Sole trader - Hobson's choice was my working life
My father had a firm making and selling handmade shoes. I worked with him for six months commuting to London every day, but not enjoying it. To escape I applied and was trained as a forester with the Forestry Commission. My father died while I was at forestry school and his partner continued to run the firm, but at a loss. There were no jobs available when I qualified so I decided to return to shoemaking. My forestry training had been very practical on the basis that before you can manage you have to be able to do the work. It gives an appreciation as to what is possible and reasonable. George Fox also worked initially as a shoemaker before he went out to rescue souls.
After a couple of years learning at evening classes and day release with a retired shoemaker, the day came when I took over running the firm. The dozen staff were all much older than me and felt I had pushed my father's partner out. They threatened to resign en mass. I offered a pay rise and none left.
Despite my earlier dislike of the commute on the train, I overcame that by first reading “The Good Soldier Schweik”. It was hilarious and I would burst out with laughter to the dismay of fellow commuters. I especially liked his appreciation of how wonderfully flat the floor of his prison cell was.
Most of the customers had foot or leg problems and could not buy shoes in the shops. Many came repeatedly over the years and spoke well of my father. My function was to take orders and measure their feet. I would do that on my knees and I felt that was how I did my best work. Not praying but seeing their soles. I love puns, they are so efficient. It also reminded me of a film called “Martin the Shoemaker” who had dreamt that God would visit him in his shop. Next day he felt disappointed because it was the usually stream of people who came in, and the next, and the next. Then he had a dream and realised that all the different people had something of God in them.
I had enquiries often by phone and the most frequent question was “How much?” So often the quote would kill the enthusiasm. One Tuesday I had a call asking if some one could go out the following Friday to Saudi Arabia to make shoes for the King. I thought it was a hoax and asked for their number to ring back. It was not a hoax and I found myself flying to measure the Crown Prince. As I was with him I realised it was like a fairy tale. A shoemaker of jewish descent, a Quaker and currently the chairman of the Northwood council of Churches. Of course I had to measure him on my knees.
Running a business requires many different skills and plenty of knowledge. Fundamental to this is to make a profit. The terms of business with customers is paramount. When I took over customers paid a token deposit and the balance on completion. I learn from other shoemakers that they asked for three quarters payment and then the balance when finished. I tweaked this to offer people the choice of the deposit or a small discount for paying in full. Nearly all paid in full with order despite shoes taking several months to complete. It showed trust in the firm, and helped our cash flow so that we could trade without an overdraft and have maximum discounts for prompt payment. That also gained goodwill from our suppliers who were always very co operative if we needed any special help.
My father had been a supplier to the NHS since it began and it accounted for about half our turnover. Patients from hospitals all over the UK who were fit enough to travel to us for fittings, but had not been satisfied by local contractors would beat a path to our door. It was very satisfying to see some titled people next to very ordinary folk discussing their foot problems as they sat on the same bench. The shop had three green leather benches in a row separated by display cabinets. There were also a few red leather chairs and I'd think of them as the lords and the commons.
The contract with the NHS was tendered for each year and if with inflation it was too high it was cut back, or if the prices were accepted then perhaps they were too low. Extra conditions were imposed and some I felt were sensible such as having orthopaedic consultants who endorsed the work. However a time came in 1990 when the prices were so low and the demands for so called quality assurance became untenable. Surely if patients had to sign that the footwear was acceptable then that was the ultimate assurance. It was a calculated risk to drop a major customer, but fortunately we survived.
One of the most cost effective adverts was an advert in “The Friend”. Just a small classified ad, usually at the end to get the last word. Reading, “Walk cheerfully this way or that, brought a significant amount of Friendly customers. All customers are very optimistic that all will work out with the minimum of fittings, but sometimes it was not so easy. There were “misfits” and remakes. After all it is not easy to fit feet, eyes and wallets. The first pair is the most challenging and it is when the next pair are ordered then success is usually there.
The time came when I needed to think about passing on the firm. My children either would not or could not take it on, so I found a firm that specialized in selling businesses. Eventually they succeeded and because I liked my work I negotiated a contract to work part time for the next three years. My team of twelve skilled people were replaced with work experience trainees to cut cost. He asked me to leave after eighteen months on the grounds of expense. I offered to work for less but he wanted an even lower rate. When I refused he invited me to a disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct! Half a dozen trumped up accusations. Of course I was dismissed. Having been disgusted by the way he dismissed my staff and treated customers, I applied to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal, and won. A sad way to end my working life, but I managed to sell a business and win a case for unfair dismissal against it.