As a kid growing up in the small New Zealand town of Te Kuiti, I went to the local convent school. The nuns (bless them) always had our best interests at heart and often this meant life lessons were learned at the end of a stiff leather strap. It was tough at the time but I know the discipline was good for me. At this time my Dad Tony was the biggest employer in Te Kuiti, with over 150 people working in his Fabia factory, and it happened to be opposite the school rugby field. Often, after footy practise, I’d head over the road to check out the design room and making track to see what everyone was up to.
The Smell of Leather in my Blood
I still remember with fondness that distinct smell of rich leather and feeling the excitement of the Fabia team when a gleaming new Italian machine would arrive, or a style from the current shoe range turned into a best seller. The technicians from Northern England showed me the many intricacies of making fashion shoes - for instance making a pair of shoes involves combining twenty different components through fifty odd processes before a finished shoe would come off the line. For me shoemaking is endlessly fascinating.
Opening My Own Factory
The Catholic boarding school I attended challenged both parties, and towards the end the Brothers suggested that our respective futures would be rosier with me outside the gates. Being a Te Kuiti boy and loving farming, I spent a year contract fencing and shearing, and then went to university to study Agriculture. As I studied however, I soon realized the farming life wasn’t for me and halfway through my course the call of shoes came again. (See Our Stories Volume 1: Shane’s Story). With some old borrowed machinery from my Dad I set up a small plant in Palmerston North and learned all I could about making women’s shoes. This included learning to use every machine, taping lasts to design, hand grading patterns for new styles, bending and welding the cutting knives for production and much more. I was in my element!
A Sobering Lesson
Sales grew and I started making more intricate shoes. Initially I experimented selling directly to customers, a novel idea back in the mid-80s, but as we got bigger we progressed to selling in the more traditional way – wholesaling to other shoe stores. My Dad was encouraging and patient, and like many good fathers lent some help financially. But then things changed. It was 1987, the economy tanked and business slowed. I didn’t survive the downturn and I shut the factory. It hurt, I was embarrassed and learned a big lesson. I learned it takes more than raw energy and youthful enthusiasm to build a successful business. I learned that you also need a clear strategy, a vision you can communicate, a need in the market, and most importantly great people with expertise and a willingness to share the journey.
I used these lessons as we built Overland, Mi Piaci and now our Merchant 1948 stores over the next decades. Our focus on creating a culture where people come first has been one of the keys to our success. Due to this focus we have won the prestigious IBM Kenexa Best Workplaces NZ award three times and have been finalist for each of the last eleven years. I consider myself a shoe retailer, but making shoes is still in my blood. I love visiting our suppliers’ factories in Italy, Portugal and China and am fascinated with the way productivity has increased over the years with advances in technology and new processes. So, when we got a chance to set up our own production in China we have made sure we focused on growing our people first, putting the right processes in place and recognising people doing things right. We’ve had plenty of challenges making our shoes, and I know we’ll have many more, but there’s a real satisfaction in creating an amazing culture for our people in another country - and getting beautiful shoes back in return!