KNEE-DEEP in snow in the mountains of Alaska, Wayne Edy could not believe his luck. A woman wearing shoes designed by him had just won the World Mountain Running Championships.
“The champion hadn’t brought footwear to cope with the snow,” said Edy. “She had borrowed my shoes from a junior runner in the morning and after the race held them up, saying they had helped her to win.”
It was a golden start for Inov-8, the footwear brand Edy had founded three months earlier in 2003. He began by sell- ing his specialist running shoes from a pick-up truck at off-road races around the globe. The medal success in Alaska speeded up growth and the company launched in America the following year.
“Mountain running wasn’t big enough in Britain to have a sustainable business so I decided to sell my product overseas as quickly as possible,” said Edy.
Today Inov-8 sells clothing and accessories as well as shoes in nearly 70 countries, with three-quarters of its £17.5m sales in 2013 coming from overseas. Sales for 2014 are expected to be nearer £19m. This pace-setting performance earned Inov-8 a place on The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table of the fastest-growing UK private businesses last year.
Inov-8 designs, tests and distributes its footwear from its headquarters in Staveley, near Kendal, Cumbria. The company has 80 staff and sells about 500,000 pairs of shoes a year. In Britain they retail at between £60 and £130.
With the exception of a few accessories, all the products are made in Asia. “There are no countries in Europe that could make our shoes,” said Edy, 52. “Our combination of rubber compounds and the type of sole we design is very specialist — we believe we have the best grip in the market.
“Our products adapt to different terrains and are in tune with the natural movements of the body. It’s all about the foot controlling the shoe, not the shoe controlling the foot.”
The founder has invested tens of thousands over the years. Early in 2003 he sold his share portfolio and several properties to fund the first shoes. “One container-load of them cost £40,000. That’s without the moulds, the man-hours and materials,” he said. “It was a huge investment and extraordinarily risky but I was determined not to fail.”
Edy was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, the second of four brothers. His father ran a printing company and his mother was a building society manager. His siblings still live in Africa.
Edy attended Gifford High School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, and Thornhill High in Gweru, in the centre of the country. At 17 he enrolled at Bulawayo Polytechnic, where he studied technology in the hope of becoming an engineer. While there he completed a six-month placement at Bata Shoe Company. “I became more interested in the process of making footwear than I was in engineering, so I switched my career.”
After completing his exams, he took a full-time post with Bata, helping it to establish a chain of sports shops called Athletes World. “They put me through a fast-track management course,” said Edy, who opened five stores and negotiated a licence with Adidas.
He left in 1988 to join G&D Footwear, where he was promoted to development director. “I was instrumental in fuelling its growth,” he said.
Frustrated by Zimbabwe’s political and economic climate, Edy quit and moved to Britain in 1992. He was 29. After several months he secured a job as general manager of seven Co-operative stores in Weardale, Co Durham. “I had an unproven track record in Britain so it wasn’t easy getting settled,” he said. “After a year I was missing the footwear industry.”
Two years later he took a managerial position at Berghaus, the Sunderland-based outdoor clothing and equipment brand. In 1996 he became managing director of Brasher Boot Company. “The business was going through a lot of change and struggling to get into profitability,” he said. “I accepted that challenge and turned it around.”
He left after two years to set up his first company, Innovate Associates, which developed and sourced specialist footwear for Brasher and other outdoor brands, including Musto and Gill. It was wound down in 2004 because of the rapid success of Inov-8, where Edy is today the majority shareholder. The private equity firm Living Bridge invested an undisclosed sum in 2012.
He met his fiancée Maria Leijerstam at an extreme sports event sponsored by Inov-8. In 2013 she became the first person to cycle to the South Pole from the edge of Antarctica, taking just 10 days to do it.
“That was an amazing achievement and it was a great experience to support her,” he said. “I did all the photography and videography for the trip.” The couple live in the Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales, where her parents own a deer park.
Edy’s advice to other entrepreneurs is: “As overwhelming as it might seem, if you have vision and you believe you have a unique product, then go for it. You need to take risks and accept that you will not succeed every time but that’s part of the process. When it comes right, it’s an amazing journey.”