Lancelot Clark: “If you teach your workers well, it is good for business”

Shoemaking legend Lancelot Clark on how Clarks' ethical business practice has led to a philanthropic venture in Africa

To approach the company headquarters of iconic British cobblers Clarks, in the village of Street in Somerset, with Lancelot Clark, a 79-year-old sixth generation shoemaker, is to take a trip through history.

We are rattling along winding country lanes in his battered blue Ford Focus estate, which is covered in mud, full of kids’ car seats (he’s just dropped some of his younger children at a nearby activity centre) and reverberating to the sound of its driver railing against modern business practices and non-executive directors.

Clarks factory from above, 1933

“What are they for?” he wonders, before taking a shot at excessive executive pay and the short-term dash for profit at the expense of the long-term security by managers more interested in bonuses and future career plans than the companies they lead.

He talks excitedly about ways in which ethics and capitalism could happily co-exist. Lance Clark is no short-termist. He’s been part of the story for more than 70 years. Set up in 1825 by Cyrus and James Clark, the Clarks factory is no longer in Street (pictured below), having been moved overseas in 1990. But the company, and its deeply embedded Quaker roots and values, remains at the heart of village life.

As a bribe for going into the Quaker meetings on Sundays, we were taken into the factory, which was a magical place

“My father brought me in at the end of the war,” says Clark. “We started making sandals. As a bribe for going into the Quaker meetings on Sundays, we were taken into the factory, which was a magical place. We were brought up in the culture. In school holidays I worked in the warehouse, then the design department. I had a job in university vacations making shoes. My first management job was expanding Clarks into Europe.”

Today Clark is not wearing Clarks shoes, preferring the VivoBarefoot range developed by his son, Galahad. He is no longer on the board at Clarks. Outside management were brought in when, he says, there was “no strong member of the family coming through to take over” in the 1990s.

Before Clarks, the farming community of Street was little more than a single street. It was transformed by James Clark’s Eureka moment in the late 1820s, in which he declared that offcuts of sheepskin from his elder brother’s tannery could be made into slippers. Since then the community has been built and nurtured by the Clark family.

Photo: Ki Price

We speed past Millfield, the independent school renowned for sporting excellence and established in 1935 in the Clark family’s former mansion. A few streets on is Greenbank Pool, a heated outdoor lido gifted to the community in 1937 by Alice Clark to give local women and girls somewhere to swim (men and boys swam naked in the nearby River Brue).“My grandfather died at that desk,” he points out, as we look in on the museum’s perfectly preserved shoe-maker’s office. “My great uncle Nathan developed those,” he says as we admire the collection of original Desert Boots, worn by any self-respecting Mod. More than 10 million pairs have been sold since 1949.

The bestselling Wallabee, as worn by Breaking Bad’s Walter White and denizens of the Jamaican dancehall and reggae scene, was developed by Lance Clark in 1967, and he recalls its tortured research and development phase: “We were making 24,000 pairs a week at the height of its powers. It became highly profitable. There is a whole book about the Wallabee’s success in Jamaica.”

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But the Clarks success story was founded on more than iconic design. It was built on Quaker principles. In 1856, James Clark’s son, William Stephens Clark, mechanised the shoe-making process that would establish Clarks as a world leader. “William Stephens believed in people,” says Clark. “He took over the company when it was in serious trouble, worked for three years without a holiday, saved the business and turned out to be a brilliant entrepreneur.”

Driven by his horror at the treatment of boys making Clarks slippers in home workshops, he built a modern, light, spacious and well-ventilated factory. Strode School was built, along with workers’ houses and allotments; a library and theatre followed. William added further education for boys over 14. “He was a pioneer. Bright kids, who today would go to university, learnt shoemaking but also got an education. Some of them became directors and managers later.

“William came from a family that believed in the dignity of all human beings, and he acted on those beliefs,” he explains. “The fundamental Quaker belief and philosophy is that there is something good in everybody and your job is to look for that. Quakers are pacifists. It is also linked to good business practice. If you teach your workers well, it is good for business.”

Lance Clark and I visit the Bear Inn, opposite Clarks HQ. “William, who had taken the vow, heard that the home workers would pick up their wages and then go straight across the road to get pissed at the old cider house here,” says Clark. “So he bought the cider house in 1883 and removed its licence.” No alcohol was served there again until the 1970s.

The workers enjoyed annual outings to the seaside, and a building co-operative instigated by William ensured one third of employees owned their own homes. The company expanded at an impressive rate.

The fundamental Quaker belief and philosophy is that there is something good in everybody and your job is to look for that

After the second world war, Bancroft Clark – who was responsible for Clarks’ pioneering foot-sizing mechanisms for children to ensure they had properly fitting footwear – developed the company into a worldwide business. “From not being in children’s shoes, Clarks became the number one manufacturer,” says Lance Clark.

“We were the most innovative shoemaker in the UK.” He has been continuing the family traditions of innovation and care over the last decade. He visited South Africa in 2003 to advise on stimulating employment for women. He went one step further and co-founded Soul of Africa. The organisation was established in Natal to offer sustainable employment for women, as well as to raise funds for the care of children orphaned by Aids, and to produce a high-quality product in Africa that could be sold around the world.

“The wife of one of the shoe manufacturers I met in Natal took me to an orphanage she had set up. It was this terrible, dilapidated shack. One little boy ran out crying, I picked him up and he laughed – which of course set me off crying. I gave them money for blankets but thought it would be interesting to see if we could help them to help themselves.”

The project has already paid out in excess of £6m in wages and £2m in profits for childcare and development. The range of leather boots and shoes are now made in South Africa, Tunisia and Ethiopia, with students from the London School of Economics and Political Science examining ways to expand the business further.

Clark talks with renewed vigour when discussing the potential of Soul of Africa. Both Clarks and Soul of Africa are facing key moments. As Lancelot Clark’s innovations continue to push Quakernomics into new territory, will the Clarks brand stick to its founding principles? One thing is certain: that centuries-old Clarks spark of maverick business genius shines as bright as ever in the sixth-generation shoemaker’s African ventures.