Parents buying shoes for their children could be excused for not appreciating that Start-rite, with its world-wide reputation as a leader in children’s fitted footwear, is actually a family business.

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The brand has become a household name recognised in more than 35 countries for offering stylish, quality, fitted footwear, entrusted by generations of parents to care for their children’s feet.

Established in 1792, when James Smith had a workshop behind Norwich market place, Start-rite is reputedly the oldest children’s shoe company in England.

Now chairman and managing director Peter Lamble represents the eighth generation of the company’s founding family, and has steered the company through recent developments including – moving manufacture to India and China, creating an e-commerce website housing innovative technology that allows parents to measure their children’s feet at home, and re-entering the retail market with the purchase of a London-based niche retailer.

Today Start-rite remains very much a family business with 55 shareholders in the UK and globally as far as Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Most are direct descendants of the founder, often through the female line.

The parent company is named after James Southall who was at the helm when the Companies Act was introduced in 1900. It was during his time that the company began to produce footwear of a shape suited to children’s feet. Then during the second world war the Government directed them to major on footwear for children, with ex-chairman James Hanly conducting innovative research which led to Start-rite’s decision to specialise in children’s footwear – a move that did them “a huge favour”, says Peter Lamble.

Among the shareholders the largest holds 16pc of the equity, with many others having relatively small numbers. About half are living in the region and typically 20 attend the annual meetings.

Maintaining good communications with the shareholders is important to the business. The company updates them with half-yearly reports and is now looking at online communication. The annual meeting where management presentations provide detailed updates on performance and future plans usually includes about 20 minutes of questions from individual shareholders.

There are pre-emption rights which mean that any shares being sold must be offered to existing shareholders, but in reality few change hands except passing from generation to generation. The company did carry out a share buy-back scheme some years ago, reducing the number of shareholders from more than 70.

“Rather than value the shares for their dividend, many of our shareholders tend to see them like a silver tea service – something to protect and keep within the family,” says Peter Lamble.

To protect the interests of shareholders themselves the company began appointing non-executive directors in the 1980s and has two on the board today – management consultant and accountant Chris Wright and former Archant chief John Fry.

Non-executive directors “provide an opportunity to bring in specific skills and tend to see the business through outside eyes”, says Lovewell Blake partner Steven Scarlett. “They often introduce more formality to board meetings and can act as a referee in dealing with ‘hot potato’ issues.”

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