New strategy, but Clark's chief finds strength in traditions

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Roger Pedder; Steering Britain's best-known footwear chain towards a stock market listing is top priority
Click to follow
The Independent Online
These are busy times for Roger Pedder. As co-founder and non-executive director of Pet City, a chain of 35 out of town pet superstores, he has a significant interest in the company's listing on the Alternative Investment Market later this month. The float, which will be priced tomorrow, should value the company at pounds 50m and his stake at around pounds 6m.

Mr Pedder is better known as chairman of C&J Clark, the family-owned footwear company, which he is steering to a full stock market listing by 1998. And then once a week, he pops along to a small insurance business in London where he is non-executive chairman.

But there is no doubting his priority: it is Clark's. He started his career with the company, married the chairman's daughter and now finds himself at the helm the company at its most significant stage in its 170 year history. He is anxious to set the record straight.

"I wanted to stop articles starting with "Clark's, the crisis-ridden shoe company," he says. This is a reference to the family in-fighting that threatened to engulf the group three years ago when the company rejected a hostile takeover bid by Berisford International.

The Clark family still owns 70 per cent of the shares and one of the conditions for turning the bid down was that the company would float within five years.

"It will probably take place to towards the end of that period now," he says. "The market conditions are not right."

He denies that the private, long-established family company will find it a culture shock to be subjected to the full glare of the City that a listing demands. "I genuinely don't think it will be a shock. We have been behaving as a plc for the last few years. The family is all agreed on the strategy and the way to take the company forward."

Ahead of the float he has been beefing up Clark's management and recently appointed Tim Parker as chief executive. Mr Parker, who was previously head of Kenwood, the hi-fi and audio group, joined last month and Mr Pedder is stewarding his new recruit's induction process. "He's learning to make shoes," he says. "We've all done it."

Clark's is also planning to test three new retail formats early next year as part of an attempt to improve the company's performance on the high street.

A lively fellow with a slightly hangdog expression and a penchant for loud ties, Mr Pedder is happy to talk business but less inclined to discuss personal wealth or anything that might make him sound like a high profile entrepreneur. "I don't like this cult of the personality stuff," he says. This is due to Clark's strong Quaker roots which still exert a powerful influence on the company.

"Quakers see themselves as stewards of wealth rather than consumers of it," he says. Though not a Quaker himself he has spent a large part of his working life with the company. Now 54, he started as a graduate trainee in 1963. He feels the Quaker tradition is a strength. "We do try to continue some of the old Quaker values within the firm. The family and the company tries to do things humanely. The Quaker code is still very prevalent and I think that is re-assuring."

After profits slumped from pounds 20m to pounds 1.7m in 1993, some family members became disgruntled and wanted to sell. He says: "These sort of problems are usually caused by four things: a decline in the businesses' fortunes, a fear of the future, a limited ability to sell shares, and a division in strategy."

He accepts the comparison with Littlewoods, another family empire which is currently considering its future, but says Clark's 4,000 shareholders now agree on the direction for the company. Certainly Clark's is in better shape. Profits for the year to January were down only slightly to pounds 19.6m, though this is still a poor return on sales of pounds 684m. The advertising budget has been doubled over the last two years. The shops have been re- furbished. Factories - including the one in Street - have been closed and production shifted to a modular teamwork basis instead of the old piecework approach. But the UK market, which accounts for two thirds of Clark's business remains difficult. "We are wrestling with a very difficult market in UK footwear but we are gaining market share in a falling market... we have to change the balance of the business."

A central plank in Mr Pedder's strategy is to make the business more international. In addition to Clark's itself, the company has strong brands which include K Shoes, Ravel and Rohan outdoor clothing.

"If you look at international brands in footwear you have the sports shoes such as Nike and Reebok and then designer names such as Gucci and Bally. But in the middle which brand has the recognition of quality and value? We have it. We have to make more of that."

All this is meat and drink to Mr Pedder, who has spent most of his career in retailing. He joined Clark's graduate training scheme at the age of 22, was selected as personal assistant to the then chairman - and caused some thing of a uproar when he married the chairman's daughter. "In that position you became neither fish nor fowl. People see you as not quite one of us and not quite one of them either. We effectively eloped."

Mr Pedder then spent time with many of the best-known names in British retailing, including BhS, Burton, and Harris Queensway. In 1989 he co- founded Pet City, the pet superstore concept that is now seeking a listing on AIM. He was managing director for four years and still sits on the board. "They were some of the hardest four years of my life but also some of the best fun. It's a fantastic business," he declares.

As well as pet food, customers can buy everything from a tarantula starter kit (pounds 32.99) to a waistcoat for Fido. The company plans to have 300 stores within five years and become the pet equivalent of Toys R Us.

But by 1992 his career came full circle; he was tempted back to Clark's when the shoe company looked for people with retail experience outside the board. "I suppose it was a case of better the devil you know that the devil you don't," he says.

Nigel Cope