BQ Newsletter

Sole survivor

Tuesday 18 January 2011 8:00

Turning a British institution around was no easy matter for Tim Little. He made some crucial, timely, and deeply unpopular decisions, then ended up putting his money where his mouth was, as Josh Sims discovers.

Tim Little seems to be joking about his new-found need for sleeping pills, but then the CEO of Grenson shoes has just spent several millions buying the company.

“And that really has made a massive difference – between sleeping at night and not,” he says. “I could see that we had turned a corner and I was terrified of walking away and someone else seeing it all take off – or of someone else cocking it all up.

But that’s the arrogance of being certain that your way is the right way.” In Little’s defence, so far it has been.

And when it opens its second retail store this new year – the first has seen a sales increase of 45% year-on-year – launches its e-commerce site and pushes on with collaborations it has built with the likes of brands Albam and Rag & Bone, and retailers Matches and My- Wardrobe, his case might well be proven. That the likes of Noel Gallagher and Jack Nicolson wear Grenson shoes too now just adds to the brand’s new cool.

It was five years ago that Christian Purslow – a City-type finding himself the inheritor of a classic men’s shoe manufacturing business in Northamptonshire with a heritage dating back to 1866, and counting among its clients the likes of style icons Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and David Niven – began to look around for a suitable CEO to turn the company around.

He found Little, an ex-advertising man who, with pioneering foresight, had set up an eponymous shoe brand in 1997, taking the best of British shoe-making but updating the style and presentation for a younger, more fashion-savvy audience.

Little took the advice of the designer Paul Smith, set down what he perceived his own brand and that of Grenson represented, decided there was enough difference and took on the job.

And what a job: Grenson perhaps was the archetypal example of the crisis point facing most of the last remaining 10 men’s shoe manufacturers in the UK.

“It was clear there just wasn’t demand for its product,” says Little, who has also acted as design adviser to the likes of Dunhill, Tod’s, Office and Urban Outfitters.

“It just wasn’t modern enough and the company had come to rely on sales of a moccasin shoe that not only didn’t fit with the brand but was sold to an older customer that was dying off.

“It wasn’t alone – much of English shoe manufacturing is stuck on an old-fashioned, stuffy presentation, banging on about quality and nothing else. They understand manufacturing but not the market, because they have grown out of a time when that wasn’t required – not marketing in the sense of putting an average product in a fancy box but making the product fit the market. And as far as I was concerned, the moccasin was dead from day one.” Killing the moccasin was not an all-round popular decision. Little faced a barrage of livid retailers telling him he was killing an august institution.

“They were telling me I was taking Grenson to the dogs – they felt like they had ownership of the brand,” Little explains.

“I felt like I was taking over a football club, given the reaction I got.” He ploughed with radical changes regardless.

There was wholesale massacre of Grenson’s long-standing accounts – goodbye sellers of moccasins – and branding and packaging were overhauled. Cheaper materials were banished.

Aware that, as Little puts it, “there are not that many men willing to pay £300 or more for a pair of shoes”, he introduced a more accessibly-priced range made in India from designs and materials provided by Grenson, and returned the domestic factory to making only top-flight Goodyear-welted classics, strong on the claim of being 100% genuinely British-made, rather than merely finished in the UK. Customers of the Indian product are already aspiring to trade up.

He opened a shop in the City and began to work on making shoes for younger fashion brands that have helped win Grenson a new credibility – the kind that other English shoe brands have attained only because the recent fashion for heavy classic men’s shoes has blown in their favour.

“We were lucky in that Grenson had hardly any distribution, so the brand had not been ruined, so much as just left to die,” says Little. “But I had this moment about four months into the job when I thought it was all too much to fix and Grenson was too far gone. “You start with the idea that it’s 80% OK and you just need to correct 20% of the company’s operations, then you find it’s the other way around.

It was when I showed our plans to some of the big fashion footwear buyers and they said ‘that’s exactly what we’ve been looking for’ that I was persuaded to keep going.” All the way, as it turned out.

During a break from Grenson early last year to allow him to refocus on his own brand, during which Little served as a board member and adviser, Purslow asked him an unexpectedquestion: Would Little help him find a buyer for the business? In a Victor Kiam moment, Little decided he liked the product so much, he would buy the company – with a little help from the bank and a few investors.

Now the sole owner, it offers the opportunity for Grenson to develop further still, even perhaps to provide something of a template for just how other English shoe manufacturers might consider their own futures.

“English shoes are among the best in the world, and it is a craft that is in danger of being lost,” says Little.

“It’s all about having a product that’s relevant. English shoe manufacturers need to understand design and most don’t even have a designer.

“It’s just bizarre. I hope Grenson might be an example of the need to have someone who understands design and marketing. That doesn’t mean making wacky or weird shoes. It does mean realising that, although English shoes may be fashionable at the moment, that is not a trend these companies will be able to ride for long.

When fashion changes, the tills will stop ringing.”