A shoe in: J Sears & Co of Northampton

J Sears & Co was the largest shoe manufacturer and distributor in the world.

John George Sears establishes his business
John George Sears (1870 – 1916) was the son of James George Sears, a Northampton leather seller, who employed two men and three boys in 1871. He was raised as a Congregationalist.

John George Sears began his working life as a clicker (one who cuts the uppers for shoes and boots from leather). He eventually rose to the position of factory foreman.

Sears established a small factory on Derby Road, Northampton, in 1891. He traded as J Sears & Co.

Sears was able to win market share from the strike-affected Manfield of Northampton in 1895.

Sears was joined by his brother, William Thomas Sears (1877 – 1950), from 1897.

J Sears & Co opened its first retail outlet in 1897. A branch was opened on Fleet Street, London in 1900.

A large factory on Adnitt Road, Northampton, was acquired in 1904.

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The J Sears & Co factory on Adnitt Road, Northampton (c.1913)

Much of the success of the business was due to extensive advertising, and the energy, bold application and sound judgement of J G Sears.

J Sears & Co goes public
J Sears & Co went public with a capital of £350,000 in 1912.12,500 pairs of boots were produced every week from one of the largest shoe factories in Britain. The company had 80 retail branches, including 47 in London, which targeted the mid-range market and operated on a high sales, low-margin basis. The shops pioneered the establishment of attractive window displays, with clearly marked prices.

J Sears & Co produced boots for the army during the First World War.

The company employed 1,000 people in manufacture, and 1,000 people in retail by 1916.

Sears was a generous, likeable and unaffected man. Shortly after the public offering his health broke down, “undermined by years of almost superhuman activity”, according to the Taunton Courier. He died in 1916 with a net personalty of £356,287.

William Thomas Sears succeeded his brother as chairman and managing director.

J Sears & Co acquires Freeman Hardy & Willis
J Sears & Co acquired Freeman Hardy & Willis, probably the largest shoe retailer in Britain, for over £4 million in 1928. The merger created the largest shoe manufacturing and distribution business in the world, with 796 shops and a market value of over £9 million.

J Sears & Co operated eight factories and 800 retail outlets by 1934. Approximately 10,000 people were employed. Around eight million pairs of shoes were sold every year, supplying about 20 percent of the British market. The company operated a retail outlet in every British community with a population of over 20,000.

William Thomas Sears retired as chairman and managing director in 1948.

J Sears & Co is acquired by Charles Clore
J Sears & Co was acquired by Charles Clore (1904 – 1979) in 1953. It was one of the first hostile takeovers in British history.

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Clore announced plans to modernise the business, update branches and increase export sales. He immediately sold around half of the freehold and leasehold shop properties, and realised over £4.5 million.

Sears was the largest shoemaker in Europe in 1963, and operated half of the shoe shops in Britain. Charles Clore was reputedly one of the richest men in the world.

J Sears & Co held around a quarter of all British shoe sales from the 1960s until the 1990s.

J Sears & Co divested its shoe factories in a management buyout in 1988.

J Sears & Co had exited the shoe retail business by 1998.

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