Northampton’s largest family-owned footwear business is going from strength-to-strength, and Make it British took a trip there to find out why
I recently had the pleasure of being invited to the Crockett & Jones factory in Northampton to see their shoe making in action. The grade II listed building on Perry Street houses their offices and production unit and includes a handsome steel-framed extension that was the first of its kind in Northampton when it was built at the beginning of the 20th Century. Originally founded in 1879 by James Crockett and Charles Jones, the business is now in its 5th generation of family ownership, and is the largest family owned and run footwear manufacturer in Northampton. I was shown around by James Fox, who is married to Philippa Jones, daughter of the current MD Johnathan Jones, who tells me how well the business is doing these days, thanks in part to the popularity of English shoes with overseas buyers. In fact, exports now make up 70% of Crockett & Jones’ business, and many of their styles are made exclusively for the overseas market who consider the shoes made in Northampton to be the best in the world.
I ask James whether he thinks that being a family business has helped or hindered Crockett & Jones, and he tells me that the most obvious advantage is the years of expertise and knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation. He says that for younger members of the family it means that there is always a calm head to answer questions, and for older generations there is always the younger members coming in to keep the business moving forward. But he warns that it is not without its pitfalls – family members tended to take on far too much work apparently!
As you walk around the factory you can really see the skill and attention to detail that goes into the making of every shoe. James thinks that it was the company’s decision several years ago to concentrate on producing only the best quality footwear, using the finest leather and standard of finish, that has allowed them to do so well. The fact that Daniel Craig chose Crockett & Jones boots for his role as James Bond in Skyfall is also testament to the level of quality that is associated with the brand.
Despite the average age of worker in the factory probably heading towards fifty, there are quite a few younger faces too, which is great to see. Although Crockett & Jones don’t run an apprenticeship scheme as such, they have around 20-30 trainees in the factory currently, and new starters are buddied-up with trainers or senior operatives to help them learn how to use the machinery. Sometimes staff even come out of retirement to train up new starters and pass on their years of experience.
Certainly what I noticed when I was walking round was that everyone working at Crockett & Jones seems to take pride in what they do, and looks very happy doing it. Maybe it is because they get to leave at 2pm on a Friday – an old tradition that harks back to the days when factories paid everyone’s weekly wages in cash and it took all afternoon to queue up and get paid!
To find out more about the people that work at Crockett & Jones I would highly recommend a series of articles on their website entitled The Voice of Craftsmanship, in which they interview several of the characters that work in the factory.