Gardiners take giant steps into the new retail landscape

By Nicky Godding
James Gardiner

On a windy industrial estate on the edge of Gloucester, inside a group of ordinary-looking warehouses, sit almost one million pairs of shoes ready for dispatch.

From Hush Puppies to Muck Boots, Crocs to Dr Martens and Rocket Dogs, pretty much every form of shoe attire, apart from really high-end fashion (we’ll come to that later), can be found on the racks of Gardiners, the UK’s biggest distributor of everyday, work and safety footwear in the UK.

This 140-year old family business, which turns over £50 million annually, is now being run by the descendants of the first Gardiners, who started the business in Alvin Street, Gloucester in 1860 Chief Executive James Gardiner, 45, works alongside his cousins, directors Ben Gardiner, 45, and Mark Holloway, 47.

James, an accountant by profession, joined the business in 2000, moving back to Gloucestershire from London. Ben arrived three years later and Mark joined around 10 years ago, bringing IT expertise from running a technology business.

The family members sit within a sevenstrong management team that has grown an already successful business from an £8 million turnover when James arrived to work alongside his father and uncle, Jolyon and Peter Gardiner, to its current turnover of around £50 million.

Now the company is aiming to double its turnover again. But with high street retail struggling, the company’s traditional customer base – how come the business is doing so well?

While fewer of us shop in store, more are buying online. And Gardiners adapted early and successfully to online retail.

Visit a bricks and mortar store such as Next, and you’ll see a limited range of shoes. Visit the website and there are dozens more. Called range extension, this is where Gardiners is winning.

James explained: “We list additional products on their website, uploading images and data, integrating with their systems.

“Their orders filter through to us and we despatch to the consumer. This widens consumer choice without the retailer taking the stock risk.”

The retailer can try out new brands and Gardiners can put its huge stock-holding through many different retailers. To achieve this the business has invested heavily in technology, employing four full-time developers building the software to integrate with its customers’ systems.

A great Hush Puppies story

“We are working work with more multichannel retailers and offering more brands,” said James. “Ben has done a particularly great job over the last couple of years with Hush Puppies. This is a great success story for us.”

Hush Puppies is owned by American company Wolverine, which also owns Caterpillar footwear. “Wolverine licensed Hush Puppies to us two years ago and Ben, along with his design and resourcing team, put together a range which is growing rapidly. Another exclusive brand success story for us is Muck Boots, and our own brand, Cotswold, won outdoor brand of the year last year.”

Gardiners’ success lies in its relationship with retailers and brands. “We may launch a brand in the UK and grow it to a size where it’s no longer sensible for a retailer to use us as a distributor,” said James. “It becomes more cost effective for them to buy direct from the manufacturer and we help them do that.”

He cites the example of Timberland Pro. “Around four years ago the company which owns Timberland Pro relaunched the brand through us in the UK. Last year it bought out the cool work-wear brand Dickies, and it made sense for Timberland Pro to sell through Dickies in Europe rather than through us as distributors.”

It seems a bit unfair for Gardiners to lose out after successfully introducing a brand, but James doesn’t see it like that.

“If a retailer is selling 500 pairs, it should buy direct because we add in cost. Accepting this gains us the trust of the retailer and the brand, which means they offer us new brands and we only work where we add value.” In the case of Timberland Pro, Gardiners hasn’t lost out completely, it still distributes some of the brand for Dickies.

You can’t argue with the figures. Over the last five years Gardiners has averaged around 10-15 per cent growth a year.

What the company doesn’t generally sell is high fashion (although I spotted some rather nice zebra-print high heels on its website), because the return rate on some fashion ranges can be high. “We buy the products and take the financial risk. Hence the need to stay predominantly with products that don’t have high write downs or returns,” said James.

Taking big steps in growth ambitions

The Gardiner Bros Group is aiming to double its turnover during the next five years, driven predominantly by the UK market, but it is looking at other markets which have similar bricks and online retail models.

Europe is a good place to start, as the company has customers in France, Holland and Germany.

“We are open-minded about how we expand overseas and will be driven by where we find a retailer that we can work with,” said James.

“We could look at a market, do a big appraisal, put in a sales team – or we could do it by finding areas of success and build around it. I think that approach is probably more viable for us.”

The company is also moving to seven day working to keep up with service level agreements.

With some retailers offering customers next day delivery if orders are placed up to 10pm at night, Gardiners must pick and pack later into the evening.

The company has a pretty low staff turnover and James hopes this will continue. “We employ around 150 people and try to treat them properly, not measuring their every step. Our warehouse manager has been with us for 40 years and has supported the changing business.”

Housing the business in one big warehouse will help and the company is currently hunting for a 100,000 sq ft warehouse close to its current location. “We hope to have moved by the end of 2021,” said James.

There seems to be no let-up for this successful business. “We have a tight management team and despite it being a family business there are no secrets and very few politics. Our success is down to the management team as a whole.”

A matching pair of businesses embrace diversification to grow

The Gardiners Bros Group is two businesses: Footsure and Gardiners.

Footsure distributes primarily work and safety footwear and the CAT range of work clothing. Its biggest accounts include Screwfix, Mole Valley Farmers, Wynnstay and independent construction or agricultural retailers.

Gardiners distributes non-safety related footwear and sells dozens of well-known brands.

The backbone of that business was the smaller independent retailers, but increasingly the company is servicing national retailers such as Debenhams and John Lewis, where online e-commerce is as important as the traditional stores.

Footsure makes up around 60 per cent of the Group’s business.

The Group’s brand extension business, where it buys and holds brands to sell through retailers’ websites, makes up around 20 per cent of the whole business.