“Sole Survivors: How Exceptional Companies Survive and Thrive at the Edge”

Professor David Storey (Warwick University, UK)

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Storey, D. (2000), "“Sole Survivors: How Exceptional Companies Survive and Thrive at the Edge”", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 230-232. https://doi.org/10.1108/ebr.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

This book stems from work undertaken by the author for the European Commission (DGV). The work examines, in some detail, nine small‐to‐medium sized enterprises (SME) in the footwear sector in Ireland, UK, Sweden and Finland.

Interest in the book will come primarily from people, like myself, who are interested in small‐ and medium‐sized firms and the factors influencing their performance.

So, what is interesting about these firms? First, the sector itself is interesting: shoe manufacturing in the EU has seen massive declines in unemployment in recent years associated with falls in the number of producers. Employment in the EU fell 28 percent between 1985 and 1997. The key point is that the long‐established businesses which are the subject of this book have done well to survive in this turbulent marketplace, where there is a constant threat from imports from low wage countries.

The second interesting point about the nine companies is that, in all four countries, employment in shoe manufacturing has fallen at more than double the EU average rate. In other words, these companies have done vastly better than the “typical” firm in that sector in their country, and so there may be lessons to be learnt from their performance. It, of course, begs the question as to why there were no companies included from successful EU countries such as Italy.

The third interesting aspect of the study is the actual firms selected. Kerins says none of them are household names unless you live next door to them or buy their products. But everyone buys shoes, either for themselves or for others, and these are, in their different ways, “famous names”. As an illustration, there are three UK firms included – Barkers, George Cox and Start‐rite. I have, for many years, always tried to buy Barkers shoes and my children have consistently worn Start‐rite; and who has not heard of “brothel creepers” – even if they know nothing of George Cox, the company which produces them.

Such a customer affiliation gives the text particular interest. This interest is enhanced by Kerins’ light style and clear enthusiasm for his project. It is not surprising that he managed to persuade the managing directors of busy businesses to allow almost total access to staff and documentation during his visits of at least three days. For each of the nine businesses there is about 30 pages of description of their organisation, finances, history, product and production. Some attempt is made to standardise the topics, but the detail is sensibly allowed to vary from one firm to another.

Following the description of the nine, an attempt is made to synthesise the findings and to draw lessons. It is here that life becomes more tricky, as we move away from fascinating description to harder description. Part of the problem is that Kerins implicitly assumes that survival, almost of itself, is desirable. This is understandable from one perspective; in the city of Norwich, where Start‐rite is located, there were in 1945, 30 firms making shoes. Now there are a handful. From the perspective of Start‐rite they have done outstandingly well to survive. What is less clear, when taking the perspective of the national or EU policy maker, is whether this is desirable in the sense of using taxpayers’ resources to “support” such firms. If that case cannot be made then the public interest in understanding why some firms survive, when most others do not, is reduced. The evidence from these cases is that almost all have had their dips in the 1990s and that while they have clearly emerged from them few appear to have growth‐based futures. The “public” case for support is then difficult to make.

What is the “private” case, based on the concept that other firms, or their consultants can learn lessons? To assist this, Kerins provides a two‐dimensional analytical framework comprising width and depth, which seeks to explain why these companies survived. Dimensions of width include primarily the range of linkages or interactions within the company, but Kerins’ prime focus is on depth. Nine levels of depth are described – examples of which are, corporate structure or patterns of work, or creativity. Depth also includes soft items, such as values and emotions or corporate identity. Kerins then takes illustrations of this framework and applies it to the nine companies. However, in reading this section, one is struck more by the diversity than the commonality, yet its purpose is to explain why all these firms survived.

I suppose it is unreasonable, but I would like Kerins to have “named the names”. Who, does he think, will be the next to go? Why? I also have a suspicion that the holistic approach – as reflected in the width and depth approach – the latter with its nine levels – may be realistic, but it does not really help me to understand which of these is of primary, as opposed to secondary, importance. After reading these cases I even more strongly hold the view that chance plays a huge role in survival/non‐survival in SMEs.

So, what is the outcome? Kerins is to be congratulated on putting together a book that is a really enjoyable read. Its style is easy, but not flippant; the cases are interesting and illustrate the sheer diversity which SMEs exhibit even within the same sector. What would be of real interest is to return to these companies in three years time and see if they have survived.

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