Many questions came up after the fact that the British shoe manufacturer Alfred Sargent have gone into liquidation went public. In this large open-hearted interview with Paul Sargent, part-owner and Factory Manager at the now closed company, you’ll get answers to most of them. The history of why the company ended up where they are, what will happen with the Alfred Sargent brand, and what will happen with the factory. Most importantly – this is not the end for the Rushden factory, Sargent will once again show that they are the phoenix bird of Northampton.
After the article I wrote on the liquidation last week, I was contacted by Alex Sargent, son to Paul Sargent and who worked at the Alfred Sargent company. He found the article to be “impressively informative given the fact [that I] were not able to contact anyone from Alfred Sargent”, and explained that company representatives was cut off from all emails and social media once the company went into liquidation, hence no replies from them. They were more than happy to talk about the situation from their point of view, and talk about what is happening now and going forward. I set up a phone call with Paul Sargent, who is the fourth generation of Sargents who together with his brother Andrew has been part of the company since way, way back (Paul started in 1964, younger brother Andrew a bit later). We talked for almost an hour and I learned both what has happened with the Alfred Sargent brand and the inventory (details on this comes from another source though, the new owners of this is not anyone from the “original” Sargent), and about the fact that Paul has solved access to all the machinery and will continue to produce shoes in the same premises, starting already within a few weeks if all goes well. Much more on that below, we start the interview off further back in history, to understand all the ups and downs of the company the past decades, why they’ve done the business decisions they have, and much more.
For all us who have followed Alfred Sargent’s journey the past decades, it seems like it’s been a tough ride. If we go back a bit, how did it all start?
– Well, I think one should go back to the 1980’s to get the full picture. As most other British shoe factories back then, the Sargent factory largely produced shoes for other brands. We started collaborating with Marcos Fernandez in France, a shoe entrepreneur who is nowadays busy with Septieme Largeur and Orban’s, but who also has started Markowski, Emling and Bowen. Bowen was his first brand, and in the 80’s we started making shoes for them. In the mid 90’s Fernandez sold Bowen to the French Thierry brothers of Manfield, who later merged their companies under Manbow, who also have more brands than these two nowadays. We continued to produce Bowen shoes, and they became our major customer in the factory.
Did they become too big?
– Exactly. Cause in 2002 or 2003, when we were making 2,400 pairs of shoes per week in the factory of which 3,400 pairs per month were for Bowen, they decided to change their strategy and use more manufacturers. I think it was due to not being too sensitive should something happen to the one supplier they used, so I can understand that. But for us at Sargent, going from 2,400 pairs a week down to a bit over 1,900 pairs per week was a huge blow, obviously. At the same time our legendary Sales Director Richard Webb, who’d been with us since the 1980’s, retired. This is where we started to struggle. We got Gaziano & Girling in at 2006 and had a section making their shoes for a few years, but when they got things going they opened up their own factory. And we never really got things working well, to be honest, and built up debts. It all caught up with us in 2009, and the company went into two administrations within a year.
What did you do to try and work things out?
– Several things of course. One thing was that we did an overhaul of our own Alfred Sargent offerings. Back then we had a few different ranges, we had one basic in-stock range, like entry level Goodyear welted shoes called the Classic line, a country range and then a Premier and a Premier Exclusive range. Good stuff, but none of it really stood out. Our involvement with Gaziano & Girling was mutually beneficial, and off the back of this we took a lot of that and created the Handgrade range, with absolute top grade leather, slim fiddle back waists, oak bark tanned leather soles and so on. It was praised as a product, but feedback was that it was quite expensive for many, so we then developed the Exclusive line in the midrange segment which had a lot of similar specs but a bit lower grade on upper leather and finishing details. This was indeed very well received.
I’ve often said that Alfred Sargent Exclusive and Handgrade were among the best bang for the buck stuff you could get out when it comes to English-made shoes, still you discontinued the Handgrade range after a few years, and Exclusive was often difficult to find and buy. Why?
– To understand this, we have to talk about what happened to the business. As explained the new ranges was done to stir things around, but it didn’t exactly happened over night that we started selling loads of those, so we still struggled financially. What happened then was that the Thierry brothers of Manfield/Bowen, who had continued as an important customer to the factory, came in as minority owners with 49% in 2011, with Sargent family keeping 51%. Then in 2012 they took over two more percentages and became majority owners.
How did that feel for you?
– I mean, we were in trouble so I really appreciate what they did for us, essentially coming in and saving the company. So there’s nothing bad to say about that. Then going forward from when they took over, they as majority owners perhaps took decisions which I didn’t agree on fully. To come back to the topic of Exclusive and Handgrade ranges under our own Alfred Sargent brand, which were introduced before they took over and which I strongly believed in, really since that was the type of shoes I myself wanted to make, and I could also see how our staff sort of raised to the occasion and really enjoyed making these finer footwear. Plus of course feedback from customers was great. However it wasn’t ever anything that Bowen wanted to focus on, instead more and more production became for the Bowen brand, although should be mentioned some to Exclusive standard and branded as Alfred Sargent for Bowen. But among Sargent retailers etc. Handgrade was eventually discontinued and Exclusive was sort of, well, an exclusive product in terms of availability.
– I was actually called up by a man a late Saturday, who said he “wanted to congratulate me”. I said, “ok, why?“ “For being the best kept secret in the world”. I guess that says a bit…
Hehe yeah, and as I experienced it increasingly difficult to get a hold off in recent years?
– I guess so. I know you mentioned in the previous article that in 2018 we 60% of the shoes made was for Bowen, 20% for Sargent brand and rest for others. Last year, I believe 90% or so was made for Bowen. As we talked about before, doing only one thing can make you sensitive, and they didn’t really keep up with things like e-commerce etc for their men’s shoes, at the same time as some other brands of the Manbow group selling women’s shoes went very well so their focus moved towards that, but for Bowen it started becoming a struggle, then the situation with Covid became sort of the nail in the coffin, it hit Bowen really hard. They sold mainly in centrally located stores in larger cities, and in France the sales in those areas was down a lot. Bowen also had struggled to take part in certain circles. They couldn’t mix with the Ingevaldssons, FitzPatricks, Jacomets etc. of this world and as a result we gained less coverage to the point of virtual irrelevance. I had become increasingly unhappy and disillusioned with the path we were taking, especially in regards to the Alfred Sargent brand decisions although I was loyal to Bowen’s business vision, as I have mentioned before; they put in money when nobody else would and for that I am eternally grateful. At times I found it difficult to square these two feelings.
I can surely understand that. So, when did you stop production in the factory?
– We continued production all the way up until the liquidation, albeit since June 1 last year with a smaller group of staff who we could also keep separate in a good way to make it corona safe. But yeah, economy was really bad, with big debts, so in January the factory was closed and a decision was taken to liquidate the company.
Yes, and now what everyone wants to know is, what will happen now?
– So, when a company is liquidated the liquidators are to receive as much money as possible for the assets available in the company, so they can pay as much as they can of the debts. Everything have been up for sale, which has resulted in the brand name and all the inventory, the finished shoes, being purchased by one part [according to info to Shoegazing this is a famous British webstore, but I prefer not to disclose this until they have confirmed so themselves], and I can now confirm a London shoemaker has purchased the shoe machinery.
Okay, what does that mean for you?
– Until the deal was closed, we couldn’t disclose information however now we can say that another British shoemaker in London came in at the death and purchased the machinery and all the lasts and patterns. These are our friends who wanted to save a British factory and especially save British machinery from being sold overseas. Their objective was to support us financially and they have been very supportive. This British shoemaker would prefer to stay anonymous as it is not for me to disclose their financials or assets.
Alright, so you now sort of got the machinery and have the company Paul Sargent Shoes Ltd. Will this be the new Alfred Sargent then?
– In a way, yes, though I don’t really know what name we will use for the brand, yet, only that it won’t be Alfred Sargent. I haven’t bought the material, since a lot of it was stuff used for Bowen shoes a bit lower end than what we intend to do now, don’t know where that material has gone. But so we will have access to the machinery, and the factory premises is owned by myself and my brother, Sargent rented that, so as soon as the liquidators are finished with the process, we are to be let in to the factory and start setting things up again. The plan is to continue with the same smaller group of staff as have been in the factory the last seven months, it’s a good talented group, also with some youngsters, something like 14-15 people in total.
But still not super small then?
– Yeah, if you become too small with 5-6 people or so a lot of things become much more expensive, you need to have a good balance. What we want to do is to sort of forget about the past seven years or so, and go back to working with the Exclusive and perhaps also Handgrade offers. We need to become more progressive in many regards than what Alfred Sargent was, with an online presence both in social media and of course with an e-commerce, and lots of things like that. I hope my son Alex who is the partner in Paul Sargent Shoes Ltd. will mean a lot on this regard.
So Alex is following in your footsteps now?
– Unfortunately, yes, haha! He is young, 25 years, and I wanted my son to do accounting or something. He studied at the Notthingham University, then came home one day and said he had spent his savings on a shoemaking course with Carréducker. I almost lost my breath. But here we are now, and of course I’m also happy that he wants to do something he feels he really enjoys, that’s usually the best way to succeed.
Okay, so Paul Sargent Shoes will continue on the Alfred Sargent saga, so to speak, but at the same time the original brand name will continue with someone else, how does that feel?
– I don’t have a problem with it. I mean, I don’t know who the buyer of this is, but they put a bigger bid in than we could, that’s the process, so good luck with that. From my perspective the factory existed long before the brand was started in the mid 1980’s and I hope it will continue to exist long into the future. All I want to do is continue to make the shoes with the same folks I’ve worked with before. I certainly know it’s a difficult time to go ahead with all this, but I’m up for a challenge. And I’m taking with me all the nice words said about Sargent’s shoes these past days by people from all around the world, I’m really humbled by that.
NOTE: This is Paul Sargent’s view on everything, I have reached out to the Bowen owners as well as the company who purchased the Alfred Sargent brand, to get their views as well, yet without luck.