They're taking the stitching out and putting DMs back together

Given a boot up its backside by footsure rivals, Doctor Martens is going through a bruising revival, writes Lauren Mills
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was all Liam Gallagher's fault. Until Oasis crashed on to the music scene 10 years ago, the company behind Dr Martens was enjoying an apparently endless rise in sales.

It was all Liam Gallagher's fault. Until Oasis crashed on to the music scene 10 years ago, the company behind Dr Martens was enjoying an apparently endless rise in sales.

The industrial boot with the yellow stitching had become a fashion icon - adopted by wave after wave of youth cults, from skinheads and punks to Britpop. The money rolled in to R Griggs, the family firm that owns the rights to the brand. Max Griggs and his son Stephen thought this would never stop and splashed out on creating their own football club, Rushden & Diamonds.

The Oasis front man had other ideas. Gallagher swapped his DMs for retro Adidas trainers and hundreds of thousands of fans followed. The impact was initially hard to see as Griggs pushed ahead with expansion in America, its biggest market. But sales have crashed from £235m to £90m since 1999. With five factories and a loss-making football club, R Griggs was heading for insolvency. In three years, the company lost more than £100m, with a £62m loss in 2003.

In August, 2002, the family turned to David Suddens to lead the rescue operation. Suddens was previously the chief executive of William Baird, for many years one of Marks & Spencer's biggest suppliers. His turnaround strategy, which is up for an award tomorrow, has had two distinct stages: the painful one of tackling the company's bloated cost base; and the much trickier part of how to revive a brand that had lost its relevance to modern consumers.

In the good years, the paternalistic Griggs family was employing 2,000 people in its UK factories and head office. Suddens says: "I found it hard to imagine that Dr Martens could still make money manufacturing in the UK. The competitors were manufacturing overseas and were providing different types of footwear at much lower prices - frankly with superior quality. It seemed to me quite obvious what we had to do."

He closed the UK factories, making 1,500 people redundant, and moved manufacturing to China. The drastic surgery has staunched the losses. Suddens claims R Griggs will return to profit this year, with a surplus of about £6m.

The more difficult challenge lies in reinvigorating the brand, for the boot defies marketing conventions. "One of the big UK retailers said to me that the problems began when Dr Martens started to think it was a brand," says Suddens. "It was never a brand; it was an anti-brand. The DM consumer will reject any blatant marketing."

R Griggs gained some sense of this in the mid 1990s when it sought to ape Nike by opening a huge "temple to the brand" in London's Covent Garden. Suddens says: "The range was not big enough to do justice to five floors, with boots displayed in glass boxes."

The original boot, with its air-cushioned PVC sole, was "a significant innovation. It was, at the time, a very modern and technologically new and comfortable lightweight working boot. And, of course, today it is no longer lightweight, nor particularly comfortable, because lightness has moved on and technology has changed and improved".

Suddens has spent a lot of time pondering the extent to which the appeal of Dr Martens relies on its heritage, and the restrictions that places on efforts to revive it. "The brand was edgy and slightly aggressive," he says. "It had a bit of a dark heart because of [the association with] Bovver Boys and football hooliganism. We can't become something we are not - we can't become Nike. We need a product that is modern and still says, 'yeah, that's Dr Martens'."

Even the future of the famous yellow stitching is up for discussion. "We have got to get the look that is edgy and distinctive without necessarily applying the yellow stitch to everything, as that is restrictive from a design point of view," says Suddens.

That still leaves the problem of Rushden & Diamonds, now struggling at the bottom of League Two. The club is still close to the heart of Max Griggs. Suddens says: "Max did it for the love of football. He did it for the local community. But it was a huge financial drain on the business. The football club has been running at a deficit of about £3m per annum for the last three or four years."

Suddens persuaded Griggs to try to find a buyer for the club, so far without success. Meanwhile, he is seeking ways to generate more revenues for the club by adding new sports facilities or even opening a casino.

However, R Griggs is once again a profitable and valuable business. With Stephen as chairman and Max back on the board, the family is actively involved. "They will never lightly sell the business, though they might want to realise some of the value," says Suddens.

The longer-term prosperity of R Griggs could rest on a quirk of fate, Suddens argues: "Fashion changes. The reason it will change might be down to good luck. The market will move back, at some time or another, to Dr Martens-type footwear, but we are not relying on that."