Sporting giant New Balance and it's links in the Lake District

It was 30 year ago that an Olympic gold medallist brought hope to a group of redundant workers. John Lenehan reports

Some of the athletes who reach the pinnacle of their careers by taking part on the London Olympics might like to reflect on the small but important part played by a band of workers in the Lakes.

For, as well as poets, artists and writers, this part of the world is also home to Europe’s largest running shoe manufacturer, New Balance, based at Flimby.

My quest to find out how this big US business came to our part of the world started at Rothay Garth, a beautiful guesthouse in Ambleside. The owner, Rowland Dixon, was a key figure in this fascinating story.

In 1982 Workington was reeling from the closure of the steel works and coal mines, the neighbouring K Shoes factory also shut. Rowland had been general manager of the factories at Workington and Millom.

Out of the blue, Rowland, a keen fell runner, received a phone call which was to transform the fortunes of a group of redundant workers.

He was asked to go to the empty Workington factory and meet two people who were interested in purchasing it. ‘It used to depress me going to the old factory as I remembered all the loyal and hardworking people who worked there and what a happy place it was,’ he said.

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He was amazed to be introduced to Chris Brasher, the 1956 Olympic gold medallist and pacemaker for four minute miler Roger Bannister. With him was an American called Jim Davis who owned New Balance, a world leading Boston based running shoe manufacturer.

‘They met at the New York Marathon and Chris had become a distributor for New Balance at his Fleetfoot Company based on the quay in Lancaster,’ added Rowland.

An American running shoe maker, an Olympic champion, a Cumbrian fell runner and an empty shoe factory with a redundant workforce who loved making shoes. All it needed was input from Paul Fearn, the county development officer and John Porter, of the Moss Bay Enterprise Trust, and the miracle happened. Shoe making had returned to Workington.Jim Davis decided Rowland was the man to develop the dream and within weeks he had left K Shoes and was on a plane to Boston.

‘New machinery, and new ways of doing things as the 40 staff had to learn the complexities of making running shoes and working to New Balance’s extremely high quality standards. But there was a vibrant atmosphere around the place as people who had only weeks ago faced an empty future now saw security.’

Within weeks the factory was ready to produce shoes and to celebrate the opening a team of six from Lancaster University ran the 70 miles from Chris Brasher’s base to the factory in Workington. This relay was completed by fell running legend Joss Naylor and the 1982 London Marathon winner Hugh Jones.

Orders had grown so much that by 1992 New Balance moved to a new factory at Flimby on the outskirts of Workington, and in 2003 the factory produced its millionth pair of running shoes. The Queen’s Award for Enterprise followed.

When William Riley a 33-year-old English immigrant, set up his New Balance Company in Boston in 1906 he would never have imagined it would have a factory in his homeland 100 years later.

The factory went from strength to strength and exports to over 50 countries worldwide. It employs over 200 people and makes around 30,000 pairs of shoes a year.

It is the 30th Anniversary of the day that Chris Brasher introduced Jim Davis to Cumbria

It can only be right a story which started with an Olympian celebrates this landmark in an Olympic year.

Foot notes

New Balance recently used 100 runners from local athletics clubs in the Lakes as the cast of their first UK TV adverts

When the factory opened there were 40 staff. There are now over 200

They broke the 1 million barrier in 2003 and now produce 4,600 pairs a day

The Flimby factory exports to more than 50 countries, including Japan

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