He's only been here since March, but Marco Ellerker is becoming an ambassador for Sunderland. Karen Dent catches up with the new boss at The Brasher Boot Company, who talks football, travel and why a love of shoes is in his genes.
THE son of an Italian mum and English dad, London-born and bred Marco Ellerker admits he’s always had a bit of a thing for footwear.
“Everything from the touch and feel of the product, to the smell of the leather, absolutely captivated me when I was young and I think that’s lived with me all the way through,” he says.
“Even now, when I look at a pair of shoes, I love to see how they look, how they're made, the quality of the leather that’s used, I’m fascinated with it; it’s a bit of an obsession with me. I think shoes and Italians are quite a big thing anyway.”
But he only found out on a recent trip to his mother’s home village in Italy that his link to the industry is even more direct than he’d ever imagined.
“I was asking about her father, what he did for a living because I'd never met him; he died when he was young,” says Ellerker.
“Apparently he was a cobbler – I couldn’t believe it – I said: “You’re joking, aren’t you? I’ve been working in this industry, in footwear, for so long and you’ve never told me.
“And she said: ‘Oh yeah, he was. He used to make shoes for all the local villagers, and in return, they would give him food’. It’s in the DNA, isn’t it!.”
Starting his career in financial services with American Express, Ellerker took his first steps into the world of footwear around 15 years ago.
“I’ve always been a real sports fan – not just a sports fan but I’ve been a football player for a number of years,” he says.
“So I decided to try and get into an industry that was more related to what I love.
“I started working for Reebok – it was fantastic – suddenly I was involved with people who were passionate about a sport, passionate about having an active life. I loved it.”
He then spent eight years with Lacoste Footwear, which is part of the same Pentland stable of companies as Brasher, before moving north to take the managing director’s job at the Wearside firm.
Brasher was created in 1978 by the late Chris Brasher, who won an Olympic Gold for the 300-metre steeple chase in 1956, was Roger Bannister’s pacemaker for the first four-minute mile and also founded the London Marathon.
“It’s a wonderful brand, a really, really great brand,” says Ellerker.
“I’ve got a family connection from here as well. My wife’s dad is from Newcastle. He came down to London for the police force, then he went back to live in Newcastle.
“So we’d been coming up here for a number of years now, every few months. It feels quite familiar. There’s a slight comfort in the fact I’d been up here quite a lot so it didn’t feel like a strange place but that wasn’t the only reason for taking the job. The job was to run a really fantastic brand; that was the main pull.”
The theme of heritage runs through Ellerker’s connections to the industry and is also key to what Brasher is about. The first boot was developed after Chris Brasher was walking in Wales and ended up posting his boots home because they were so uncomfortable. He continued his hike in trainers and then spent five years developing the first Brasher walking boot, which went through 25 prototypes and extensive testing in the Lake District before he was satisfied.
Ellerker said: “Chris Brasher wanted to make a boot that was comfortable, lightweight, and actually gave people a wonderful walking experience. That was the whole ethos of why he built the brand.
“If you look at the people who wear the product, they love Brasher, we have a really loyal consumer base who come back to our brand again and again, because it works and it’s a fantastic product.
“The potential I think is to build the product line, make it better, focusing on the raw quality of the brand which is what Chris always wanted it to be about.”
But Ellerker also has big plans for the future, including exporting the boots out of the UK for the first time with an initial small-scale foray into the Japanese market.
“The business shouldn’t just start and end with the UK – I think there’s other markets the brand should be sold in,” he says.
His own international experience started with American Express and his career has taken him from Europe to Brazil, Argentina and to Asia, where Brasher boots are manufactured.
Although the first exports are set to start, Ellerker stresses that the UK is Brasher’s heartland, where an estimated 18 million people hike. He also wants Brasher fans to start wearing the footwear for other countryside pursuits.
He says: “If you can get the aesthetics of a shoe looking just that little bit nicer, and a bit more modern, you’re going to suddenly open up your range of products to people of much broader range of ages, a much broader range of tastes, whereas we have been quite niche.”
Other British countryside brands such as Wellington boot-maker Hunter and South Shields-based Barbour have become a hit with the fashion-conscious, but that’s not the direction Ellerker is aiming for.
“Hunter, although they’ve done a really, really good job of that, I want to make sure that Brasher isn’t about fashion.
“First and foremost, Brasher is about comfort, fit and performance for the hills, that’s the real core of the brand.
“We want people who wear Brasher to be able to wear our products for every day wear. That I see is a much stronger direction for us to take rather than purely appealing to, say, the Glasto crowd.”