By James Speakman and Alex Matthews
Britain’s last remaining shoe manufacturer is looking to take great strides in post-brexit Britain – eyeing up continued expansion in far-flung markets.
Dennis Crompton and his brother Jon bought are proud owners of Norman Walsh footwear in their hometown of Bolton, Greater Manchester.
They bought the company from its eponymous founder in 1996 after falling in love with his trainers in the 1970s.
Norman, who was selected to make the running shoes worn by Roger Bannister during his four-minute mile attempt, founded Norman Walsh in 1961.
His original designs are still so successful that the firm simply looks through the archives and tweaks them whenever they bring out a new product.
Directors Dennis and Jon still make a point of sourcing all their materials from the UK, aiming to keep their supply chain entirely in the country.
But with the company growing in foreign markets as far afield as China and Japan, Dennis and Jon are confident about the future.
Dennis, one of the directors at Norman Walsh Footwear, said: “We are the last remaining UK shoe manufacturer and we are incredibly proud of that.
“We are proud of the fact it’s all Bolton born and bred and it’s great to see our products being sold all around the world.
“The 10 staff we employ are all locals from Bolton.
“All the shoes are made in the UK from materials sourced here and then we export them to a large number of countries.
“There are a number of stores in the UK that stock Norman Walsh and then we sell to Germany, Spain, we have a distributor in Italy, and we also sell to Korea, China and Japan, which is one of our biggest markets.
“It’s the ‘Made in Britain’ tag that our customers are looking out for. It’s a sign of quality and they are happy to pay a premium for that.”
Jon discovered Norman Walsh’s running shoes as a 14 year old in the 1970s and bought his first pair at 17.
After introducing them to his brother the pair continued to buy Norman Walsh shoes their entire lives.
They initially approached Norman about buying the company in 1990 – but he gave them a flat no.
It was only six years later, when Norman felt ready to retire, that he offered Dennis and John the reins.
Dennis said: “We bought the company in 1996 because we loved the shoes so much. We had worn them since the late 70s – not for running, but just casually.
“I think John was about 14 when he first saw someone wearing a pair and asked where they got them from.
“We couldn’t afford them then, but I believe he got his first pair at around 17.
“We got to know Norman from going to the shop and in 1990 we just asked him if there was any chance of buying him out. It was only in ’96 when he wanted to retire that he said he would sell.
“He still used to come into the factory to give us advice and see what was happening even after he retired. He was a lovely and supportive man.
“Sadly he passed away a few years ago, but his legacy lives on in the designs.”
The Bolton factory becomes increasingly busy in the months approaching the start of the autumn and spring seasons, with 110 pairs rolling off the production line each day.
But the inspiration behind the new designs behind the company’s eight current ranges are all drawn from Norman Walsh’s previous catalogues. They now retail between £115 and £155.
Rather than change the designs dramatically, the brothers prefer to tweak them and the colours, maintaining the company’s heritage while updating the designs.
Dennis said: “We can make anything from 80-110 pairs of footwear a day when we are busy. Typically that is when we are approaching the spring and the autumn seasons.
“We buy all our materials in. All the soles and the leather from tanners are sourced from the UK.
“We use a machine to cut the materials then we sew the uppers and then they are made into shoes, quality controlled and then boxed up.
“In terms of styles of shoes at the moment we have got about six styles. But with Norman going back to 1961 we have a lot of heritage so we have not released all the styles yet.
“We just look through old photographs and old archives of photographs and magazines and he didn’t throw anything away so we have still got some of the original shoes from the 60s and 70s so when we need to do a new style we just have a look.
“We may just alter it slightly to fit the generation of today.
“All the shoes are designed in Bolton. We look back through any archives we have, match new colours and styles and then if we need to hand cut a pair, we will hand cut a pair to see what it looks like and if it’s ok then we’ll put it into production here.”
According to Dennis he and the company are not overly concerned about Brexit.
He admits during the 2008 financial crisis they had to cut production and weather the storm but believes the company is well placed to overcome any disruption.
Norman Walsh has had successful deals with large UK fashion brands, including Paul Smith, Fred Perry and Margaret Howell, and is looking form new partnerships.
Dennis is also looking forward to being able to take more advantage of growing foreign markets, particularly in Asia.
Dennis said: “We haven’t given Brexit much thought because when it happens it will happen so we will just have to see then.
“I can’t see it being a massive impact on the UK economy. There may be deals but they’ll just be the same. I can’t see them putting up big border controls for goods, I think we’ll still have free movement, but it may be just in a slightly different way.
“We don’t know whether import duties will rise. I still feel that we will still sell more shoes abroad. It’s the made in Britain that they want and they are prepared to pay a premium.
“We have got exciting times ahead. We’ve got a few collaborations that we are going ahead with with certain leading UK brands and we’re also excited that we’ve just signed a licence agreement with China for them to make shoes over there and also sell them in the Chinese market which could be big market for us.”