Soul Shoes celebrates 40 years in business

NARELLE HENSON
Last updated 11:24 03/02/2014
Soul shoes
CHRIS HILLOCK/Fairfax NZ

Cyber sales: Rob Galloway and partner Marie de Jong have cut back on outlets, but sell well through the internet. 

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When Rob Galloway started making shoes 40 years ago he had about 50 national competitors.

Now, his business Soul Shoes is one of only four or five shoe manufacturers in the country.

He believes surviving that long comes down to two things: perseverance and making a good quality product.

He learned the latter at the age of 17 when he and a friend were flatting together, and decided to take up hobbies.

The pair began to work leather. Galloway made a hand-crafted leather chessboard, and his friend a pair of sandals.

"After that we were living over at Whangamata and we started making a few pairs of shoes and we started selling them on the beach.

"At some point, I can't quite remember how it happened, I ended up working in a second-hand shop in Hamilton, and I started making shoes in there. Eventually I took the place over and kept going."

Galloway turned the Barton St store into a shoe shop, as well as selling leather wallets and writing companions.

"There was a place in Hamilton you could buy scrap leather and I used to go and buy some, then make a pair of shoes," he says.

The design "hasn't changed a lot in 40 years," he says.

At the time, the soles of his shoes were made from recycled tyre rubber. That, along with the quality of the shoes, made him a hit in markets around the country.

It also helped him meet partner Marie de Jong.

"I was over in Perth, and thought his shoes would go well in the markets there," says de Jong.

"Before that I used to buy and wear his shoes and travelled with his shoes on."

The couple got together 18 years ago, with de Jong taking the organisational reins of the business.

At the turn of the millenium the couple began expanding the business, with outlets in Mt Maunganui, Hamilton, Napier and Wellington. It was headquartered in Raglan.

At one point, they had 20 fulltime employees in both retail and manufacturing.

"We had to pull back from that because that was just not sustainable," says Galloway.

"You're working with a fairly seasonal market, you're running up such huge amount of debt in the winter, but if you don't have a good summer, then that whole year is down the drain."

Galloway says it was times like those that most tested the small business.

"There have been times when you don't make any money at all, but you just kinda keep going.

"By basically retrenching and becoming smaller we've been able to keep going. And we just work hard."

That means they have slowly closed down the stores around the country and are back to a retail store in Raglan with a workshop attached.

De Jong says consolidating the business into the year-old store at the Raglan Wharf hasn't hit sales too hard. In fact, they have grown, thanks to the internet.

"That's the highlight for me, of just these sales coming through [online]," she says.

"We do a mailout maybe four times a year on new styles and it's amazing, as soon as you do that it's instant sales," she says.

She estimates Soul Shoes sends off 15-20 parcels every second day, with sales from the internet around a third of its business. They sold around 1200 shoes online last year, and say internet sales have grown at 40 per cent a year over the last few years. That means there is room for a trip to Italy this year, although it will be all work.

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"We used to use a lot of vegetable tanned leather . . . and that's a real traditional tanning method and still the best leather," says Galloway.

"You can't buy that in New Zealand anymore apart from imported, so we're off to Italy to a big leather fair, trying to bring in some really nice leather."

The couple will also keep an eye out for recycled sole material.

"Part of the reason is the quality of the material we can buy has gotten worse and worse, and the actual recycled stuff is better, it lasts longer," says Galloway.

"A big focus for us is making things that last for a long time. A guy came in the other day and said he's still wearing his boots he got 25 years ago."

In fact, de Jong says there are some customers who have worn Soul Shoes for generations.

"Sole Shoes has got a real following - generations of families only wear Soul Shoes. Right through, generation after generation," she says.

Adds Galloway: "It makes me feel bloody old when they come in and say ‘my mum wore these at school'. And I think if she was wearing them at school then I'm even older."

But he says that is always one of the highlights of the job.

"It blows me out the amount of effort people put in to seeking us out and then when they're happy . . ."

It's not hard to guess how the sentence finishes. "We're happy too."

- Waikato

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