Yorkshire's shoe queen, 83, steps up to challenge of shopping TV

Jonathan Brown meets Catherine Paver, a £60m woman making broadcasting history
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The Independent Online

Dressed in an elegant black pinstripe trouser suit, with immaculately-coiffed blonde hair and perfect blood red nails, it is easy to see why Catherine Paver was known to friends and rivals alike as "the Maggie Thatcher of the shoe trade".

And yesterday, the company she created four decades ago launched the world's first 24-hour TV shopping channel dedicated entirely to buying shoes.

PaversShoes.tv went live from a studio in London but is being closely monitored from Catherine House, the company's global HQ on the outskirts of York named in honour of its 83-year-old founder.

It has been set up to revolutionise life for Britain's previously untapped legions of insomniac footwear shoppers.

In truth, the new platform for the family business which bought us the Fly Flot – a type of footwear so popular it has its own fan club – was the idea of Mrs Paver's son Stuart, the current managing director.

Despite her advancing years, his mother remains a commanding presence in the company. As well as buying and designing her own ranges of specialist shoes, she continues to work every Saturday afternoon at the Pavers shop in the centre of York – one of 70 across Britain and Ireland.

"I know all these shoes," she laughs as her daughter-in-law, the presenter Debbie Paver holds forth on the delights of dressy ankle strap sandals and special occasion sling-backs on the boardroom plasma screen. "They say that as you get older your memory goes but mine just gets better."

Mrs Paver confesses she wouldn't buy from the television, eliciting a grimace from her son who has just invested £1m in the new channel. She prefers the more personal touch, which she learnt as a teenager working in Boots. "I'm old-fashioned. I believe in service," she says.

The Paver story began in 1971 when at the age of 43, the Scottish-born mother of three realised her sons were no longer reliant on her. Her youngest had come in one day, thrown down his school bag and headed straight out. "I was bored," she confesses.

Then she was invited to a party where the hostess was selling very short nighties. Being tall there was nothing for her to buy, despite being plied with wine. She went home and told her husband she could do better.

She got a £200 loan from the bank, the only time the business has been in debt, and started buying shoes and other items direct from manufacturers. Soon her rival party planners were asking to work for her. When she opened up her warehouse one summer holiday, hoping to lure in mums at a loose end, it was an immediate success and stayed open permanently. She then started opening shops, focusing on comfort as well as style – based on her own experience of having a high instep

Today, Pavers sells two and a half million shoes a year from its retail outlets, catalogue and internet shopping site. The company has recently expanded into India, where it has a factory and sponsors a school near Chennai.

It is turning over more than £60m annually and the family is hoping the new shopping channel will add another £10m within 12 months. By yesterday afternoon, they had already taken 1,000 orders.

Looking back, things just seemed to work from the outset. "It was instantly right. I don't know whether it was luck, a good eye or hard work, but it never didn't make money," Mrs Paver recalls of her early days in business. But it was not all easy, particularly negotiating the sexist attitudes of the age.

"They didn't want to deal with a woman then. I had a terrible job to make suppliers realise I was the boss and I was buying. If my husband came, they wanted to speak to him. Now they realise women are clever and can do things," she adds.

Despite being a role model for female entrepreneurs, Mrs Paver has no regrets about leaving her career until her boys had grown up. All three have since followed her into the family business – the eldest has already retired.

"I wanted to give my children proper quality time to begin with. I don't like women working when they have babies. I think they should spend more time with their children," she says.

And the secret of her success? "I have learnt that anyone can do it if they want to work hard. It is not easy but I love what I do," she adds.

Although she jokes she would rather go to a shoe fair than go on holiday, she does enjoy two cruises a year. But she still likes to visit shops, arriving unannounced.

"I am very picky and can be a very harsh critic," she admits. "They used to call me the Maggie Thatcher of the shoe trade because I had to fight to get things. She was an iron lady."