CHURCH: the inside STORY

23 January 2007

Church & Co (Footwear) Ltd, the quintessential English manufacturers of hand-made shoes for men, are justifiably proud of their heritage which they describe as '133 years of desirable shoes made by generations of skilled and imaginative craftspeople'. A lot of time and attention to detail goes into each shoe and close inspection is carried out at every stage along the way. Around 4,000 pairs are made each week. And Church refuse to compromise on quality. While others may have attempted to cut corners in order to reduce costs, this is not the Church way. Theirs is a very labour-intensive business and they have a pro-active programme for recruitment and training. It would be a mistake to imagine a shop floor full of middle-aged craftsmen working their way towards retirement. With their eyes firmly on the future, Church make a point of offering young people training, apprenticeships and mentoring for 2-3 years. They offer many initiatives and will take on school leavers. From their point of view, skills training is important for future continuity and, today, the average age of their workforce is ten years lower than it was four years ago. This is because they believe that their biggest assets are: * Their brand name * The people who make their shoes * The people who sell their shoes Their business operates on two levels: one catering to mature and existing markets and the other to developing emerging potential markets. It will come as no surprise to learn that the three year old Hong Kong store has been incredibly successful and that China is now opening up to them. Top brands have always been held in high esteem in the East. Church operate three manufacturing facilities in the UK and sell through their own retail outlets and concessions while maintaining a healthy wholesale and export business. In addition to handmade men's shoes, they also offer slippers, ladies' shoes and a range of leathergoods. Repair and refurbishment An important facet of their business is the repair and refurbishment section. Each year customers throughout the world send their shoes in for repair and rebuilding. As many as 18,000 pairs wing their way back and Church accept shoes which may be up to 40 years' old. These are stripped of their soles, heels, welts, stitching and cork infill before being returned to their original lasts for the lengthy process of being rebuilt. Insoles, heel linings, tassels and laces are also replaced where necessary. After total refurbishment, they are boxed as new and returned. On average, they receive between 300-500 pairs a week for repair but the week before my visit a consignment had arrived from Italy taking the weekly total even higher. These are shoes to which the customer is so attached that he wants the best repair possible. The state of these shoes varies hugely. Some look as if they have hardly been worn while others look to be on their last legs, the soles worn through and steel tips nailed on to protect the toes. There are those that have been lovingly cared for while others look as if they had never seen polish. Church will repair them if they can. Even if they are back for their fifth time, though Church recommend two repairs only. Customers seem to want to hang onto their shoes and so long as the upper is in relatively good condition, everything else can be replaced. While Church make exceedingly fine shoes some are occasionally returned. Church bend over backwards to err in favour of the customer who is considered to be right in almost all cases. However, there are times when Church will draw the line. One example is the time a pair were returned with the claim that they had shown an unacceptable level of wear for a pair of shoes which had allegedly only been worn twice. Investigation into the claim by the quality control manager revealed that the retailer where the shoes had been purchased hadn't stocked that particular design for seven years. By their very nature, shoes spend a great deal of their life in a hostile environment. Most of us are aware that wet shoes should be dried away from a direct source of heat so know better than to place them in front of a fire or on top of a radiator. But did we ever consider the damage that could be caused by driving in wet shoes with the heating on full blast from the feet upwards? What with adverse weather conditions and pounding pavements you could say that shoes have a very hard life. According to Church, fine shoes are distinguished by three factors: top quality materials, years of experience and tireless enthusiasm. No machine can match the precision of the well-trained eyes and skilled hands of the specialists in their manufacturing departments. Which brings us to the question of the leather which is used. Top quality leather Many manufacturers tend to be very secretive about their suppliers, possibly fearing that their rivals will step in and mop up supplies. Not so with Church. Because they predominantly use calf they are limited by the number of calf tanneries that are still in existence and have to compete with every other manufacturer of calf leather shoes. Their uppers are all made from western European calf and all the soles are from UK domestics. Each piece of leather is inspected before going into production at their own production facility in Northampton plus Cheaneys at Desborough. There is also a Church stitching and closing unit at Kettering. With standard calf skins they expect to cut six pairs and any less would be subject to renegotiation or return. Box calf, which tends to come in smaller sizes, will only produce five pairs. Each piece of the pattern is cut individually either with a knife or by press. The cutter (or clicker) places the pattern pieces on the skin in the most economic fashion while closely inspecting the leather to identify any flaws and either avoiding them altogether or making sure they will appear in a part of the shoe where they are not visible. In this way the cutter has the responsibility for obtaining the maximum yield from the leather. The majority of Church shoes are Goodyear welted which means that the sole is attached to the upper by means of a welt. A welt is a strip of leather that runs round the outside of the base of the insole and which is sewn to the insole, the sole and the upper. This provides a visible line of stitches giving the shoe its traditional hand stitched look as well as providing a secure method of sole attachment. In addition to just under 4,000 pairs of classic shoes/week, Church also produce 600/week pairs of soft and hard soled leather slippers in black, blue, brown or burgundy. These are made throughout the year but are aimed at seasonal sales from October-December. In order to round out the merchandise in their own retail outlets, Church also supply a range of ladies' shoes plus travel bags, leathergoods and belts. The bags are all made in the UK while the small leathergoods and belts are sourced from the UK and Italy. Seasonal lines of casual shoes are also imported from Italy. The past four years have been good for Church and part of this success has come from the growing popularity of the leathergoods ranges and also of the ladies' shoe range. Until the 1960s there was a separate factory producing ladies' footwear but even after it closed a residual range continued and is now showing signs of growth. Church are well established in the luxury goods sector, one which is amazingly resilient to recession and globalisation, so what with that and the quality of their brand and product, they are assured of a successful long term future. Historical data Church were founded in 1873 in a purpose-built factory in Duke Street, Northampton. However, their history goes back to the late 17th century with Stone Church, a Northampton shoemaker, who was born in 1675. He was the first in a line of shoemakers who operated on a cottage-industry basis and he passed his skills on through three generations of his family to his great grandson Thomas Church. It was Thomas, with his sons Alfred, William and Thomas, that made the decision to open a factory to make matched pairs of left and right footed footwear, although to this day there are still a few processes which maintain the cottage heritage of outworkers. It was a good time to start footwear manufacturing. The Victorian middle classes were expanding and could afford to buy shoes for fashion rather than necessity. And despite the image of Church being a very English institution, they actually appointed their first overseas agent in 1896 to represent them in South Africa, at a time when long-distance travel was very time-consuming. During WWII Church diverted their production towards military footwear making boots and shoes for the British Army, Royal Navy and specialist flying boots for pilots in the RAF. At the same time a large number of Church's skilled operatives were enlisted into the armed forces leaving the factory short-handed. Output increased steadily throughout the 20th century and by the time they moved to their current factory in St James in 1957 they were well established on the export front and were well on their way to becoming international arbiters of style and prestige. They confounded their critics, who said that the new factory was too big for their needs, by reaching full capacity within a decade. Their factory is possibly the largest single unit in Europe manufacturing high quality Goodyear welted men's shoes. They currently have twenty-five retail stores and four concession departments in the most important cities around the world and more recently they opened flagship stores in St Moritz and New York. Eleven of the Church outlets are in London. Others include three in Italy, one in Hong Kong, three in France, three in the United States and one in Belgium. There are a number of shops within shops such as at Galeries Lafayette and one of their concessions is in Beirut. The majority of their shoes are sold to independent account customers around the world and it is the strength of their wholesale activity which provides substantial exposure to the brand on a global basis. They are proud of their pivotal brand position and are the biggest left in the UK footwear industry * They opened their first overseas retail outlet in New York in 1929 * In 1963 they opened their first store in Belgium * In1964 they bought Hartt Boot and Shoe Manufacturers in Canada who owned 19 Dacks stores * In 1967 they purchased Cheaney, a high quality men's shoe producer based in Desborough * In 1999, Church were acquired by Prada for £104 million. Four years later, Prada sold a 55% stake to Equinox, a private investment fund, to fund a sustained expansion plan. Now, however, Prada are in the process of buying back their shares and will once more take on full ownership of Church. Church are run as a fully autonomous group but being part of the world famous Prada group gives them access to Prada creative, design and product development know how

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