is extremely complex, far more so than the clothing industry, says Peter Maree,
owner of Corrida Shoes. Product development requires engineering, shoemaking
skills and fashion knowledge.
with the last – the form that the shoe is made on that must fit the foot but
conform to the dictates of fashion. To produce the soles for a new design, 14
sets of engineered moulds consisting of a standard size curve and lefts and
rights must be made.
This is the
starting point before a single shoe can be produced. The cost must be amortised
over the life cycle of the product. The challenge facing the industry, like
most industries, is a diminishing pool of skilled designers and product
Maree tells finweek how he overcame these challenges
to build his shoe empire.
How did you get involved in the shoe
I went for
job interviews at various companies after finishing my B.Econ degree at
Stellenbosch University. Panther shoe company offered a two-year management
trainee programme and I fell in love with the idea of making shoes after
visiting their factory.
finishing the trainee programme, I went to the UK to gain overseas experience
in the field. It was in the 1970s and very few people were travelling or
working abroad back then. I did not care that I was not paid to work in the
factories, as I saw it as a valuable opportunity to get design and development
experience and see how other countries were operating. The exposure gave me
insight and experience of all the processes and factors involved in making good
about shoemaking is that you really have to know something about every process
involved in the manufacturing of shoes, along with a good sense of what is
happening with the market.
When did you
start Corrida Shoes?
returning, I worked for various companies gaining experience in product
development, marketing and brand management. I ran a company’s shoe factory
during the last two years before I started my own company.
years’ experience, I had good grounding in the industry and decided to open up
my own company. I was confident in my ability to compete with the existing
businesses and wanted to create a business that would have my ethos and
signature. Another reason, perhaps, was that I never really liked the corporate
Corrida in Pietermaritzburg in 1983. The name came from Quincy Jones’ 1980s
song Ai No Corrida, Corrida meaning bullring in Spanish.
Where did you get start-up capital?
combination of personal savings, goodwill from material suppliers built up
during my career and, ultimately, assistance from the banks. Banking was much
more personal in those days. Bankers were involved with their clients, with
bank managers being able to use their personal assessment of clients’ potential
as motivation to grant credit. Were it not for our bank manager seeing our
potential, Corrida would probably not have existed today.
I was also
fortunate to start the company with a good client, Scotts. They encouraged
small start-ups by paying on a weekly basis. These regular payments enabled me
to meet the weekly wage bill and pay creditors on time.
Why did you start Tsonga?
Tsonga in response to the massive influx of cheap Chinese imports that flooded
South Africa in the late 1990s. Most factories at the time decided to close
manufacturing and import. I took the contrarian view and decided to create a
niche African brand to sell around the world.
The name was
inspired by the African legend that the Tsonga people were the first to make
shoes to improve their hunting skills. This was the seed for the brand name –
we wanted a uniquely African name that could be registered internationally. The
plan was to make beautiful soft, flexible hand-stitched shoes with leather
Tsonga in September 1999 at the Global Destination of Shoes and Accessories
(GDS) in Düsseldorf, Germany, where it was well-received. To grow the brand
locally we opened our own retail stores aimed primarily at the tourist trade.
The first store opened in Constantia around 2002. It was a big shift to go from
manufacturing into retail as well.
Tsonga is also involved in community
empowerment. How does it work?
bought a smallholding in Lidgetton, about 40km from Pietermaritzburg, where we
make handbags and teach the community to hand-stitch shoes. Participants may
take the shoes home and are then paid when they return the shoes.
What do you see as your biggest break?
mid-1980s, South African Breweries, through their subsidiary Coshu, bought up
most of the men’s shoe factories in SA in an attempt to capture the men’s
market. I realised that this offered an opportunity to create a dynamic,
flexible competitor to compete with a large, slow-moving corporate. This was
when I opened our men’s shoe division, which today represents 70% of our
And your greatest setbacks?
biggest setback was when I fell ill in 2008 and was sidelined for a lengthy
period. Fortunately Adrian, my son, had joined the business and although still
fairly inexperienced at the time, he, together with our general manager,
managed to maintain momentum for the business during a very difficult period
following the financial collapse of 2008. They have subsequently taken over the
running of the business and have done a fantastic job despite the weak economy
and collapse of consumer confidence.
What would you say has been the greatest
challenge to the business?
The influx of
cheap imports from China. We have managed to overcome these challenges by
building strong brands and not being a commodity broker reliant on house brand
business from the large retailers. In addition, we have developed an export
market to Australia and opened our own Tsonga retail stores in SA.
What is competition like in the shoe
is fierce and comes from both local and international sources. The biggest
challenge comes from India and China. They have the ability to mass produce
shoes at very competitive prices due to their labour costs that are
significantly lower than ours.
weakening of the rand against major currencies have helped to remedy the
What do you think has been one of the biggest
contributors to your success?
to adapt to the market, creative and innovative product development and a
determination to succeed in the face of fierce competition.
Where are your main markets?
Australia, where we have managed to maintain a competitive edge by creating
niche brands offering unique products.
What has been the best advice or biggest
lesson you have learnt?
long-term, sustainable brands. To survive in the shoe industry as a commodity
broker in this day and age is extremely difficult.
This is a shortened version of an article
that originally appeared in the 23 February edition of finweek. Buy and download the