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One step ahead: Stuart Lamb's lifetime of footwear leadership

Footwear supplier Stuart Lamb, Lifetime Achievement winner of the 2018 Drapers Footwear Awards, has evolved and adapted his business over the last five decades to remain successful in an ever-changing market.

Stuart lamb

Stuart Lamb

The walls of the William Lamb head office have seen more than 130 years of family history, which third-generation owner Stuart Lamb shares with Drapers on a tour of the 19th-century building on a sunny Wakefield afternoon.

Founded in 1887 by Lamb’s grandfather, the company began as a small factory making wooden-soled clogs with leather uppers for the West Yorkshire coal mines.

Today the business is still based in the same building – albeit extended – and is one of the largest footwear and accessories importers in Europe, distributing more than 10 million pairs annually.

Supplier to high street giants including Marks & Spencer, Next and Asda’s George, as well as mid-market brands such as Barbour and Joules, William Lamb is also the UK market leader in licensed children’s footwear and accessories. It has a stable of more than 40 licences.

“My dad said, ’Don’t come into the shoe business’,” Lamb tells Drapers over a cup of strong tea. “I have a good head for numbers so I went to Leicester to study accountancy in 1966. My dad had a heart attack 18 months later, so I came home for the Easter holidays to help out – that was 52 years ago and I’ve been here ever since.”

Trainers were the big engine of growth. We got into it early and we didn’t know it at the time, but they were a phenomenon

Stuart Lamb

Lamb and his brother, David, who was eight years his senior and already working in the business, took over when their father died a few months later. At the time, the business’s mainstay was football boots for schoolboys.

“It was a good business, but we needed to make it twice as big as there were two of us [to support]. Cashflow was complicated as sales of football boots took place in six weeks of the year at back-to-school time. We set our minds on how to overcome that.”

The business began exporting to Norway and Sweden – where football was played during the UK summer months – and branched into a new type of footwear coming into the market: trainers.

“Trainers were the big engine of growth. We got into it early and we didn’t know it at the time, but they were a phenomenon.”

Within 12 years of the brothers taking the reins, the business had gone from 32 employees to more than 800 and production rocketed from 2,000 pairs of shoes a week to 75,000, across four factories in Yorkshire.

William Lamb was manufacturing for large sports brands such as Puma and Pony, and had grown sales in Scandinavia, across Europe and in the US.

Wlf clogs copy

William Lamb was founded in 1887

However, at the end of 1970s, under Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies, the pound grew strong and exports were hit as a result.

“Previously we had a weak currency so exports were competitive and imports expensive, and she switched that around,” Lamb explains. ”Our export business – particularly to the US – disappeared overnight. It was too expensive. We started to see some contraction and imports were a greater threat. A lot of our customers were buying shoes from overseas.”

Sadly, David died in 1982, leaving Stuart to run the business on his own. He saw that the market had turned and the business needed to adapt, so he bought footwear brand Gola Sports in 1983 to tap into the import market.

“I realised that we needed to blend UK production with production overseas. The attraction for me was they originally produced in Northampton but had closed all their UK manufacturing and sourced from overseas. They already had the supplier network set up.”

In 1990 Lamb sold Gola to one of his distributors as he saw the big three at the time – Adidas, Nike and Reebok – were starting to dominate the market and secondary brands were being squeezed out.

By this time William Lamb had closed all of its UK factories and moved its entire private-label trainer production overseas.

Lamb was one of the first UK footwear manufacturers to export production and, although it was necessary, Lamb found the decision extremely difficult: “Footwear manufacturing in the UK was under a lot of pressure. We came to the realisation that we needed to change and go overseas, and, sadly, reduce our expose to the UK manufacturing business. It was heartwrenching to close factories and let people go, but we had to do it to survive.”

John Timpson, chairman and owner of shoe-repair and dry-cleaning chain Timpson, tells Drapers his friend Lamb did what he had to do: “Stuart Lamb is a remarkable survivor through the dramatic market shift that wiped out most of the British shoe manufacturers.

“Stuart didn’t just survive. He flourished by recognising the shift into sporty leisure footwear and realising that if you can’t beat importers, you have to join them. Like everyone else in the shoe trade he has been through tough times and had to make tough decisions, but always came out the other end with his infectious smile intact.”

 

It’s all in the name

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, licensing became the biggest growth engine for the business and now accounts for just under half of its turnover. William Lamb bought its first licence – for Snoopy – in 1983.  It now has Disney, Universal, Peppa Pig, Star Wars and Marvel, among many others.

Lamb says the popularity of Disney films, such as Frozen, led to phenomenal growth – in 2015 licensing peaked to 60% of total sales that year on the back of merchandise from the film.

Around 70% of the overall business is children’s product and 30% is adults’.

Private-label manufacturing makes up just over 50% of annual sales, which topped £50m in its most recent accounts for the year to 31 December 2016. Profit before tax was £2m.

The private-label arm of the business includes own-brand supply to the high street – much of which is school shoes – as well as developing ranges for mid-market brands that do not have a large footwear offer, such as Boden and Barbour.

Lamb says the branded production has strong growth potential: “The men’s side of things in particular is strong. That part of the market is growing and will continue to do so.”

Around 70% of the overall business is children’s product and 30% is for adults. William Lamb sources 65% of its stock in China and 5% in Laos. The remaining 30% is split between India and Vietnam. In the UK the business employs 120 people and a further 30 are based overseas. On top of the 10 million pairs of shoes it produces per year, it makes 3 million bags following the 2015 acquisition of the UK’s leading specialist in licensed children’s bags, umbrellas and small accessories, Trade Mark Collections.

 

Seismic shift

The business has evolved from a small local shoemaker to a global giant, but Lamb says the biggest shift in his career is the type of businesses he supplies.

“The distribution has changed dramatically,” he explains. “When I joined, most of our business was being done through wholesalers. They were selling to around 12,000 footwear indies in the UK at that time – now there are closer to 3,000.

Today the internet is the big disruptor. Around 25% of footwear sales in the UK are now online

Stuart Lamb

“It then moved on to footwear multiples – large companies such as The British Shoe Corporation [the now-defunct owner of footwear brands such as Dolcis and Saxone] – then to variety chains such as Marks & Spencer. Then supermarkets became pre-eminent in footwear distribution and again started to take market share.

“Today the internet is the big disruptor. Around 25% of footwear sales in the UK are now online. I see that moving to 40% or 50% in the coming years.”

Despite the growth of online, Lamb adds that the store will always have a place in the market: “People talk about an armageddon, where all the bricks-and-mortar stores are going to close, but it won’t happen. People will always want to touch and feel something before they buy it, and try it on – especially in footwear.”

Stu175

In the 1970s, William Lamb expanded from football boots to trainers. (Stuart Lamb, left, with his mother and brother)

As a supplier, the health of the high street and performance of retailers and brands is crucial to the business. Given the current climate of company involuntary arrangements and profit warnings across the fashion and footwear sector Lamb is understandably concerned.

“We are watching a few businesses carefully. With the growth of online, retailers find themselves in a position where they don’t need as many stores. A lot of their estate is now obsolete and they need to get rid of them – doing that quickly is the challenge. It is a worry for us,” he admits.

However, Lamb has been able to weather the retail storms over the years by reacting quickly to the ever-changing market.

“Agility is our biggest strength. The reason for our success is the speed at which we have reacted to conditions in the market. As the market has changed, so have we. We follow the customers.”

CEO of the British Footwear Association, John Saunders, agrees: “Stuart is one of the stalwarts of the industry. He has lived through all the changes over the last 50 years and has successfully evolved the business. William Lamb is now one of the biggest players in the volume end of the market and that is down in no small part to Stuart’s insight.”

Jane Wilson is founder of management consultancy Moot, and was chief executive of Start-Rite from 2003 to 2005, when William Lamb was a supplier.

She says: “Stuart is a dear friend who has supported and encouraged me throughout my career. He has always been available to help, advise and listen. I have huge admiration for his commitment to his business, his staff and his family. He has borne the weight of responsibility for a family business for 50 years, through very difficult and more successful times. There are few people able to achieve such enduring success in one business”

When Drapers visited the former Master of The Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers, Lamb was waiting on the arrival of his first grandchild – he is a father of four – and “a big birthday”. So, is retirement to his holiday home in Majorca on the horizon?

“I wish!” he laughs. “I could do with playing more golf! I’m not as involved in the day-to-day as I used to be. I have a very experienced management team with an average of 25 years of service. I developed a lot of the supply routes so I still look after some of that. The Chinese like to see the guy with his name on the chimney.”

A fourth generation of Lambs is continuing the family tradition – one of Lamb’s daughters, Charlotte, a city lawyer by trade, is accessories and brands director at the company.

“Working with my dad has been fascinating,” she explains. “He has such a wealth of knowledge and experience, I could not have asked for a better mentor. What I admire the most is his deep sense of integrity and how he conducts himself and the business – with suppliers, with customers, with staff, whoever. He is always guided by a sense of fairness and doing what is right, not just what is easy, and I think in modern business that is a rare quality.”

Lamb, ever the unassuming Yorkshireman, remains humble in his success: “I didn’t sit down and say this is what I’ll do. We are financially strong and plan carefully. We also know how to take opportunities as they come and squeeze as much out of them as possible. It is challenging. You don’t know what is going to happen or what is around the corner but that’s what makes it fun.”

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