John White was the largest shoemaking company in Britain.
John White (1885 – 1974) was born into a strict Calvinist Baptist family. His ancestors had been engaged in the shoemaking trade since the mid-eighteenth century.
White was trained as a clicker, one who cuts the uppers of shoes and boots from leather. He cut the uppers of 650,000 pairs of shoes and boots before 1918.
White went into business for himself in 1918. With £200 in savings he bought a small workshop in Rushden, Northamptonshire. He acquired a shoe press in 1919, and by the end of the year he had three employees.
White acquired small local factories which had gone bust due to a trade slump. His business produced 100,000 pairs of boots and shoes in 1921.
John White launched his own brand of shoes in 1930. He promoted the new brand with national advertising. John White was the largest shoemakers in Britain by 1935. The Rushden factories employed 1,200 people, and 1.75 million pairs of shoes were manufactured each year.
White acquired a factory at Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire in 1936 from Owen Parker, whose own shoe manufacturing business had failed. Adjacent office were constructed.
John White supplied both armies during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939). Each side placed orders for 100,000 pairs of shoes.
White undercut his competitors by efficiently cutting costs and accepting low margins. He avoided trade union disruption by paying for piecework; payment for work completed, rather than basic wages.
White built a new factory on Lime Street, Rushden in 1939. It was designed by Albert Richardson (1880 -1964), a leading architect whose work included the Manchester Opera House.
John White had nine factories, a staff of nearly 2,000 and production of three million pairs of boots and shoes a year by 1941.
During the Second World War the firm sold over eight million pairs of boots to the armed forces; one ninth of all footwear supplied to the troops.
Wholesalers were not marketing his product as effectively as John White would have liked, so after the War he began to sell directly to retailers. Profits mounted rapidly. The company employed 2,600 people by 1951.
John White was exporting 400,000 pairs of shoes a year to America by the 1950s, and the company accounted for 90 percent of British footwear exports. John White shoes were exported to 56 territories.
Expansion saw a factory opened in Corby, Northamptonshire in 1954.
The company employed nearly 2,000 people when John White retired in 1962. The company initially struggled in his absence, but had regained profitability by 1968.
George Ward of Leicester was acquired for £4 million in 1972 to create a footwear group with a market capitalization of over £6 million. The name of the company was changed to Ward White Group.
G B Britton was acquired in 1973. The Ward White Group had 9,000 employees in nine countries.
The group acquired the Halfords bicycle and car parts stores in 1989.
Ward White was acquired by Boots for £900 million in 1989, in what was to prove an ill-fated attempt at diversification.