Magazine article Management Today

A Socking Success

Magazine article Management Today

A Socking Success

Article excerpt

When the English soccer team trots on to the field for its first match in 1993, its progress will be marked by no one more anxiously than by Mr Neville Hall. Not the team's way with penalties or dummy passes, you understand: Hall will be looking closely at the 22 legs of the players, specifically at their 22 well-turned calves. Lest this appear an unseemly preoccupation for a red-blooded male, it should be stressed that his interest will be entirely professional. The aforementioned calves will, if all goes according to plan, be clad in navy-blue-and-maroon socks-details of the precise design of which are, alas, still classified - manufactured by Hall himself. Never mind England's goal average: one ruck, the merest hint of a droop and Hall will, in the parlance of the terraces, be as sick as a parrot.

Given the evil times currently being endured by the British rag trade, one might reasonably have supposed that Hall's concern for the verticality of his product would be overshadowed by a more pressing fear for the verticality of his profit margins. One would, however, have been wrong. Even if all 22 England socks should fall about their wearers' athletic ankles, Hall can still take comfort from the sprightly financial performance of H J Hall & Son, the Hinckley-based family hosiery firm of which he is the fourth generation chairman. When Neville Hall took the firm over form his father, Peter, in 1989, its turnover stood around [Pounds]5 million, with profits of [Pounds]700,000 or so. Subsumed the following year into a holding company, HJ Sock Group Ltd, and now totally owned by Hall fils, the firm's last year-end results saw turnover topping [Pounds]9 million. 'Profits?' says Hall, merrily. 'Well, the office door is open: so let me just quietly say, "Somewhere in excess of [Pound]1 million".'

If this seems a happy enough state of affairs, it should additionally be noted that Hall's triumph has taken place against the backdrop of a generally woeful time for the British sock industry as a whole. On the one hand, branded socks have had to face competition from anonymous, mass-produced imports as well as from the own-brand products of supermarkets and chain retailers. Marks & Spencer's scoffs some 20% of the British market, reckoned in 1990 to stand at [Pounds] 295 million. Worse still, market traders have garnered another 22%, leaving private independents like Hall with a puny 8% sales share overall. Understandably, a number of once-great sockmakers - including the royal knitwear warrantees, Wolsey - have recently elected to slip out of the hosiery business altogether, and into something rather more comfortable.

Nor do market trends provide much relief from this general gloom. The average British male (England soccer players apart) still acquires only five new pairs of socks a year, a figure unchanged since the genesis of contemporary sockdom a century ago and apparently carved in stone. The olfactory implications of this depressing fact go some way towards explaining the uneven annual sales spread of the lesser English sock (huge peaks just before Christmas and Father's Day are generated by red-eyed women re-equipping their menfolk in an act of nasal self-defence), a further problem for the hard-pressed hosier.

The real problem is, however, generic rather than topical. Like (if less fragrant than) Gertrude Stein's rose, a sock is a sock is a sock. Given this fact, common sense suggests that success in sock manufacture would tend to lie in the economies of scale of mass production and bulk selling. Niche marketing a product that is almost by definition as near as dammit identical to all other equivalent products on the market should, contrariwise, amount to commercial suicide.

And yet Neville Hall - 70% of whose products are sold under his firm's own brand name - can blithely claim not to know the meaning of the word 'recession': 'Trading conditions are only ever normal,' says Hall, a piece of Harvard Business School sophistry (Hall, being an alumnus of that institution) that would make the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, weep with joy. …

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