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Clarks: A long walk to survival in stout, sensible shoes

The company, built on 19th-century Quaker virtues, has thrived as flimsier brands have fallen. Peter York, who used to work with the firm, salutes a British success story

There's a rather curious ad campaign running in the press now which features a happy-looking old couple, Oscar and Annette. He's got white hair, longish at the side, cords and a whole-grain cardie. She's got sensible short, greyish hair, a red gilet and a silver Celtic pendant. They're not asking for charitable contributions to achieve dignity in old age or selling hip replacements or corneal transplants. They're saying: "Join us. We're Quakers." The ad says: "Make peace a way of life." They look like the most active, principled parents or grandparents you could hope to have.

The memorial meetings I attended with my favourite aunt in the Friends' Meeting House were utterly unlike the planned parade of a traditional service. They were quiet, modest and open to everyone to speak. Long silences were punctuated by spontaneous reflections and memories, sometimes well-meant but banal, sometimes intensely felt and surprising. For ages I've had my own shorthand for that kind of modest conscientious English un-bling; I've called it "Clarks-y", after C&J Clark, the privately owned Somerset shoe business, founded by Quakers in 1825. Mark Palmer's new company history takes Clarks from its beginning, making things out of sheepskin – principally slippers and rugs – to making shoes in the hundreds of thousands by the 1860s, and then up to 2012 as a global business turning over £1.4bn and employing 14,000 people.

Unlike most approved corporate biographies, Palmer's gets the most difficult, most bitter parts of the history in from the first. How the original Clark brothers, Cyrus and James, were brilliant at growing production, but initially pretty hopeless at forecasting and finance, and had to be bailed out several times by other helpful Victorian business families. Other Quakers.

They made nice shoes with nice names such as Balmoral boots, for a growing middle-class market. They were observant Quakers and Temperance supporters. And they were increasingly professional, adopting new production technology, adapting to new markets, selling to new people – the first national shoe brand. Then on out to America and Australia. The Clarks story is a familiar 19th-century British industrial one – and a Quaker business one too.

As the business grew through the 19th century, and the family became quietly richer, Clarks became more classically paternalistic and concerned. From the later 19th century on the company town, Street in Somerset, got a mass of new buildings: library, theatre, swimming pool and meeting hall. And a hotel/pub, the Bear. But the Bear was dry, because the family didn't hold with the demon drink.

There's pragmatism in all this, of course. Nineteenth-century working-class drunkenness was the productivity problem then. Fix that and you've got a business advantage, as their Quaker peers, the Cadburys, found in their Midlands model industrial village, Bourneville. The Clarks were principled and profitable. And rooted. Family members worked in the business – generation after generation – as factory managers or going out to run things in Australia. For years on end.

Singular, admirable, sometimes quite maddening, Clarks were my clients for 15 years, and I thought about them constantly. And about why some big firms survived and grew in family ownership and some didn't. And what that said about this country and the way we all might survive and grow.

By the time I was first working for Clarks as a consultant, that was our national pre-occupation. Britain wasn't working, as the late-1970s Tory advertising said. And over the following decades a roll-call of those 19th-century Quaker businesses – most of them already public companies with changing cultures – were bought up and taken over. The chocolate- and sweet-makers are gone: Rowntrees in 1988 to the giant Swiss food company Nestlé, and Fry's, as part of Cadbury's, in 2011 to the American Kraft. And the founding family influence in other originally Quaker businesses – including bankers such as Barclays – has faded to nothing.

In 1981, Martin Wiener, one of those American academics who knows more about us than we do ourselves, published his English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980. Wiener showed just how painfully the fault lines in English culture were showing up as early as the 1860s. By then, Wiener argued, our new plutocrats, the Clarks' peers, were developing a second generation who, before the turn of the century, would want a different life – one away from the factory floor and the sales desk. They wanted in to the English Dream. The dream stoked up by the public schools and the old universities those founding generations had sent them to. It went roughly: buy a peerage, a big house and an estate and become a toff. It was the dream Country Life (established 1897) sold to turn-of-the-century plutocrats. England's dreaming, so Wiener said, had sapped its industrial spirit, and successive generations wanted gents' jobs – to be writers and artists, work in the Foreign Office, or at the very least merchant banking – rather then making things and selling them in the family business. Those prodigious Victorian successes belonged in the history books now because they'd sent their darlings to Harrow.

But not the Clarks, it seemed to me. They weren't mucky or brassy but marvellously persistent. Being Quaker helped – the children typically went to Quaker private schools rather than flash ones – and so did the small-town Somerset background – as against those northern satanic mills that were to be escaped at all costs by 1900. But none of this saved many of their peers, who'd taken the money and run. Or was it something about the lovely leathery shoe trade itself? But great swaths of the old British shoe business have disappeared too. Cheap imports, the trainer revolution of the last 25 years, have left only a handful of the most expensive Northampton niche brands. (Did you know Church's was bought by Prada in 1999?)

Clarks have always adapted, always innovated. They were, for instance, thinking up new kinds of hi-tech soling material to make performance shoes, as clever as anything the trainer giants came up with, back in the 1960s. They overcame their reservations about the vulgarity of advertising in time to feature generations of British film stars in their shoes between the wars and after. And they recognised that if they couldn't beat Sir Charles Clore's giant retail combine, the British Shoe Corporation, they had to join them by building a national Clarks chain of their own (the British Shoe Corporation has long since crumbled).

But none of that prevented a desperate, bitter struggle over ownership in the 1990s with declining performance, a private-equity buy-out offer and a tense vote among the small group of private shareholders – the majority of them extended Clark family members, the descendants of Cyrus and James. Clarks shareholders voted to stay private in 1993, but with the assumption that the company would float when it made sense to do so.

The price of survival was closing all UK factories and outsourcing – making things all over the world. And bringing in a new cohort of outsider managers to do it. Clarks family members still work in the business but don't run it. Clarks is a "global brand" now, the world's third largest shoe business after Nike and Reebok. Outside the UK, Clarks is seen as more premium and fashion-y than inside (think of Liam Gallagher or Hugh Grant in their original desert boots, as famous a world classic as the Gucci loafer). They know what they've got and the current CEO is an outsider graduate intake of 1989 called Melissa Potter. Who says they can't adapt to the modern age?

'Clarks: Made to Last – The Story of Britain's Best-known Shoe Firm' by Mark Palmer is out now (Profile)