In 2011 the Florida Group celebrated seventy five years of making shoes in Norwich. Better know as Van Dal the company is the only remaining major shoe manufacturer left in a city which was once the home of many.
Van Dal makes more than 500,000 pairs of shoes each year, concentrating on smart formal wear for women. Whilst the majority is produced in India and China about 15% of the firm's output is made at the company's Dibden Road factory in Norwich where some twenty staff produces some 1,200 pairs of shoes each week. Although new materials and modern manufacturing methods are utilised the factory's multi-skilled workforce still makes shoes in a very traditional way with each pair being made individually.
The Florida Group takes its name from the former Florida shoe factory which once stood at the junction of Salhouse Road and Mousehold Lane. During the 1930s the business got into financial difficulties and in 1936 one of its major creditors, a Cheshire tannery, petitioned the Norfolk County Court for it to be wound up. It was subsequnently bought by Adelman Goodman and has remained a family owned business ever since. The current chairman of Van Dal is Simon Goodman, Adelman's grandson.
Adelman Goodman was born in 1873 in Dolhinov, a small village north of Minsk in Russia, and arrived in England in 1889 where he established himself as a shoe manufacturer in London's east end. In 1896 he married Rebecca Ireland, the daughter of a Hackney publican, and the following year became a naturalised British subject. In 1910 he entered into a partnership and opened a shoe factory - trading as Goodman, Caiden and Kissin. This appears to have been shortlived and by 1915 Adelman was in business by himself as a shoe manufacturer, trading as A Gooodman and Company at the Paragon Shoe Works in Hackney. The business flourished during the First World War when it made boots for the British Army, but by 1920 the business was sold and Adelman opened a shoe shop in Ealing with his son David. But his talent was for making shoes and in 1925 he returned to it - opening a shoe factory in Mare Street, Hackney, making women's fashion shoes for West End retailers such as Lilly and Skinner.
Looking to expand, in 1936 Adelman Goodman visited Norwich to inspect the almost bankrupt Florida factory. Although it was a rundown business housed in an old aircraft hangar he felt it had potential and decided to buy it, taking on the 85 workers and the difficult task of rebuilding the firm. Sadly Adelman died in 1938 but by then the company was on the road to recovery.
The war years were difficult. The Florida Group was directed to move its operations to share the W H Clarke factory in Northumberland Street so that the Salhouse Road site could be used for aircraft production. But when Clarkes was destroyed by German bombing both firms moved back to Salhouse Road.
Following the war two major decisions were taken that would have a major impact on the company's future fortunes. The first, in 1946, was that all shoes made by the company would bear the Van Dal brand name. Prior to this the firm had supplied shoes to retailers who sold them under their own brand name. This provided a prescient move as the Van Dal name became nationally known. The second decision, taken some years later in response to comments from customers was to specialise in wider fitting shoes. These were advertised as 'Norfolk Broads' and proved popular but the name had to be changed in some overseas markets due to the unfortunate connotations attached to the name.
Van Dal shared in the general post war prosperity and its success led to a search for larger premises. These were found in 1959 when Van Dal bought the long established Norwich firm of Chittock and Sons and its Eagle Shoe Works in Dibden Road. During the following two years all production was moved from Salhouse Road to Dibden Road giving Van Dal with an additional 15,000 square feet of production space. The lease on the Salhouse Road site handed back to Barnards. As production increased the company found it difficult to find suitable skilled female labour in Norwich so satellite closing rooms were set up in Holt and Gorleston where the sewing of the uppers was done.
The 1960s was a good time for the Norwich shoe industry - there were at least 25 shoe factories that between them made seven million pairs of shoes annually and employed over nine thousand people. It was not to last as cheaper foreign made shoes took an increasing share of the UK market and within a decade shoe factories began to close. Van Dal was the exception. It was determined to remain competitive and invested in plant and equipment, concentrating on making quality footwear and expanding the range of its shoes.
In 1987 an opportunity to obtain additional production capacity arose when another Norwich shoemaker, Edwards and Holmes, suffered financial difficulties, having lost more than £1.5 million during the previous three years. Van Dal bought the business, including the Drayton Road factory, for a reported £800,000. At this point Van Dal employed 430 people and took on a further 123 from Edwards and Holmes.
Throughout the 1990s Van Dal continued making its shoes in Norwich and although the workforce had dropped to around 300 the company was turning out over 600,000 pairs each year. But it found itself forced to consider manufacturing overseas. Labour costs were significantly less in India and China and the decline of the UK shoe industry had been accompanied by the disappearance of many of the suppliers who provided raw materials such as leather and fittings. In 2001 Van Dal began making shoes in India and four years later in China. Ironically, in recent years there has been an increase in demand for British made shoes and Chinese shoe makers have experienced difficulties in obtaining the necessary skilled labour.
Recent years have seen Van Dal invest in new technology to ensure they remain competitive. Wherever they are made, all of the company's shoes are designed at the Norwich offices using the latest computer aided design techniques. The company makes extensive use of new materials such as plastics, and new techniques such as the screen printing of intricate patterns on the goat skin used for the shoes. One of the most innovative developments has been the Ion Mask water repellent treatment. Originally developed for military use the process attaches a thin polymer layer to the shoe which not only repels water and assists in keeping the surface clean but allows the foot to breathe.
Van Dal shoes are currently sold across throughout the UK and abroad and the firm continues making them in Norwich, a successful part of an important city industry.