With a nickname like Stew The Shoe, Stewart Houlgrave may be expected to adopt unorthodox tactics. As it happens, the company he runs together with his brother Paul, Beaconsfield Footwear, is bucking the trend of the British shoe industry by expanding its manufacturing capacity in the UK. While several other big UK shoe manufacturers have recently completed their withdrawal from national production, Beaconsfield has invested about £6 million (e 8.5m-$11m) over the last two years in a second plant in Lancashire.

Beaconsfield Footwear has grown at break-neck speed since it was taken over by Stewart and Paul 10 years ago, with annual sales rising sharply to £28 million (e40m-$51m) and staff levels growing from about 50 to 250 over the last 5 years. Set up by their parents several decades earlier, the company was selling slippers to large retailers like C&A and struggling to compete with lower-cost manufacturers. The second-generation owners then decided to launch Hotter Comfort Concept, a brand of comfort shoes that is targeted at the senior market. About 80 percent of the buyers are female and most of them are over 45 years of age.

Another original aspect of their approach is that Hotter eschews large retail chains. The brand is sold through 300 independent UK retailers, the internet and most importantly mail order, which makes up more than half of Hotter’s sales. To make this work, the company offers a 100 percent pay-back guarantee if the shoes don’t fit, and it has built up a call center with over 80 seats to deal personally with customer queries. More recently, Beaconsfield opened a corporate store in Southport and a franchised store in Kendal.

Ageing British consumers are apparently very sensitive to the fact that the shoes are delivered by Royal Mail and that they are manufactured in the UK. However, Beaconsfield outsources the production of leather uppers to India, while shoelaces are bought in Italy. The UK plant delivers shoes to independent retailers in the UK and exports to the USA, where a sales subsidiary was opened in 2001. The company is so confident about its own business model that it aims to double sales again to roughly £50 million (e72m-$91m)over the next 4 years.