The man on a million-pound footing

Harvey Jacobson has risen from market trader to retail millionaire.

By Candice Krieger, May 19, 2011
Harvey Jacobson’s footwear company supplies £250 million worth of goods a year

Harvey Jacobson’s footwear company supplies £250 million worth of goods a year

If you have bought a pair of shoes on the high street, it is more than likely that they came from Harvey Jacobson. The Manchester millionaire is head of the Jacobson Group, a north-west footwear firm, which supplies more than 10 million pairs of shoes a year to most national retailers. Its brands include Gola, Frank Wright and Dunlop, plus a strong own-label footwear division.

Founded more than 30 years ago, the group annually supplies goods worth £250 million and has a turnover of more than £60 million. It is a far cry from Mr Jacobson's teenage years working in his father's Moss Side shop and at Stafford and Manchester indoor markets. But it was here that the charismatic businessman cut his teeth and learned the trade. A few years later, he joined the family business full-time as his father moved into retirement. He teamed up with his brother Melvyn to take over a small wholesaler in north Manchester. Soon after, the pair opened their first trade cash-and-carry outlet in Lancashire, where the Jacobson Group headquarters remains today.

Business grew exponentially throughout the 1980s and early 1990s moving from wholesaler to importer/distributor and expanding internationally. The big - and lucky - break came in 1996 with the purchase of iconic sportswear brand Gola, the Jacobson Group's current bestselling line. "I didn't realise what I had bought and didn't understand the branded market. I thought I'd bought a sitter," he says. "Then I realised I'd bought gold, and now I realise I had actually bought platinum."

He went on to secure further household names including Lotus and Lonsdale in 2003. Men's footwear brand Frank Wright was snapped up a year later, followed by the acquisition of Ravel.

Harvey Jacobson

Harvey Jacobson

It is the buzz of a deal keeps that Mr Jacobson - valued at £50 million in the 2007 Sunday Times Rich List - says keeps him committed to the cause. And he is pretty vocal about how he goes about doing one. "It is all about how you negotiate. It's a trick that I've picked up over the years, which applies to whatever business you are in. You should never let someone walk away from a negotiation thinking that they have done a bad deal. There has to be a little bit of give and take and sometimes it is better to compromise. You don't want them to think you have had them over.

He adds: "Do your homework, due diligence or whatever you want to call it, and make sure you understand the market you are entering into. And in the interest of future trade, it might be better to decline some business to prevent conflict."

Refreshingly modest, he admits he has had to learn the hard way. "We caught one or two colds at the start because we were inexperienced.

"In 1981, we went to the Far East for the first time. We paid far too much on one item and were way out on the price when it came out in the UK. But we learnt from our mistake."

He acknowledges that he made another bad call when it came to taking advantage of e-commerce opportunities. "I didn't think selling footwear on the internet would work as I thought people would want to try on the size. Clearly I was very wrong. It was a bad decision on our part."

They do however now supply leading online retailers such as ASOS, and the company is working on creating an e-commerce division.

Business took a hit during the recession. "Absolutely we suffered. The business went north for about 27 years but at the back end of 2008 and first half of 2009, we really struggled. To quote the expression: 'Banks give you umbrellas until it rains. Then they want to take them off you." And although trade picked up for Jacobson in 2010 and this year, he remains cautious.

"It is very tough on the high street at the moment." Earlier this year, the Manchester-based fashion firm Henley's Clothing shut its retail arm and Mr Jacobson says there will inevitably be more victims to come. As for the Jacobson Group, the plan is to expand further outside of the UK. He identifies Europe and America as prime targets.

"We want to add to our portfolio of brands and enter other markets. I think there is a significant opportunity in safety footwear, such as shoes for men on building sites or electricians. It's a very specialist market."

In addition to the Jacobson Group, the father-of-two has several other business interests. He owns a number of properties in the UK, South America and Europe, and has an interest in residential property company Dwell Developments in the north of England. He also has holdings in an importer and distributor of flat-pack furniture but it is his eponymous company that comprises the majority of his working week.

Outside of the office - and China where he visits at least once a month - the Whitefield Synagogue member has many philanthropic commitments, including Bury and Whitefield Jewish Primary School and the CST. "I really believe that a majority of our community don't realise how big the terrorist threat is. I take this very seriously."

He is a Manchester United season ticket holder and enjoys attending rock gigs. "Every year I tell myself I'm getting too old but I am still going."

    Last updated: 11:01am, May 19 2011