The Interview: Martin Mason, managing director, Tricker’s
A post on LinkedIn this week from Tricker’s managing director, Martin Mason, showed his passion for British manufacturing and his views on what the government could be doing to get the economy back on track with a procurement strategy that utilises production in the UK. With its famous old Jermyn Street store currently shuttered, along with its long-established Northampton factory, founded in 1829, it’s a poignant time for reflection.
How is business for Tricker’s in the current coronavirus-hit retail climate?
To put things into perspective, I was talking to our landlord at The Crown Estate this week for our Jermyn Street store, and I was saying to him that the shop we have, which was our second shop and opened in 1937, has never closed other than on Christmas Day or other national holidays – even during WWII it opened every day. Now it’s been forced to close for over a month so far. It feels very strange. Everything is on hold. We get lots of international visitors, so that’s having a big impact. We also closed the factory on 23 March for staff safety reasons. We’ve had to furlough the factory staff, as it wasn’t viable to practise social distancing. It was a kind of mixed message from the government which said you can go to work if you can’t do it at home. Well, you can’t make shoes at home, so technically we could have stayed open, but we couldn’t do that with concerns for our staff. We’ve got a very mixed age group in the factory, and certainly some highly skilled people in the age category – over 70 - that have to be very careful and have been told to stay home.
What about the website?
We still have that open. It’s clearly not particularly busy at the moment, but we have a separate warehouse and there’s only two people that work in there and they are actually in two different rooms. So, we can practise social distancing in there, and we’ve had hand sanitisers put in. It’s not like it’s a big warehouse like Next, which had to close and then re-open once they’d done a full safety analysis.
A lot of brands and retailers seem to be discounting, what’s your standing on that?
We’re not currently selling vast amounts of shoes and there is a temptation to go into a heavy discount, but I don’t think that’s very good for the brand. It’s not what we would normally do. We’re trying to maintain business as normal online, in as much as we will have our usual Sale in the summer, but we’ve done a lot of contingency planning.
When do you think you will be re-opening the store and factory?
Nobody can be sure, but we’re aiming for 1 July. It remains wholly dependent on government advice. When you do business planning, you really have to put your stick in the ground at some point and have something to work towards. Anything before July 1 doesn’t feel very sensible or comfortable. This virus isn’t just going to disappear, but I think there will be some sort of phased re-opening. We still have a number of people currently operating at home, because there’s still a lot of general management activities that need to be done, such as accounting, legal, HR and future planning, so we’ve not gone completely dark, and we have to look at what the business landscape is going to look like when we come back.
Did you deliver all your SS20 orders?
We pretty much did, though in Italy – where we have a very big wholesale market – we had a period of a week where we had shipped orders out, but then they were in lockdown, and the orders literally came back from the carrier. So, there was a number of orders that we weren’t able to deliver. We’re hoping some of it will still be able to be delivered, but by the time we re-open we’re going to be talking more about AW20 rather than SS20. Some of the products will be carried forward for AW20. With a footwear business like Tricker’s, or any of the Northampton manufacturers, the collections don’t change like a seasonal fashion collection would. Of course, we do have seasonal product for SS20, with lighter sole units, lighter weight leather – or unlined leather - and shoes more suitable for the warmer months, but it’s not the biggest chunk of our business. That is still very much our core product and the footwear you’d recognise, like our classic brogues and boots.
How do you see it panning out for SS21 and the now re-scheduled Pitti Uomo show?
I think every season now is going to probably be disrupted through until AW21, because even for SS21 there’s going to be question marks as to when people will be able to buy the collections. In terms of Pitti, with it being re-scheduled for early September, personally I can’t see that happening. It just feels illogical. Firstly, who is going to travel there? You won’t get the Japanese, Asian or American buyers travelling in any quantity. We’re keeping our options open, but right now we have no idea what we’ll be doing in September. Holding any kind of trade show in September isn’t really a wise move for both commercial and health reasons. How would they manage social distancing? A trade show is probably the worst environment to socially distance, because the whole purpose of a trade show is the opposite of social distancing. It’s about meeting people and showing product, you can’t show somebody your product from two metres away. Then you’ve got to think about the airlines, flights and hotels. The whole global luxury fashion industry is awash with stock and buyers from abroad will be hesitant to travel. On top of which, they’re certainly not going to have the budget to spend. In my opinion, Pitti is better off waiting until January.
Do you think that manufacturing and buying British will be key to our recovery in the UK?
Manufacturing and buying British is most definitely going to be key for our recovery. Exporting is critical and Britain needs its brands to sell in volume to have any chance of recouping the billions its spending on its survival strategy, let alone the currently unspoken extra billions it will need to spend on re-booting the economy after this crisis. Right now, the government is spending an awful lot of money on keeping businesses alive. It’s a survival strategy but, at some point, they want business to get back and start re-building the economy. That’s obviously what needs to happen, but in order to do that, as a country we are going to have to focus even more on exports. That is clearly something the industry and government has always placed a great deal of focus on. Also, As I posted on LinkedIn this week, for the footwear sector here in Northamptonshire, the government needs to prioritise its own procurement strategy, not just look to save a few quid by placing orders off-shore to India, China and south east Asia. The establishment of better working relationships in the supply chain, based upon openness and trust, should start here in the UK.
How do you see the benefits of that?
The cost will initially be more, but it puts money back into our economy creating jobs and protecting business, far better than just using the levers of grants, furlough and loans as bailout options. Rather than just bailing out companies, maybe the government should start looking at its own procurement strategy and start buying British. It’s now very relevant with PPE products for example, as companies here have the ability to make such products, yet the government goes abroad to buy it. With regard to the footwear industry, government contracts for footwear tend to be awarded to India, China or south east Asia, whether it’s for the armed forces, or other service industries. We actually made footwear for the armed forces during WWI and WWII. Maybe the government should think about spending a little bit more and buy British products as a way of supporting the economy. That could be applied to pretty much any category, such as engineering, vehicles, building products, electronics, food, drink – you name it, whatever it happens to be to support British industry and put money back in to the British economy. The reason the government procure items abroad is they tend to be cheaper, but that is not the answer now. Quite simply, it has to change. At the moment, 85% of our sales at Tricker’s are export, so we rely on that, but there is very large amount of business that the government places abroad that could be brought back here.
How do you view the sustainability aspect?
During this lockdown, people have become a lot more aware that the environment is a much more pleasant place. Do we need to fly products in from all over the world? Shouldn’t we now be thinking more about sustainability in our own country? When I talk about sustainability, I’m not only talking about environment impact. Sustainability also means businesses in the UK employing local people and building their local economies. In our factory, we have 96 people working who all live locally and support their families and the local economy. We in turn buy all our components from other businesses in Northamptonshire. As a snapshot as an industry, you can see that we are sustainable. It’s about creating sustainable businesses in your community. We still make 100% of our footwear in our Northampton factory, and we are very proud of that.
How do you view current manufacturing in Britain?
Britain has a proud history of innovation, design and making world class products. Tricker's have been doing so here in Northampton for 191 years. Just 70 years ago, manufacturing made up 48% of the UK economy. By 2019, the percentage of manufacturing in our economy has fallen to about 10%. Like most businesses, we are all currently in survival mode, micro-managing and planning for a post COVID-19 world. Furloughing and grant aid is helpful, but there is a far more effective way for government to boost future employment and save our proud manufacturing sectors. Buy British has been a rallying call most politicians put high on every term in office, the GREAT campaign being a recent example. Now is the time for the government to support British manufacturing the best way they can, by practising buying British themselves. In terms of export, we’re going to have to be very strong and explore new businesses opportunities long term with various trade missions – visiting countries and showing our products. I remain optimistic that the country will get back on its feet and be strong once more, but it’s going to take time and a new way of thinking that supports our people, our economy and how we live in the future.