April 19, 2013 6:50 pm

Big shoes to fill

A history of one of Britain’s great family-run companies, the shoemaker Clarks

Clarks: Made to Last: The Story of Britain’s Best-Known Shoe Firm, by Mark Palmer, Profile, RRP£20, 398 pages

 

The name and logo of Clarks, the shoemaker, have nostalgic resonance for almost all Britons. Generations have grown up wearing its sensible footwear to school, and it is also a barometer of changes in fashion, manufacturing and society. Its Desert Boot – created by Nathan Clark after serving in the British Army in Burma in 1941 – is a design classic, worn by everyone from Tony Blair to Liam Gallagher.

Curiously, its shoes have also been embraced by the Jamaican reggae and dance hall scene – stars including Ranking Joe and Little John have sung about Clarks. Vybz Kartel has dedicated three songs to the footwear, including the lyrics: “Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks.”

The company is still privately owned, with more than 80 per cent held by the Clark family. Its headquarters is in the town of Street, in Somerset, southwest England, where the Quaker brothers Cyrus and James Clark started their business in 1825. Turnover for the year ending January 2012 was £1.4bn.

Now the history of this remarkable company has been investigated by journalist Mark Palmer in Clarks: Made to Last: The Story of Britain’s Best-Known Shoe Firm. Palmer is a distant relative of the founding Clark brothers, as well as being descended from another Quaker businessman, George Palmer, who in 1841 became a partner at the biscuit maker Huntley & Palmers.

Palmer is well placed to dissect the company’s history, and he uncovers some interesting details. The founding brothers, for example, had an accountant who, Enron-style, paid himself a salary based on future earnings. And, unusually for the 1860s, they hired a management consultant.

In the early 20th century, with the advent of the talkies, Clarks courted celebrity endorsements – its shoes were worn by Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. In 1946, Margaret Lockwood, who was then probably the country’s most popular actress, was invited to tour the factory along with her daughter, ensuring glowing coverage. The Bristol Evening World reported that it was “one of those happy occasions when the spirit of good humour is abroad and everything proceeds with cheerful spontaneity”.

The modest style of the company’s leaders is revealed in an interview with Tony Clark, chairman in the 1970s. “If you said we were millionaires, I should think we’d all sue you for libel ... I don’t smoke in the office until 5 o’clock. We have a rule in here that there’s no smoking and it’s worth it because we get a reduction on the insurance premiums.”

Palmer chronicles the painful decision to outsource manufacturing and to hire professional external managers after the company came close to being sold to a financial consortium in 1993.

At times, Palmer’s chronological account reads like a trawl through the archives. He writes clearly but without panache. In part, this is because the company is publicity-shy and its leaders have traditionally shunned interviews. (This extended even after death: Bancroft Clark, who led the company for 25 years and died aged 91 in 1993, “had always said he hoped there would be no obituaries in the national press following his death”. He didn’t get his wish.)

Clarks is a great British institution, and worthy of a good book. This history is well presented but there is disappointingly little analysis, although Palmer does make the point that Quaker business founders treated their employees well not just because of their religious convictions but also because they knew it was good for productivity. He does not, however, go on to examine how and why some British businesses with Quaker origins have retained a paternalistic ethos while others have transformed beyond all recognition – for example the banking giants Barclays and Lloyds, which became publicly listed; and Cadbury, which has been swallowed by US giant Kraft.

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