Interview with Ben Finbow and Greg Spence of Rayrose

Interview with Ben Finbow and Greg Spence of Rayrose

Posted on torsdag, 13 dec 2018, 13:55 by admin
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Let me introduce Ben Finbow and Greg Spence of Ray Rose, dance shoes manufacturing company which can influence dance market by taking a very different approach to designing and manufacturing their product, a dance shoe.

We recognise that a reputable dance shoe company has to look at the progression of dancing and adapt their product to meet the current needs of the dancer

How did you start? What are the beginnings of Ray Rose?

[Greg]: First of all, the company was founded in the 1980’s, originally to produce jazz shoes and jazz type shoes which were very popular at that time. Our company supplied the companies such as Pineapple, together with various other top studios around the world. Towards the end of the 80’s it became evident that jazz shoes were not as popular as before, and therefore the company decided to enter into a compatible business, which was Ballroom and Latin American dance shoes.

We joined forces with the company called Pedro which had been making dance shoes since the early 80’s. That occured approximately in 1991. Since then, we’ve been making exclusively Latin American and Standard dance shoes.

Many years ago we’ve became engaged in the project of biomechanical dance shoe development, initially by looking at different sports based products. This was to improve the performance and function of our dance shoes. Dancing has become more dynamic over the last twenty years, and as there is more energy and more athleticism inherent in dancing, this has necessitated the product to be significantly different to the product which was made before.

In what sense?

[Greg]: As dancing has become more athletic, the stresses and strains on the body and the shoes themselves are greater. If you, for instance, look at Peter Maxwell and Lynn Harmen dancing the World Championships in 1976 and compare their achievement to recent World Championships, you will see that dancing has changed in many ways. Whilst inherently it is the same, the energy and dynamism has increased dramatically.

For example, footwork is different?

[Greg]: Footwork has developed and the speed with which they dance has changed. Therefore, you need to produce a shoe which will recognise the artistry of dancing but be more in tune with the athleticism of todays’ dancer. That requires to look at, for example, orthotics which we have introduced into our products

Orthotics, in a medical sense?

[Greg]: Yes, for instance, the ladies Latin shoe has a metatarsal support and full latex orthotic, while the ladies Ballroom shoe has a latex orthotic which incorporates a metatarsal and arch support. This reduces the stress and strains on the foot for dancer. They also allow them to dance for a longer period of time without feeling strains on their feet. We also have developed a shape of the last which is more user friendly, to reflect the changes in the way people feet are. Ladies now have a higher arch that they ever used to and therefore we’ve done something to reflect that.

What about the shoe styles?

[Greg]: The outside remains the same, in as much as the shoes are made with either satin, leather or patent, whereas we have introduced a lining into our ladies’ shoes which has antimicrobial properties. Our men`s shoes also have a material which has been developed specifically for motorcycle racing helmets for the dissipation of heat. Obviously, as people dance harder and for longer, their feet become hotter, so we need to take this into consideration. We’ve also used a material for the back of the shoe which provides exceptional support for the ankle. Most companies use a thermoplastic, which is heat activated. So, whilst it may be good for a fashion shoe, the heat of the foot in a dancing reactivates it, therefore it loses its support. We have actually introduced a material which was developed for triathlon shoes, so the heat of the foot will not reactivate it. This material will stay firmer and will stay in shape and that will give the ankle the optimum support that it needs. We also have a material which we are putting into the base of men’s heels, which is a latex based cushioning. Again, it is biomechanically developed in order to provide a dancer with a little bit more relief of the strains and stresses of dancing. So we recognise that a reputable dance shoe company has to look at the progression of dancing and adapt their product to meet the current need. And keep developing as dancing changes.

In most artistic fields and sports, equipment is paramount. If you went skiing or took part in other forms of dancing or played tennis, your teacher would look at your equipment, at your shoes, or racket, and they would advise what’s best for you. I think that dancing could do more to embrace this concept and understanding the stress and strains, which are placed on the dancer`s body, advise the dancer which type of shoe is preferable for them. I know that both WDC and WDSF have departments which particularly deal with the physical aspects of dancing and medical issues related to it. We have already met with Dr Patrizia Melchert, who is an expert in the field of injury reduction, in order to discuss with her our biomechanical project and how we should move forward. We hope to work with her to make a product which is more beneficial to the dancer. We are happy to work with all dance professionals to achieve this.

So Ben, how did you join the company?

[Ben]: I was living and working in Canada for few years after graduating from university, and then I moved back to London. While I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, someone introduced me to Raymond Rose and I started doing updates to the company’s website. We got talking and I got involved. I invested into the company and became a partner with him. We worked together for three years but it did not work out very well. Raymond left the country and I took over the majority ownership and, together with Greg, we started pushing the company forward. At that stage we had a fairly good product, recognised, but we had internal difficulties and distribution problems, so we started fixing those and also began improving the product. So whereas it was a good basic product, very similar to our competitors, we set ourselves the target to make a new, improved product and also began to introduce it to it a lot more people.

[Greg]: And increase a range dramatically, as there were only few models.

Was your product at the time more advanced than your competitors?

[Ben]: From my perspective, the product was quite similar to what other companies offered. It may have had a slightly better arch shape, the fitting was quite nice. There was a strong following and demand which is why I was interested to get involved because I could see the potential. It is vastly different now to what it was then. The old product is nothing compared to what we have now. After another four or five years I eventually took over the remainder of Raymond’s shares and we parted ways fully. For the fourteen years I have been in Ray Rose, Raymond was involved in the first three.

[Greg]: I think it is true to say that 95% of this success of Ray Rose has been due to the developments under Ben’s stewardship.

What about ArtSport, which is another brand you have developed?

[Ben]: We wanted to separate our competition shoes from our social dance shoes, therefore we introduced two new distinct brands. Competition shoes from the Ray Rose would be by ArtSport, and our social shoes became Sapphire.

[Greg]: The reason we did that was because the level of technology in a social shoe does not necessarily need to be at the same level as that of a competition shoe and, therefore, we could offer this product at a slightly lower price, which many people would find more attractive. It is still a very high-quality product, but it needs to exist in a different market. We might not be able to successfully sell a Sapphire shoe with ArtSport technology and orthotics to many social dancers, because they may consider the price too high for what they need.

Taking about price, your shoes cost quite a lot of money. How are you able to convince people to pay more than elsewhere, maybe from Chinese manufacturers?

[Greg]: Firstly, let me make another comparison. A pair of our shoes would probably cost not a lot more than some 45 minute dance lessons. Secondly, they probably cost as much as a lady would spend on having her hair done in a month. Therefore, I really think you should be looking in terms of that aspect, rather than just price and buying cheaper shoes elsewhere. You can buy cheap shoes, but are they going to help you to dance correctly? You need the best possible equipment you can afford when you do any form of art or any form of sport. So why wouldn’t you do it in dancing, that doesn’t make any sense… Plus, of course, our shoes will last considerably longer that a lot of the shoes made in other parts of the World. In fact, we have been told by many dancers who buy shoes from some Chinese brands, that they needed to buy two or three pairs, because they lasted them for a very short period of time and that they threw them away and came back to Ray Rose.

[Ben]: Some of the feedback we have from dancers is that the cheaper shoes induce pain in the legs, in their feet. Because the manufacturers have not spent the money and the time researching and looking into the foot health of the dancers. That extra cost that’s in there is important. When you have been dancing for ten, fifteen years, at some point, not using the correct product, most likely you will damage your body.

[Greg]: It’s proved in other forms of art and sport that if you don’t have the correct footwear then you may have this problem. You will certainly have problems in the back, if the arch is not correct, or the knees. We are not guessing. We have spoken to medical professionals regarding this situation and to people who specialise in orthotics and body positions and they all agree that now, as people are dancing with more energy, it has become more and more critical than ever was before to ensure shoes are designed and constructed correctly. It would be nice to think that all dance teachers would spend more time making sure that their pupils are not physically damaging themselves by dancing in shoes that are not good for their structural health.

Do you think there is a future in 3D printing of dance shoes?

[Greg]: Hmmm… The foot changes position during dancing and therefore you have to build in that capacity into the design of the shoe. It would work perfectly well with a fashion shoe but not necessarily a dance shoe, which requires changes of dynamics. I think it would be difficult, although we are looking at the moment at other areas of this technology with regards to Pro-Am, where we want to provide a more bespoke product. We will do whatever we think is the best for the dancer.

How can the shoe influence the quality of dancing?

[Greg]: If you accept that dancing is based on footwork, which I think most people do, you cannot produce correct footwork if you don’t have correct shoes. I don’t think it is open to dispute.

Do you think the future of your company lies with the competitive dancing or social dancing?

[Greg]: There is a large element of social dancing which is competitive. We don’t like to categorise people too much, but I think there is a market, and will continue to be a market, in all different areas of dancing, whether it’s social or organised competitions, events locally or globally, or whether it’s Pro-Am. The Company will continue to grow and we will develop our shoes to meet the needs of the customer.

Thank you for the commercial (laughing) but I would like this interview to be a source of knowledge for dancers!

[Greg]: I think it is essential that they know that shoes are more important than perhaps some people lead them to believe. I think it is critical that people understand that without the correct support and functionality of shoes there is a serious possibility that, by the time they are in their forties or fifties, they will have some form of physical damage. I believe this to be the case.

[Ben]: The challenge is to get people to embrace our product earlier in their dancing career before they’ve done any damage to themselves and this would, of course, benefit their dancing. I see a lot of ladies, in particular, in their sandals and their shoes do not fit them properly, they’re wobbling all over the place. If you can’t even stand in your shoe how can you dance with it? It is a problem for them and the question is how long they are willing to compromise their dancing before they embrace a new product.

So what is the biggest problem in your business?

[Greg]: The biggest problem is not actually in the business itself, but external. It is the education of the dancer into looking at what constitutes the correct shoes for themselves. Dresses, hairstyle, these are all extremely important in their view but not, necessarily, shoes.  However, it requires the input of the dancing organisations themselves to inform their charges that they need to look at the quality and fitting of dance shoes when they buy them. Quality and functionality of dance shoes are very important.

How does the growing number of smaller dance shoe companies affect your business?

[Greg]: A lot of shoes on the market have a different brand names but they are made by the same company in China. They are not, as such, different manufacturers. There are small manufacturers that appear everywhere, but they are not using any of the technology that we are. Fundamentally they are just copying designs of larger companies, making shoes that look very similar. Some of them are good, but many of them are just jumping on the band waggon. Bearing in mind that positions of heel, arches, angles of heels, all these things that are critical in developing the design of shoe, it is not that simple just to copy a shoe thinking it’s going to be right.

Do you find any difference in regards of shoes between the WDSF and WDC dancers? The dance styles certainly differ.

[Greg]: No, because the fundamentals should still be the same. These organisations, I understand, have not dramatically changed the basic, fundamental, techniques. They have not invented a new dance for instance; the Foxtrot is still the Foxtrot, maybe done more dynamically in some instances, but it still contains the same steps. There is no reason for us to differentiate between WDC and WDSF. However, if you look at a Blackpool final twenty years ago and now, you will see a difference. People are changing all the time in the way they dance.

How do you see the future of dancing?

[Ben]: Well, I think there is a limit of how dynamic the dancing can go and this has to stabilise into the elegance of an art as well as sport. There are a lot of Chinese dancers and it will be interesting to see what direction their style of dancing will take and what influence that is going to have on the rest of the world. It is hard to predict what it will become…

[Greg]: I think in many ways it depends on affordability. Everyone likes dancing. It is a natural thing to move to music. In relation to the competition element of it, if prices of lessons and of competition entries are reasonable then it will continue to grow.

Do you think it is a problem now?

[Greg]: I am merely suggesting that may be the issue in the future.

For the last ten years the price of lesson with the top teachers has increased significantly.

[Greg]: When you said “top teachers”, what country are you referring to? Spain, the UK, Italy, Poland, the USA? Because I don’t accept that’s always the case. My understanding regarding what people are charging in many instances is that they, for the most part, are becoming acutely more aware of their market place and are charging accordingly. Some people charge a lot, but many people don’t, and lessons with a “top teacher” can present good value for money.

As you probably both know competitive dancing is very expensive activity. And you have mentioned that some models you are making are slightly less expensive…

[Greg]: Mainly for social dancers who compete as pastime... We introduced the Sapphire range some time ago and they are constructed using components which reflect the needs and requirements of the dancers that we believe are buying them.

Do you consider providing models which are more affordable for people who are less well off?

[Greg]: We make shoes which we believe are fit the purpose that people are going to use them. We wouldn’t knowingly wish to produce shoes which we felt would have the possibility of damaging the physiological structure of the dancer. It is like asking a tyre manufacturer to make cheap tyres, even though they know that these tyres would probably make a car swerve off the road. And we won’t do that.

Where are your shoes made?

[Ben]: In Europe. At our factory In Portugal.

How will the Brexit affect your company?

[Greg]: I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t see into the future (laughing). But I do not think that it will affect us too detrimentally.

Why?

[Greg]: Because I think businesses and the people will have the last say in how the countries interact with each other.

Why have you decided to manufacture your shoes in Portugal?

[Greg]: We had a factory in London. However, in the mid-90’s we found it very difficult to recruit staff. We advertised through all the usual methods, job centres, local paper, local community centres, but we couldn’t find anybody who wanted to work in a factory!

Was it the money or was there no qualified people?

[Greg]: No. We were going to train them, but we couldn’t find anybody who wanted to work in a factory. Pure and simple. Also, as the shoe industry was disappearing in England, there were fewer and fewer suppliers. There was nobody left anymore. England had massive companies, such as British United, who produced machines, and various other components, in Leicester and they shut…… then there was nobody left who made insoles.  In England, because we had less and less shoe manufacturers, the supply chain virtually disappeared.

So it is not just your problem but any other shoe manufacturer?

[Greg]: Supadance, I believe, import lots of their components, as everybody else does. We had a factory in Hackney and had to shut it. It was not our choice at the end.

So you moved your factory to Portugal?

[Greg]: Yes, because it is the nearest country which has a sizable shoe manufacturing industry and it is part of the European Union. We are Europeans, after all. I think that you have to have some sort of commonality with the people that you work with. You have to be able to communicate on the same intellectual and cultural terms. And Portugal does have the oldest non-aggression pact with the U.K., which is still intact. Seven or eight hundred years, I believe (laughing).

Do you envisage Ray Rose will continue providing the high quality, specialised product but for the niche customer base?

[Ben]: It is not practical for us to produce a very cheap product. We are not based in the Far East and therefore we are not producing shoes at a very low cost. Therefore, the natural thing for us is to become the very best at the top end of the market.

There are other European companies producing dance shoes at the cheaper price

[Greg]: But many with a lower quality. Lower quality materials, the attention to detail is not the same…

[Ben]: The actual consistency with lower cost shoes is not there because, from what I understand, people complain that one time they are buying a shoe and it is fitting ok and the next time they are buying the exact same shoe and it is fitting quite differently. Perhaps a half size different. So they are struggling to be really consistent.

Would you advise your customers that it is OK to buy shoes over the internet?

[Greg]: It is preferable for the customer to try a variety of our shoes on. We are very much in love with our retail outlets. We try to help the shops which buy shoes from us, and the studios, because we feel that the customer needs to be able to look at a selection of our shoes, try them on and then order through the shop or the studio. That is the best way for us to do business. We have an internet business, obviously, which works best for someone who has already tried the shoes on and does not live near a shop. They can re-order once they have established their style and size.

Because of your consistency?

[Greg]: Yes. However, we are great believers in shops and retail outlets.

[Ben]: We have a policy where we do not offer reseller accounts to businesses that don’t have fixed physical location to service that. We think it is important to get shoes that fit.

How many pairs of shoes the average dancer has to try and test before they find the perfect model for them?

[Greg]: We have various styles which all fit differently. We have, of course, different heel heights. Someone will come to the stand at a competition and just look at a pair of shoes, try them on and say "they're excellent". Some people try six or seven styles with different heel heights. It purely depends on what ideas they have fixed in their head, or maybe what they have worn previously.

It is a known fact that a big percentage of women wear a wrong bra, and only when they have one fitted properly they realise the difference in comfort and support. Is this the same with your shoes?

[Greg]: We have lots of people who come to wear our shoes and they can’t believe it…they feel so much better than with the brand they had before.

What about your own models, would you advise them about the style or heel height?

[Greg]: Often, specifically in Standard, the woman’s heel height is determined by the height of her partner. In respect to the heel height of a Latin shoe for the lady, it is possibly the responsibility of their teacher to tell the student what is best for them. We can’t determine that. We can determine whether the shoe fits properly, but only the customer can determine whether it is suitable for them to dance in.

[Ben]: There have been instances where the dancer was wearing a size larger trying to accommodate a wider foot, and then we’ve realised what they’re doing and advised them to get a wider fit with the smaller size. They were very grateful and happy. You get this experience and expertise in shops that are providing shoes for the people. Their experience is quite valuable to a dancer instead of going online and buying random shoes. It is a difficult process because you need a little bit of feedback and expertise.

[Greg]: Certainly, if they are buying shoes online they need to discuss it with their teacher first.

What do you think of a current situation in dance world?

[Greg]: I think that I would like the quality of the shoes to be more recognised as important by the dance organisations. We provide products for the dancer. We have no great opinion regarding what is euphemistically known as “politics” in dancing. We just wish for dancing to grow and become more aware of what it needs to do in respect to how it functions.

But obviously you have noticed how the dancing style has changed, so you observe it

[Greg]: We do observe it, but obviously we don’t change it. We just look at what the dancer does. If people want to dance in a certain way, then we will provide a product for them to do that. That’s what we do.

What can you company do better? In what areas can Ray Rose improve?

[Greg]: Sometimes we don’t react to situations as quickly as we would like. Sometimes we get it wrong, such as when we produce styles we feel are going to be popular, and they are not. But most of the time, I like to think, we get it right... there or thereabouts. We listen to our customers, we react to what they say. If there is a situation, then we address it. We like to think we are approachable, that we are part of the dancing community.

[Ben]: Well, I would like to be selling more shoes (laughing). That’s what I would like to improve obviously. So the point is to identify what the people really want. If they are choosing another brand to find an answer why. What can we do to answer to that demand? Perhaps we must spend more time developing our network, our resellers network.

If you were able to move back in time ten, fifteen years ago, what would you do differently?

[Ben]: The time spent on setting up the company, getting it to grow and have the necessary structure, time is one of the elements necessary to facilitate growth… It would have been good to have had more time to travel around the world focusing on the sales side. But both parts were important, and with the resources we had, I think we’ve done well.

[Greg]: We grew the Company which, when Ray left, had three hundred pairs of shoes in stock, to where we are now, in a relatively short period of time, without needing any external investment. This was the challenge which we met. In hindsight, it might have been beneficial to obtain external finance in order to grow at a faster rate. However, whether that could have forced something, which is fundamentally a word-of-mouth business, is debatable. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

What is the best advertisement for your products?

[Greg]: Definitely word-of-mouth. You can spend a lot of time building up a successful business, but it is very easy to lose it, by producing a product that is not good enough. We advertise in studios, at competitions, in magazines and on social media.  However, the dancers talk to each other in changing rooms, look at each other`s shoes, and that is the best advertisement for us.

How often do you lose a couple sponsored by you to another company?

[Greg]: There have been couples, whom we’ve sponsored since the very beginning of their careers, and when they became successful have been offered a large amount of money to go and be sponsored by someone else. That’s the commercial reality of the situation. Whether it’s morally equitable doesn’t matter (laughing).

[Ben]: It is disappointing when you see couples sponsored by other brands who are then coming to us to buy dancing shoes because they can’t actually perform in the product they are sponsored with. But they are happy to take the sponsorship. Seems a bit immoral to me.

[Greg]: There are two or three couples sponsored by Chinese brands, who wear European shoes when they compete, because they say that they can’t dance in the Chinese shoes. But they're happy to receive the 10,000 Euros, that we have been told they receive, to endorse the brand…

So what is the advantage for the Chinese company to sponsor them?

[Greg]: I am not sure. When you actually see the shoes on their feet, from a distance, it may not be that obvious. Certain styles of dance shoes look almost the same, from brand to brand, and therefore you may not notice that the shoes were not made by the Company whose logo they are wearing.

Do you believe that people actually look at the logos on shirts or dresses?

[Greg]: It is the normal way for a couple to most visibly promote a brand. A top couple promoting your brand on their clothing is important. But it is only part. They have to advertise the brand wherever and whenever they are able to. Promote it on websites, social media, wherever. You have to have a blanket marketing strategy for your sponsored couples. Just a logo on a tailsuit is not good enough.

I wonder about these Chinese brands then, if it is just a logo…

[Ben]: They make good marketing with videos promoting the couples, and on social media. These people are just not always competing in their shoes. But they are in their promo videos.

Do you advertise on social media?

[Ben]: Yes, we use social media for promoting our brand. Mostly Instagram and Facebook. The world of advertising has changed rapidly in the past decade, and it is more time consuming, especially having to engage on social media which is crucial.

[Greg]: I think Ben summed it up really well (laughing). Let me just say, you don't need to wear good shoes for every dance, only the ones you want to be successful at!

Well said! Thank you for your time.

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