Toms UK and Ireland country manager Neil Urwin tells Drapers how it is saving and changing lives with its pioneering “one for one” model.
When Blake Mycoskie started footwear brand Toms in 2006, he created a new kind of business model and one of fashion’s most successful ethical brands. Travelling through Argentina, the Californian noticed both the popularity of the alpargata (a light canvas espadrille) in the country and the poverty that meant many children wore no toms shoes at all. Determined to help those in need and recognising the alpargata might be a hit with American consumers, Mycoskie created the “one for one” business model, whereby he donated a pair of cheap shoes for each pair sold.
His business idea, “Toms Shoes outlet for a better tomorrow”, evolved into “Tomorrow’s shoes”, and then Toms.
Eleven years on, Toms has donated more than 70 million pairs of shoes sale to children in more than 70 countries, ranging from the alpargata to winter boots and sturdy school shoes replica. The brand arrived in the UK in 2008, where it was initially sold through The Butler Agency.
UK and Ireland country manager Neil Urwin joined the business in 2013 from Pentland Brands. He was tasked with bringing sales in house, as well as setting up the first UK office.
“I was brought in to make that transition from agency to brand and it almost felt like I was setting up my own business, although obviously I wasn’t,” he tells Drapers at the Toms “community outpost”, a hybrid coffee shop and store on central London’s Fouberts Place (pictured above).
Toms is now stocked by an impressive array of retailers, including John Lewis, House of Fraser, Office, Schuh and Selfridges. Wholesale makes up 68% of the UK business, ecommerce 24% and own retail 8% (in addition to Fouberts Place, Toms has a store at Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet).
Urwin would not reveal UK sales figures, but says the business is strong and stocked in 650 doors across the UK. Globally, it has two more stores in Europe, 10 in the Middle East and eight in the US.
Reuters reported that Toms was valued at $635m when Bain Capital bought a 50% stake in the company in 2014.
Much has changed at Toms since it launched. Giving back Toms sale is still central to the brand, but shoes outlet are no longer the sole focus.
In 2011, its distinctive model expanded to include Toms outlet uk eyewear, which funds sight-restoring medical treatments and prescription glasses for each pair of glasses it sells. A clean water initiative – which provides safe water in the countries from which Toms sources its coffee beans – followed three years later and the brand’s newest project helps expectant mothers in Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia and Haiti have safer births. For each Toms bag sold, the brand gives a safe birth kit and provides training to local health workers.
Although Urwin says he has a lifelong interest in shoes replica and is clearly proud of working for Toms, his route into retail was more unusual than most. From the 1990s he was one of the UK’s top professional skateboarders. In 2005, he decided to retire and began to work in sales for skate and snowboard brand DC Shoes sale.
“I’d achieved a lot of what I’d wanted to do in skateboarding [including appearing in several adverts for Nike] and I hate treading water. I’m always looking for the next progression. I asked DC Shoes replica, who were sponsoring me at the time, whether there might be any opportunities for me and they said they had a sales job going in the north of England.
“Skateboarding was amazing, and I travelled the world, but there would be periods when I’d be at home for three or four months with nothing to do but go to the gym, so I thought I’d give it a shot.”
“We have to make sure we’ve got what’s relevant for our market as well, because sometimes it’s a completely different consumer from the US business,” he says. “We’ve diversified the product offer and really grown the winter business over the past three years. When I joined, it was 90% summer. We’ve managed to get winter products to about 27%, which has come from just having relevant products.”