There’s an inherent problem with long-established businesses, particularly with those that have been owned and run by the same family for generations. The irony is that this problem arises from the very things which many modern businesses crave: History and Heritage.

These are both very valuable assets to any business, but they should be used carefully. Almost every brand wants to talk about and display its heritage and this is understandable – it’s one of the things that can give a brand authenticity; that defines its identity and its values – the trouble is that many of the brands that do try to draw attention to their heritage have created it themselves, or hi-jacked it, to use as a marketing tool. A good example of this would be “authentic” foreign beers that have their bottle labels, or part of them at least, printed in a foreign language. The idea is to appear ‘authentic’ but sometimes, on closer inspection, it turns out that they’ve been brewed and bottled under licence in the UK. In this case, the heritage has been used to give the product a recognizable identity and, if you buy the beer, I guess it’s worked – but, if you ‘rumble’ it, the brand might lose your trust. So History and Heritage can be valuable marketing tools and can be useful for the purpose described above, but they should be used with care and respect. It’s important to remember that history and heritage only ever point backwards. It’s good to know where a brand has come from – but more important that it knows where it wants to be the day after tomorrow.

The Loake Factory in Kettering was established in 1894.

In Victorian times, Britain was a factory for the world and there seemed to be no limit to what we could make and export but, after decades of manufacturing goods, we began to export our nation’s knowledge and skills to the East. Now, interest in British manufacturing is growing again. Globalisation has its pros and cons, but it can’t be a healthy state of affairs when most of what we need has to be shipped half-way round the world. After we leave the EU, we will have to have a slightly more self-sufficient outlook but, in any case, sustainable local economies are a good thing. But we all know that manufacturing in Britain is not without its problems. Because labour is relatively expensive here, much of what we make will, by necessity, be rather expensive and this is particularly true of craft industries where the work content is high. If we cannot compete with the rest of the world on price, the only viable alternative is to justify a higher price by making things that are either unique or intrinsically better than what can be made elsewhere. Branding and advertising can help, but these can only emphasise the authenticity of a product – not enhance the product itself.

Steve Abbott, one of our most experienced shoemakers.

Here in Northamptonshire, there is a cluster of extremely good shoemaking companies who make some of the finest men’s shoes available anywhere in the world. Most are long-established businesses using traditional manufacturing techniques and their biggest challenge is the extraordinary level of skill required by its workforce and the need to pass this on from generation to generation. Effective training can only be carried out ‘in house’ by those who are able to hand on their skills and knowledge but, as production gradually moved away from the UK in the 1970s and 80s, it became harder to find suitable recruits to train. Schoolchildren were encouraged to work hard and pass their exams with the threat that, if they didn’t, they’d end up working in the factories and, as a result, everyone wanted an office job and the chance to keep their hands clean.

The good news is that, at last, things are changing. Universities, after a period of rapid expansion, are now fighting each other for the next intake of students. People are realising that not everyone wants to pursue higher education and there is once again growing interest in craft industries. The language has changed a little: we tend to talk about ‘craftsmanship’ rather than ‘manufacturing’ and ‘workshops’ instead of ‘factories’, but that’s not important. What matters is that is that we’re making things – and the things that we make in Britain have a tendency to be really good.

It’s all in the details – Goodyear Welted Construction

In this industry, we have the satisfaction of knowing that we’re making something that is not only useful but, in its own way, beautiful and as good as anything available anywhere in the world. We have the joy and the frustration of working with a natural material and the knowledge that we’re doing it in a reasonably environmentally-friendly way and without inconvenience to anyone else. It’s a very congenial way to make a living. But there’s a well-known saying, an equivalent of which exists in most European languages that goes: “Clogs to clogs in three generations” or “Rags to riches and back again in three generations”. The idea of this is that a man with some entrepreneurial spirit starts a business and succeeds with it. In due course, his son or daughter takes it on and develops it further and the business expands healthily – but, by the time it’s passed on again, things have changed. Life for the third generation has been a little more comfortable and they’ve never known the need and hunger that drove the founder to start the business in the first place. As a result, the energy has gone, complacency has set in and the business struggles and eventually fails.
I found these sayings rather sobering and poignant because I am a member of the fourth generation.

My family business is now 138 years into its history and in the hands of the 5th generation and we have a phrases or motto that allows us to pay homage to our past but encourages us to keep the entrepreneurial spirit that must propel us in the future: “Look to the future. Learn from the past”.

Andrew Loake

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