Peter’s Shoes - the life and sole of shoemaking in Chesterfield
PUBLISHED: 11:47 14 May 2015 | UPDATED: 20:51 23 October 2015
Derbyshire Life meets award-winning entrepreneur Peter Bullock and discovers how he is breathing new life into the traditional craft of shoemaking
As a young boy growing up in a small coal-mining village in South Yorkshire, Peter Bullock spent much of his time taking great pride in meticulously cleaning and polishing his leather football boots before a match, in the hope that one day he could become a professional player. ‘It is amusing, looking back 45 years later, that it was my love of restoring boots and shoes – rather than football – that was to become my true passion and vocation,’ smiles the 54-year-old Chesterfield-based shoemaking entrepreneur.
In spite of his time in the fashion industry coinciding with a dramatic decline in the manufacturing of shoes in Britain, combined with increased competition from overseas, Peter has managed to buck this trend by expanding his shoemaking retail empire as well as developing innovative and imaginative plans to nurture the next generation of England’s shoemakers and footwear designers.
‘As a young person I dreamed of being a footballer. I thought I was good enough to make it – it’s a shame the manager didn’t! I just couldn’t get a game and got fed-up of standing on the touch-line in the cold and snow,’ reminisces Peter. ‘My mother was a great inspiration to me – she taught me to value what I had and the importance of looking after it. One day she asked me to take my brother’s shoes to a local cobbler to be repaired. I could never have imagined that this simple task would change the direction of my life. The shoemaker could not get his giant hands into the small boots, so I asked if I could help. He was impressed with my attitude and interest and gave me a job; and so began my life-long career in the shoemaking and repair world.’
Incredibly, Peter was only 12 years old when he accepted the part-time job offer from the Hungarian-born master shoemaker in the rural village of Dinnington in South Yorkshire, located close to the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire county border. Peter’s entry into shoemaking followed the traditional time-honoured method of passing down skills from the craftsman to the apprentice – and he quickly expanded his knowledge of the trade. ‘I loved being in the shoemaker’s workshop; the smell of glue, the leather and even the paraffin heaters all appealed to me,’ remembers Peter. ‘I felt at home here and gained many skills in repairing and restoring shoes, as well as useful knowledge of how to run a shop, especially when my mentor was on holiday.’
‘One of my earliest memories is of the shoemaker working in his kitchen preparing home-cooked Hungarian food, while I was climbing on his machines attempting to make my first shoes,’ he smiles. Sadly, the master shoemaker decided to retire within the first three years of Peter’s apprenticeship. ‘I then had to work for a big corporate shoe repair and retail business, helping to manage shops in Lincoln, Doncaster and Rotherham. However, I didn’t want to cut keys and engrave metal work – my passion was in shoemaking, so I decided to leave and set-up on my own.’
By the age of 18, Peter had opened his first shop in a garage at the back of a family member’s house in Dinnington. ‘I remember asking a local do-it-yourself store to make me a sign and put it above the garage. I was so proud that local people supported me from the start – something I have always been grateful for,’ reflects Peter. ‘This was a really exciting time, with opportunities opening up very quickly. I soon moved to another shop in the centre of Sheffield and by my early twenties I had concessions in the House of Fraser.’
In 1981 Peter was tempted to leave Yorkshire and cross the county border into Derbyshire to open a shoe repair outlet in a Chesterfield department store. ‘I was working in my Sheffield store when I was approached by a man called Mr Hardy who asked me to visit his department store in the centre of Chesterfield. I was very impressed by his ambition and belief in me – I was charged £80 per week to rent a space in his store and this helped me establish a presence in a place I love and now regard as my home town,’ says Peter. Soon afterwards Peter’s business expansion in the town began, with the opening of his first stand-alone shop in Low Pavement in the heart of Chesterfield.
By now Peter had relocated to the town, buying a residential property nearby. He was also beginning to get involved in the life of the local community. ‘As someone who had grown-up in a close-knit mining village, I always understood the importance of having good relations with the town’s people. Whilst living in Yorkshire I donated money to buy new musical instruments for the Dinnington Colliery Band and I have continued helping people ever since,’ remembers Peter. ‘I am not really a political person, but I made the decision to support the miners during the strike of the mid-1980s.’ Local mining families were given special discounts to encourage them to visit his shop – and in doing so he built a loyal following in the town. ‘People still remember this and amazingly some families still come into the Chesterfield shop with these loyalty cards – something they have used for over 30 years.’
By now Peter’s Shoes was a well-established face in the shopping centre of Chesterfield and he was starting to be noticed and respected by other shoe-repairers in the industry. During the 1980s he scooped a number of prestigious awards for his repair and leatherwork. This success encouraged him to expand his business and in 1987 he took a brave decision to sell shoes directly to the public from his existing store. ‘A number of closures of other local shops selling shoes in Chesterfield led me to believe there was a gap that could be filled with a one-stop-shop selling shoes as well as repairing them – especially high-quality, design-led products.’ To research his plans further he made a pilgrimage to Northampton – the place he regards as the spiritual heart of British shoemaking industry – and he managed to secure the support of a number of leading brands such as Loake and Church’s.
‘My competitors at the time told me that top-quality brands could never coexist in a repair-led business – thank goodness they were wrong!’ he laughs. Peter’s faith in this retail-led change was soon rewarded as his business expanded into other towns and cities throughout the Midlands. And by the time he was 38, he was voted as businessman of the year in the 1998 North Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce annual awards.
Nowadays it is difficult to imagine Peter’s shoemaking business without a shoe-selling retail element. ‘Selling high-quality brands in-store has been at the centre of our business for almost 30 years now – people love the brands we sell and we love providing them,’ reflects Peter. Good quality customer service combined with a warm welcome in a beautifully presented shop is crucial to the success of his business model.
‘I have always believed in quality and in the ability of the team I work with. A number of my team have received accolades for this commitment to excellence. My niece, Lisa, was the first woman to win a national shoe repair award, in what has always traditionally been regarded as a male-dominated industry.’
Over the years Peter has seen his business evolve and change its focus. By passing down traditional skills that he learned from five master shoemakers, Peter encouraged his staff to take on additional responsibilities with the ultimate aim of enabling the most talented colleagues to buy into the business as part of an extraordinary expansion strategy.
Nowhere is this vision better seen than in the Chesterfield branch, which is now led and managed by one of Peter’s longest-serving staff, Andrew Ingman. Andrew, 46, is a three-time finalist in national shoe repair competitions and is proud of his relationship with Peter. ‘I have been working with Peter for over 28 years and I am very grateful for his belief in me and for allowing me to grow and flourish,’ smiles Andrew. Andrew started work for Peter as a hired bench-hand in the late 1980s rising through a number of management roles to his current role as a franchise partner.
Peter believes a great portion of his success is down to his determination to strive for excellence in everything he does. ‘My mentor, Brian Austin, a well-known figure in the Chesterfield community, has always encouraged me to be brave in my decision-making and this has helped me to implement my current plans to invest in the next generation of shoemakers and footwear designers – and I am proud to be part of that,’ remarks Peter.
‘Designing and making bespoke shoes for private clients is the most exciting part of my business, but it is also the most challenging.’ That is why Peter believes the key to future success is by encouraging young people to join his business and become future leaders in the shoemaking industry. Fostering talented young people who have been educated at respected universities is at the core of his strategy to expand his business over the next 40 years.
Peter has always been keen to test traditional thinking of what can be done, and it is interesting that his latest recruits to his ‘Retail, Design and Management Team’ are both female – a direct challenge to the traditional view that shoemaking can only be done by men. ‘I am delighted to be in a position to welcome two young people to my team – I have always believed that women can make shoes as well as any man, and Emma and Lilly are proving this every day,’ explains Peter.
Emma Swift, 22, from Chesterfield, is currently a student at De Montfort University, undertaking a three-year degree in footwear design. The course, which is rated as the top degree of its kind in the country for student satisfaction, covers the unique and complex shoe design process, supply chain management control procedures and quality standards.
‘I am so delighted to be working with Peter. His experience and knowledge of the industry is first-class. What makes Peter’s business so unique and different from many others is that I am able to work in all aspects of the shoemaking process – from design, which can involve computers and new technology, to making shoes using very traditional techniques and established methods, as well as selling the product directly to the customer,’ says Emma.
Another recent recruit to the business is Lilly Deeming, a 23-year-old graduate from De Montfort University. Hailing from Coventry, Lilly moved to Nottingham to become part of Peter’s new repair, design and shoemaking team in his trendy Nottingham outlet, which is located in Lower Pavement near the iconic Paul Smith boutique fashion store.
‘I was determined to get my foot through Peter’s door. I badgered him by telephone and email until he gave me an interview. I am overwhelmed to be part of his team and it is exciting to be part of a new generation of shoemakers,’ says Lilly.
Peter’s belief in giving people opportunities in his business extends beyond university graduates. ‘If you explore my workshops you will come across people from all walks of life – all helping to make my business vibrant and exciting,’ reflects Peter. ‘Over the years I have employed highly-skilled master shoemakers from Europe to help up-skill my existing teams as well as finding roles for homeless and unemployed people – everyone deserves a chance, and it is pleasing to see many of them now securing full-time roles within the business.’
It is clear that Peter enjoys making a contribution to the local communities based near his businesses. Three years ago he presented the Olympian Jessica Ennis with a pair of golden handmade shoes to mark her achievements in London 2012. ‘I was inspired to make Jessica some new shoes after watching her heroics at the London Games. I knew she had a passion for fashion so I decided to work through the night in a factory in Northampton before heading to a welcome home event in Sheffield to present Jessica with the shoes,’ laughs Peter. ‘I’d only ever seen her on television but I could guess the size of her feet – and luckily I was right!’
Peter also made golden shoes for the Nottinghamshire-based Paralympic swimmer Ollie Hynd, which he wore when he attended Buckingham Palace to receive an award from the Queen. Then last year Peter raised thousands of pounds for the Royal British Legion by making a giant boot covered in thousands of knitted poppies.
Opening more high-quality new shops selling his own label shoes is the key to future business growth according to the entrepreneur. Under the brand name ‘Peter’s Shoemakers’ he hopes eventually to gain a presence in boutique stores in London, including prestigious department stores such as Harrods. ‘The team I am working with now is the best I have ever had – they are very much the future. Although shoemaking is not a nine-to-five job I do hope my children will follow me into this business – as it has given me so much happiness over the years,’ reflects Peter.
In addition to shoemaking Peter enjoys coaching people in the art of boxing and is particularly well known for his musical and singing ability. At a recent Beatles convention in Liverpool he performed on the stage of the Cavern Club and received excellent reviews.