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John Saunders, from the British Footwear Association, live on World Footwear

Mar 15, 2016 United Kingdom
John Saunders, from the British Footwear Association, live on World Footwear
Aiming to get an updated view of the state of the footwear industry in the United Kingdom, we spoke to the sector's association, The British Footwear Association

World Footwear spoke with John Saunders, Chief Executive of the Association, to evaluate the state of the footwear industry in the country. Mr. Saunders took over the role as Chief Executive at the BFA on the 1st of November last year after working as Sales and Marketing Director for the Association since 2013. With extensive experience in the footwear industry, John started as a graduate trainee in 1979 - joining the premium English children's footwear brand Start-rite. His career included a number of sales and managerial roles with Start-rite, Van Dal, Florida Group, Ara and Dr. Scholl, Mr. Saunders also spent 11 years with SSL Plc, where he accumulated international experience as their Export and Regional Director for distributor markets in the Middle East, Africa and Northern and Easter Europe. After this Mr. Saunders worked with Brown Shoe/ Caleres the USA footwear giant as a business development consultant for the UK, Europe and the Near East, just before joining the BFA.

Tell us a bit about the recent evolution of the footwear industry in the UK.
Following the major contraction of manufacturing in the 80's, manufacturing in the UK has stabilized, and has actually seen growth of around 25% in output between 2010 and 2015. Today the UK footwear manufacturers produce around 5.5 million pairs per annum and employs around 4 500 individuals. Although these are much smaller figures than in the 1980’s, the percentage of total footwear exported has actually risen from around 18% in 1985 to circa 48% in 2015. British footwear is justifiably famous for its high grade welted men's branded footwear that still commands great international respect. However, the UK sector also includes producers of technical sports trainers, dance shoes and market leading casual comfort footwear.
BFA members come from all sectors of an industry with truly global reach. From quality manufacturers to world class sourcing companies from the leading global brand names and retailers to some of the most talented and innovative new designers.

What are the main challenges of heading the BFA? 
Continuing to improve the provision of relevant and valuable business services, business support, market data and training for our members. Increasing our support and lobbying activity to promote and highlight the needs of the UK footwear sector with British, and if possible, EU government is also key nowadays. Finding new ways to support export initiatives for British footwear companies to ensure we align with UK government strategy and targets. Doing all this with ongoing reductions in direct government funding is becoming of increasingly difficult. Finding new sources of revenue to drive initiatives while retaining and recruiting new members will remain key challenges of the Association in 2016.

In your view, what will be the main future challenges for the international footwear sector during the next few years?

Sustainability and increased environmental regulations, increased global competition, potentially too many producers chasing fewer larger retailers. In the West we have to find ways to sustain and grow our remaining footwear capacity and to find ways to improve the image of the industry to attract and train the skilled operatives of tomorrow.  Continued consolidation in the retail sector and changes in the routes to market, particularly with the growth of ecommerce, are also issues that companies will have to start to face more and more in the future.

What role do you think will be played by the European footwear companies in the near future? What should their strategies focus on? 

Companies should start to focus on the production of quality products. The future will force European producers to increase their flexibility and to offer shorter reaction times to compete with the Far East and new African producers. Innovation, quality and design will be needed to add further value to what will inevitably be premium products. The sector will no-doubt have to embrace new technology to keep ahead of other more labour intensive markets.

What should we expect from the performance of the UK footwear industry? 
Our businesses are well positioned to take advantage of new, and up turns in existing markets. UK footwear brands continue to be in demand internationally and increased domestic consumer confidence should help sales – particularly if we get some good seasonal weather.  During 2015 exports held up well and the outlook is encouraging. However, as we work in a global market the strength of the British Pound against the Euro and the continued weakness of key markets in the Eurozone and the slowdown in the Far East may be a continuing cause of concern into 2016.

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