken us a bloody long time to get as far as we've got. To a great extent, we've been lucky." Well, yes and no. In 1890, the first Mr White, Don White's grandfather, opened his shoemaking firm at Earls Barton, in the heart of shoe country. Five years later, things were going sufficiently well to warrant the building of the optimistically (if not absolutely accurately) named Progress Works in Doddington Road, a red-brick temple to Victorian plutocracy.
The firm produced that most English of things, the welted shoe: a perversely difficult beast, involving the glueing, nailing and stitching together of innumerable components to produce the sort of indestructible footwear beloved of ex-public schoolboys and members of Her Majesty's Constabulary. And so, for nearly 70 years, things remained. In 1960, Don White duly succeeded his uncle as MD and third generation of his family in the business. Realising that the familial niche was, perhaps, rather limiting, he decided to add a utility line to White's existing product range, an orthopaedic shoe based on the design of a crippled German doctor. "The Germans", White now adds, with undisguised glee, "had tried and failed with its manufacture. The shoe was perfected in this country."
That crippled German doctor's surname was Maertens, a name that White and his fellow licensees felt would be better anglicised as "Martens". Thirty years on, the Doc Martens boottee is Britain's number one utility shoe, accounting for some 70% of White's output and with a factory, purchased in Daventry in 1973, all of its own. White's fortunes are inextricably linked with the Doc Martens shoe. So hot has been recent demand for Doctor Marten's air-cushioned sole (marketed under White's own trademark of "TreadAir") that Progress Works - the name "White and Co" built in to its heroic facade - had to be abandoned last year in favour of a £2 million relocation around the corner in Earls Barton, allowing DMs and Goodyear welted shoes space to be made on the same lines. The artwork in White's waiting room confirms the story: a regally-signed Queen's Export certificate, awarded on the firm's centenary, and a Design Council poster featuring a pair of DMs proffered on a red plush cushion under the improbable caption "Fit For The Queen."
The trouble with all of this is the "f"-word: fashion. Ironically enough, Her Majesty, may, it seems, be the only living Briton of any gender not to wear Dr Martens. Originally aimed at postmen and construction workers, White's steel toecapped black boot, the D1188, found immediate favour with that noted arbiter of fashion, the '60s skinhead. Three decades later, they are still the sine qua non of the well-dressed British Movement member, though, notes White, edgily, "they've gone way beyond skinheads. Some of our shoes are very much gentlemen's shoes. Even girls wear them these days. Not the women in my family, though. They think they look like men's".
As this last remark suggests, the later and more generalised '80s and '90s fashion vogue enjoyed by White's DMs appears to their progenitor as something of a mystery. Hazarding the cause of the shoe's popularity as being the fact that "they're well-designed, cheap and comfortable" does not take account of the label-mania that afflicts the mindless: a far more unstable aesthetic, and one that has brought about the apotheosis, and subsequent demise, of many fashion accessory before now. Even a sudden taste for extreme right-wing politics could not have explained a turnover that rose, momentously, from a pedestrian £2.9 million per annum in 1984 to a fleet-footed £5.3 million in 1989, an 83% rise in five years. For whatever reason, what White refers to mistily as "young and adventurous people in London" suddenly decided that DMs were The Shoe: not just the steel toecapped number favoured by fans of Mein Kampf, but four-eyelet black Gibson DMs worn by readers (if that is the word) of GQ and little, Wizard-of-Oz buckled orange ones run up by White's for London designers "like Red and Dead or Red or Dead or whatever they're called. Also Helen Storey - you know? - won Designer of the Year, or something like that." So far, White's own ascription of his firm's good fortune to luck seems plausible enough. It is not the whole story. Its MDs response to the aesthetic vagaries of fashion may be endearingly vague, but White and Co's reading of their commercial implications is on the nail. Reasoning that the larger Griggs has a natural whip-hand in the mass DM market, White and his co-directors, son Nick and designer Tony Botterill, have gone for the fashion niche. Fashion being fickle that makes it a riskier market, but White's feel they have the answer, and that answer is flexibility. "A client can come to us at 9am with a design and a last and we'll have a shoe ready for him by 4pm," chortles White. This means that the firm can offer a fickleness-defying range of styles, based on what the directors see as one element of the DM that will never go out of fashion: the TreadAir sole, fashioned by the limping Dr Maerten and his engineer friend, Dr Funck.
Thus it is that Doc Martens now appear in guises in which any self-respecting fascist would not, my dear, be caught dead. Even if the D1927 is emblazoned with the Union Flag and the D2093 with a no-U-turn symbol, they hardly make good head-kicking apparel. They are, in any case, outnumbered in White's 7,000-pair DM output by the likes of the D1988 (black-and-white polka dot) and D1527 (chased purple leather, pointy toe and silver monk buckle). Quite apart from their questionable aesthetic appeal, these shoes have an undeniable beauty of their own. "When you're in the mass market, the problem is you're selling in bulk," notes White. "Then your customers can name their price. We name ours."
Besides hedging their bets with variety, White's has its eye on customer loyalty. Alert the young rocker to the comfort of Dr Maerten's honeycombed, air-filled soles when glued to the multi-coloured, many-buckled D2064, White reasons, and he will continue to want them when he hangs up his saxophone and becomes a chartered accountant. Thus the black leather Gibson, White's best-selling style. "Where you draw the line between fashion and utility is impossible to say", suggests design director Tony Botterill "but we aim to satisfy both demands."
While fashion has been inarguably kind to White and Co, the firm has also insured against the day when she places her affections elsewhere. Whether this counts as "luck" or not depends on your point of view. Certainly, Don White's export nous, recognised even by our own, dear, non-DM-wearing Queen, looks curiously like plain commercial hard-nosedness. For all his Little-England mien (White's office walls are decorated with photographs of its occupant, ex-England rugby star, shaking hands with various members of the Royal Family), White purports not to recognise the existence of separate domestic and foreign markets, but simply of "a market". "Don't understand all this 1992 business", he growls. "We've been working hard in Europe for years." It has paid off. In 1986, exports accounted for about 45% of the company's output; last year, the figure was nearer 75%, much of which went to Japan. On Harajuku, Tokyo's Bond Street, too, the Doc Marten is a fashion statement. Don't even begin to guess why. Japanese designers now beat a path to Earls Barton and are rewarded by, among other things, a special last cut for the reputedly shorter and wider Oriental foot. Among other new markets White has in mind are Hong Kong and Korea, while a special glint comes into his eye at the mention of South Africa (a country on whose political situation his views are unfashionable).
All of this makes Earls Barton a rare, bright spot in a shoe world plunged into recessional gloom. Lest the worst come to the worst, White and Co still retains its traditional, Goodyear welted line (now accounting for less than 30% of turnover, but useful nonetheless), and its MD's view of the future is, he says, "positive". Flotation is not on the cards, nor takeover, nor any interference from what White calls "City types". "They're professionals and I'm an amateur because they're cleverer than me," says White, thoughtfully inspecting a D1188, "but the difference is, I want to leave this company to my kids, and they don't".