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Eight-gen family business Start-rite heads into non-family management

By Daniel Bardsley

The family that owns children's shoemaker Start-rite is relinquishing management control for the first time in the firm's 200-year history and plans to hand over equity to attract top-rank directors.

Eighth-gen Peter Lamble is quitting as chairman and managing director of the UK-based company, although he will remain as a non-executive on the board, where a second family member will join him. The 55-year-old feels “a little bit stale” after nearly two decades running Start-rite, and his decision to step down comes after a search for outside investors failed to lead to a deal.

“If we had taken on new investors, the chances are they would've brought some management with them or had ideas of changes they wanted to make anyway. Once you start getting into the mindset where that might happen, you say, 'Even if that investment doesn't happen, is there logic in refreshing the management anyway?'” he said.

Lamble joined the company as finance director in 1990, was managing director and then chairman between 1996 and 2005, and since then has held both roles.

By offering equity-based incentives, the company will “attract higher-grade people” in its search for a non-executive chairman and a chief executive.

“If we want to prosper, we need some high-grade management in the business and realistically that isn't available within the family pool,” he said.
Age was a factor, with ninth-gen family members too young to take over, although they could do so in future according to Lamble. He insisted however that the new management would not be mere stopgaps.

“The people you might look at and say, 'They could be really good one day,' they're 18, 19, 21. If I was going to carry on working for another 10 years, we might be able to pass it straight on,” he said.

The refreshed board will include the finance director and brand director and possibly a seventh member. It will be the first time that the chairman and senior executive directors are all from outside the family.

Based in Norwich in eastern England, with manufacturing carried out in India and Spain, Start-rite was founded in 1792 and last year recorded profits of £635,000 on a turnover of £24.4 million. The company has 180 staff.

Lamble said potential investors either were not making high enough offers for the firm, ownership of which is dispersed among more than 50 family members, or did not have special access to new markets such as China. Some outside interests were looking for full ownership, others for 30-to-40 percent stakes.

“Our strategy is still to find a partner with existing business within China. It could well be a Chinese partner, but to work with them as a partner for the brand rather than as an investor,” he said.

Lamble himself is interested in additional directorships and in positions in education governance.

“I'm not looking to permanently retire and put my slippers on. I'm looking for other non-executive roles, perhaps within family businesses where my experience could be useful,” he said.

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