Shoe industry on its uppers

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THE TOWN of Keighley, Yorkshire reeled when Peter Black Holdings recently announced it was closing its shoe factory. The town's second largest employer plans to make 285 people redundant, almost half its local workforce.

"We have gone down fighting," claimed joint chairman Gordon Black. "We left no stone unturned in trying to save production of footwear in Keighley." The company blamed its distress on the usual culprit - cheap imports - but others think more complex changes are afoot.

Peter Black is not alone. A spate of closures and receiverships has rocked Britain's already down-at-heel footwear industry recently. Somerset-based C&J Clark, one of the sector's largest firms, this month closed its children's shoe plant in Radstock, Avon, with 360 job losses. In Stalybridge, Manchester, Futura shoes is in voluntary receivership. So is Chatterbox Shoes, maker of down-market footwear in Blaby, Leicestershire. It will close in May, with 95 jobs losses.

They also pointed to inexpensive foreign imports as the source of their woes. Countries such as Indonesia, Italy, Spain, China and Portugal have grabbed a steadily growing share of the UK market for decades. But industry observers say this time the imports are not at fault.

Britain's footwear industry is finally going through a badly needed rationalisation. Cost-efficient producers such as Lotus, the core division of conglomerate FII Group, are doing well. Many have growing export sales and a steady share of Britain's admittedly shrinking domestic market. Those less well equipped to face the future are falling by the wayside.

Futura is typical of the companies feeling the pinch most severely. Martin Holt, the slipper- maker's managing director, said his company was unable to arrange financing this year. But Malcolm Shierson of receiver Grant Thornton said the company's problems run deeper. "What we're seeing is the collapse of companies that have old, outdated equipment,'' he said. "The equipment Futura uses still works, but it's well past its sell-by date." The company is for sale.

The shake-up has been expected for at least two years. In 1993 three bidders tried to scoop up C&J Clark. Alan Bowkett, chairman of Berisford International, one of the failed bidders, argued then that the industry was ripe for consolidation.

What would have happened if Berisford had succeeded with its £184m bid is moot. The debate now is about Clark's future as a shoe-maker. The plant closure emphasises its increasing reliance on outside suppliers for stock.

Britain's shoe, boot and slipper-makers have been in decline for so long that few people notice when another firm slides under. In the 1960s the industry employed 116,000, according to the Leicester and County Footwear Manufacturers' Association. Today it has 35,000. During that period foreign imports rose from 18 per cent to 62 per cent by value.

Recently the situation has changed. By 1993 import volumes had returned to their 1989 level, around 177 million pairs. British exports over the past five years have grown from 25 million to 31 million pairs. But total sales in the UK fell from a peak of 310 million in 1990 to 260 million pairs as recession-battered consumers held on to their old leather.

It is no coincidence, argues Paul Baines of Charterhouse Bank. "You only get shake-outs when there are financial pressures. It's not a bad thing for the industry to become leaner. It will leave it better placed to fight off imports."