Hunter Boot Ltd
(English) Be A Pioneer
|North British Rubber Company|
|Industry||Wellington Boots, Rubber and Footwear Goods|
|Henry Lee Norris (Founder)|
Hunter Boot Ltd. is a rubber wellington boot and footwear brand. Originally established as North British Rubber Company in 1856, the company is headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland with offices in London, New York and Düsseldorf. Besides rubber boots, the company sells other products such as bags, socks, and other accessories. Historically, they have also been involved in the manufacture of tyres, conveyor belts, combs, golf balls, hot water bottles and rubber flooring. Described as a British heritage brand, Hunter holds several Royal Warrants by Appointment as suppliers of waterproof footwear.
In the first week of January 1856 Mr. Henry Lee Norris, an American entrepreneur from Jersey City, New Jersey, and his friend and partner Spencer Thomas Parmelee of New Haven, Connecticut, landed on Scottish soil for the purpose of working a patent of Charles Goodyear for the manufacture of India-rubber overshoes and boots. The two gentlemen landed in Glasgow and began by searching for a suitable factory, which they eventually found in the form of the Castle Mill in Edinburgh. A fine pair of condensing steam engines and boilers were included in the lease, which they were able to take up almost immediately due to the mill's partial occupation at the time. The pair were ready to begin operations in the midsummer of 1856. Originally the company was styled as Norris & Co., which existed until the first limited liability act was introduced to Great Britain - the North British Rubber Company (which much later became known as Hunter Boot Ltd) was registered as a limited liability company in September 1857.
Norris was eventually succeeded at the company by William Erskine Bartlett, a man who could well lay claim to the invention of what is considered to be the accepted type of car tyre today. Circa 1907, the fledgling British Dunlop tyre company purchased the 'Bartlett' patent from the North British Rubber Company for $973,000 USD, in order to acquire the rights to manufacture and distribute tyres under the same name. It is estimated that, today, the patent would be worth in excess of $200,000,000 USD.
The company not only made rubber boots - production included tyres, conveyors, combs, golf balls, hot water bottles and rubber flooring. In the beginning there were only four people working for the company, by 1875 the team had grown to a 600. The company has offices in Edinburgh, London and New York.
World War I and II
Production of wellington boots were dramatically boosted with the advent of World War I when the company was asked by the War Office to construct a sturdy boot suitable for the conditions in flooded trenches. The mills ran day and night to produce immense quantities of these trench boots. In total, 1,185,036 pairs were made to cope with the Army's demands. The Wellington boot was an object of envy by the German soldiers during World War I and its dependability was seen to contribute to the British army’s success.
For World War II, the company was again called upon to supply vast quantities of wellington and thigh boots. 80% of production was for war materials - from ground sheets to life belts and gas masks. In the Netherlands, forces were working in flooded conditions which demanded Wellingtons and tight boots in vast supplies.
By the end of the war, the wellington had become popular among men, women and children for wear in wet weather. The boot had developed to become far roomier with a thick sole and rounded toe. Also, with the rationing of that time, labourers began to use them for daily work.
After World War II, boot making had to move to a larger factory in Heathhall, Dumfries, to deal with the rise in demand. The factory was originally built for Arrol-Johnston (later Arrol-Aster), a Scottish automobile manufacturer, in 1913, before the company was liquidated in 1931. This is said to be the first factory in Britain to use ferro-concrete (concrete reinforced with metal bars), and was designed by Albert Kahn, architect of the Ford factory at Highland Park, Michigan, where the Model T was produced.
The company's most famous welly, the original Green wellington, was made over 50 years ago in the winter of 1955. It was the first orthopaedic boot made by Hunter, and was launched alongside the Royal Hunter - another boot that remains in Hunter's range today. Reaction from trade was slow, and an order of 36 pairs considered an achievement. However, the company persisted, taking them to county shows and trade fairs. Thought of as more up-market than the traditional black wellington of the time, the 'Original' tended, initially, to be worn by middle to upper class rural people, who are still sometimes referred to as the 'Green Welly Brigade'.
1966-2005: Ownership changes
In 1966, North British Rubber was bought by Uniroyal Limited of Greenville, South Carolina. Formerly known as the U.S. Rubber Company, Uniroyal is most famous for making car tyres and still operates today. In 1976, having continued to supply wellies to the Royal Households, Hunter was awarded a Royal Warrant from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. This was shortly followed by a Royal Warrant from HM The Queen in 1986. By this time, a pair of Hunter boots had become an essential item for those guided in upmarket country fashion. By the end of the 1980s, they were synonymous with the much caricatured figures of The Sloane Ranger Handbook.
1986 also saw another change of ownership for the company, as Uniroyal was purchased by the Gates Rubber Company of Denver, Colorado. From the beginning of 1987, the company was known under the name of its new owner. The company entered the drysuit market shortly after the takeover by Gates, at its peak becoming the number two producer in the market with a 35% market share. The company's fortunes continued to improve over the next ten years until, in 1996, Gates Corporation, formerly known as The Gates Rubber Company, became a wholly owned subsidiary of Tomkins plc, ending 85 years of ownership by the Gates family. Tomkins paid a reported £366m for the stake. At the time of the transaction, Gates was the largest non-tyre rubber company in the world.
Recognising the need to strengthen and build upon its positions in its core engineering markets, Tomkins began a process of streamlining its activities by disposing of a number of businesses during the period 1998-2001. In 1999, Tomkins plc sold the Consumer and Industrial Division of The Gates Rubber Company to Interfloor, the country's largest carpet underlay manufacturer. The company became the Hunter Division of Interfloor.
2004 was a busy year for the company. In early 2004, a management-led investor group acquired the Hunter Boots business of Interfloor Group Ltd for £1.98m in a leveraged buyout transaction. For the first time in its 148-year existence, Hunter became an independent, standalone company under the name of the Hunter Rubber Company.
At the end of 2004, Hunter announced that they would be releasing a range of seven different coloured wellingtons to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Green Wellington Boot. Each different coloured boot, along with the kids' range, represented one of eight charities and were used to raise funds for them. The company launched a dedicated website, www.giving-welly.co.uk, to this purpose, and by the end of the campaign had raised over £250,000 for charity.
Hunter launched several extensions to the Wellington range in mid-2005. Along with developing boots under licence for the Royal Horticultural Society, the Lady Northampton riding boot, combining a molded waterproof rubber and canvas upper, was also added to extend from the company's traditional all-rubber wellington boot range.
2006: Administration and buy-out
In 2006, the Hunter Rubber Company was placed into administration due to cash flow problems. In spite of a reported turnover of over £5m, accountants from KPMG said the firm suffered from high manufacturing costs, including fuel costs, and made a loss from the expansion of its business to the United States. According to documents filed with Companies House, Hunter reported a loss of £600,000 from September 2003 to the end of February 2005, when it had a net debt of £2.03m.
A private consortium led by Lord Marland of Odstock and comprising Peter Mullen, ex CEO of Thomas Pink, and Julian Taylor, all of whom were previous shareholders in Hunter Rubber Company, supported by the Pentland Group plc, bought Hunter out of administration and Hunter Boot Ltd was born. After rapid re-structuring of the company, new supply routes and distribution partners were found in the UK and USA and the Hunter portfolio was rationalised to core products exhibiting the key skills and tradition of the company.
Hunter re-established itself as a major player in the traditional country and leisure footwear market in the UK in the aftermath of the buy-out, and positioned itself as a strong contender in the USA - opening showrooms on 7th Avenue in New York and Regent Street in London. A new management team was put in place, retaining many of the existing staff from Hunter Rubber.
In November 2006, Hunter Diving Ltd - the arm of Hunter Rubber that was responsible for manufacturing drysuits - was sold to Swedish rival company Trelleborg Group for an undisclosed sum.
Spring 2007 saw the relationship between Hunter and the Royal Horticultural Society further strengthened by the launch of a new range of RHS wellies at the Chelsea Flower Show in London in May. Hunter also set up the 'Century' Division to handle its global range of safety boots, and to develop new products in this sector. A little over a year later, Century Safety was acquired by the Tigar Corporation for an undisclosed sum.
Hunter Boot Ltd enjoyed a record season in summer 2007 announcing, in August, an 85% sales increase against the same period in 2006 Despite this, Hunter remained faced with major financial challenges regarding production. High manufacturing and fuel costs that contributed to the company's move into administration in 2006 remained prominent and, like many UK manufacturing businesses, Hunter was forced to consider whether it was commercially viable to keep making boots in the UK. The company also had to negotiate a volatile relationship with its landlord and an expensive and inefficient 96-year-old factory. Eventually, alternative supply sources were sought and developed in Europe and the Far East and plans were made to exit the Dumfries plant and relocate the company HQ to Edinburgh. This move was finally made in September 2008. The Chinese made gumboots are visually similar to the original Scottish made gumboots apart from the addition of an internal seam. Some manufacturing efficiencies have also been made including the removal of the latex dipping process, making the boots virtually identical to those from many other manufacturers.
Hunter has formed many relationships and collaborations with other brands in 2008, further extending its reach into the USA, festival and fashion markets, while also contributing strongly to charity organisations. The company have produced bespoke versions of the classic Hunter Original boot for Jack Wills, WaterAid, Cowshed and Fortnum & Mason, as well as a trench coat designed by Suzy Radcliffe, owner of denim brand Radcliffe.
In September 2008, following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, Hunter Boot Ltd sent specially made gold wellington boots to every member of the Great Britain Olympic team who won a gold medal at the games.
In January 2009, Hunter announced that would be collaborating with London-based luxury fashion designer Jimmy Choo for a limited edition black wellington boot, embossed with signature Jimmy Choo crocodile print and containing gold rivets and a leopard-print lining. Another boot was then launched in 2011.
Hunter has since seen strong growth with international distribution in over 30 countries. However, some observers feel the quality of the products have suffered over recent years and the brand has seen a number of negative comments regarding quality posted on website reviews.
The Hunter boot tooling from the Scottish factory, and the manufacturing technique, is now used in Eastern Europe (Serbia) by Tigar Footwear and the products are marketed as Century Boots.
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