Caroline French at the awards ceremony
It could be a challenge to take over a family business that has been running successfully for over 200 years, and to be the first woman to do so.
But Caroline French, the Managing Director of W.J. French & Son, a specialist independent shoe retailer based in Southampton, is celebrating with a prestigious national award win.
W.J. French & Son was named Independent Family Footwear Retailer of the Year in the national Footwear Industry Awards in Birmingham on February 19. As the 8th generation of her family to continue in the business, Caroline is thrilled that the hard work of the company’s staff has been recognised.
“It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to take over a family business that has been in Southampton since 1803,” said Caroline, a former City Chartered Surveyor, who took over as MD from her father Richard French two years ago when he retired.
“But the staff are incredibly hard-working and loyal and that has been a tremendous help. Our manager has been with the business for 51 years and the average length of service is 20 years, so that’s a lot of shoe-fitting knowledge and expertise.
“I’m the first woman to be running the family business but my grandmother, great- grandmother and great-great-grandmother all worked alongside their husbands, either in the office or on the shop floor. I have known many of the staff members since I was young so it is like working with a big extended family.”
W.J. French & Son is located in a three-storey shop based in Bedford Place and stocks a large product range of quality footwear in many different sizes and widths. The company prides itself on excellent, one-to-one customer service and specialises in shoe-fitting and repair for adults and children and also in fitting shoes for those with ‘problem’ feet, such as narrow or wide feet or for people with health issues such as diabetes.
It is one of the oldest shoe shops in England and can trace its roots back to 1794, when Francis French began his apprenticeship as a shoemaker. By 1803 he had become a master shoemaker and started his own business in Kingsland Place, Southampton. In 1890 his son William purchased the current shop in Bedford Place, which was extended into the adjoining properties in 1964.
Caroline is passionate about improving foot health with stylish shoes for children and adults and aims to maintain the high standards set by her father and grandfather. She has already made some improvements during her first year at the helm, such as an improved website and new stock control and cash desk systems, but says that exceptional service to customers is still key.
“We have loyal customers who have been coming to us for generations, who understand how important it is to have shoes that are not only fashionable but also well fitting. We strive for excellent customer service at all times so it is a real honour to have received this award and to gain recognition for our work. This is down to the hard work of all our staff and the support of the loyal families who shop with us.”