The global footwear market is estimated to grow to $426 billion by 2022. The boot and shoe industry is growing at 6.2% annually and is experiencing one of the longest and most profitable periods in the history of the footwear market.
To compete, industry leaders like Nike, Wolverine, Red Wing and the Thursday Boot Company are embracing high-tech automation, analytics to identify and understand customer demand and buying behavior, machine learning to automate manual processes, and digital solutions to maximize customer engagement in stores and online.
One boot company, however, has found success by doing the opposite. In fact, the company many boot and shoe experts consider to be the best in the world has a factory that can only manufacture 30 pairs of boots per day. All are made to order. The company does not keep any shoes or boots in stock. Boots require three weeks to be manufactured and the waiting time for a customer to receive his/her shipment averages three months.
Welcome to the world of The Courteney Boot Company.
The Courteney Boot Company, named after the famed explorer, hunter and conservationist, Frederick Courteney Selous, is located in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
I have visited Zimbabwe on multiple occasions and have traveled throughout the country. As an animal lover, especially a lover of wildlife in Africa, I do not hunt but I enjoy going on safaris to view wildlife. I especially enjoy visiting lion conservation parks where its possible to mingle with lions and walk with them at sunset. I have given many lion cubs a big smooch on the forehead only to be rewarded with the lick of a tongue that feels like sandpaper. It still takes my breath away to visit Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
Gale Rice, who owns The Courteney Boot Company, learned the industry from her late husband, John Rice. John began making shoes at 15 and eventually made his way to Rhodesia (now modern-day Zimbabwe) in 1972. John is a legend in the shoe and boot industry for his design and manufacturing skills and encyclopedic knowledge of footwear and manufacturing.
John and Gale founded the company in 1991. Courteney remains committed to making high-quality boots and shoes using methods and machines first introduced more than 40 years ago. Gale is one of the few women who run a business not only in Zimbabwe, but in all of Africa.
The company utilizes relationships with select global retailers referred to as “stockists” that take orders for Courteney’s products and pass them on to the company. Courteney also sells its products online but online sales are less than 15% of the business.
(Full disclosure: I own a pair of the Classic Courteney Selous boots and I plan on ordering a pair of the Classic Courteney Scout boots.)
In the age of Amazon and Fulfillment by Amazon, readers may wonder why Gale doesn’t sell Courteney’s products through Amazon or Alibaba. On the surface, the idea makes perfect sense but in a high-volume, high-visibility marketplace like Amazon or Alibaba, Courteney’s make-to-order retail model doesn’t fit. With no plans to ever modernize the current factory, Courteney’s business model will remain untouched.
Readers may also wonder why Gale doesn’t turn to China for its manufacturing. In doing so, The Courteney Boot Company would exist in name only. The workers who are more like members of the family would lose their jobs. The factory where Gale worked side-by-side with her husband, John, would be shuttered. Boots and shoes would be shipped and sold with a “Made in China” stamp on the soles of each pair.
When I asked Gale about China, she said: “Not even worth discussing.”
Whereas the vast majority of boot and shoe manufacturers rely on leather as the primary material for its shoes, Courteney is unique in that it manufactures boots, shoes and other products using game skins. Courteney wisely created a relationship with Zimbabwe’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife when it started.
Hundreds of big-game animals die of natural causes every year in Zimbabwe. Big-game hunting is legal in Zimbabwe but the industry has seen a severe reduction in customers in recent years. Most big-game hunting camps use the meat but rarely use the skins. Courteney sources hippo, crocodile, ostrich, impala, and Cape buffalo skins from conservation agencies, safari companies, rural district village councils and game parks. Unless Courteney sources the skins, the skins are left to rot or are thrown away.
What Does The Future Hold?
On July 30, Zimbabwe will hold its first election without Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since it declared independence in 1980, on the ballot. In a country wracked by poverty and one of the weakest economies in all of Africa, there is palatable excitement at the idea of electing a leader that can return Zimbabwe to its glory days.
For many companies in Zimbabwe, time stood still once independence was gained. Government corruption resulted in lost business and a mass exit of many businesses to other countries in Africa and Europe. Land grabs by the government resulted in many wealthy and educated citizens leaving the country. A country revered for its agriculture and manufacturing prowess became a shell of its former self.
It will take more than an election to cure the ails of Zimbabwe.
As for Gale, her plan is to do as she has always done—focus on the customer. Gale understands that rulers will come and go but that quality and style never go out of fashion. There will always be a market and a need for The Courteney Boot Company and the company will live on.
Brittain Ladd is a globally recognized thought leader on strategy, M&A, and business.
I am recognized globally as a thought leader and expert in digital supply chain management, Business Model Transformation, e-commerce, cross-border trade, operations, omni-channel retail and strategy. I have hands-on experience living and working in India, China, Latin Ameri.