About DE Shoes

1867 - First Generation

William Smith William Smith (pictured left), the great, great grandfather of the present Chairman, Robert Sinclair, set up in business in the old Overgate in Dundee in 1867 and soon opened three other shops in the town.

Overgate Store in 1892 The picture (right) shows the Overgate branch decked out for its 25th Anniversary Celebration Sale in 1892.

1874 William took his brother, Peter C. Smith, into partnership in respect of the shop at 36 High Street, Dundee. Other shops had opened in Montrose, Kirkcaldy, Dunfermline, Alloa, St Andrews, Inverness, Forres, Wick, Thurso and Kirkwall. The partnership (‘copartnery’ as it was termed) was dissolved in 1885 and the Montrose business was sold to Peter in 1885. Around that time William set up two other joint businesses – Smith & Mann in Murraygate, Dundee and Smith & Kay in Tayport.

When the Overgate premises became too small premises were acquired at 8 Bank Street, Dundee which were known as William Smith, Wholesale Boot Manufacturer. It is not known to what extent manufacturing took place, but it was a central warehouse.

1904 - Second Generation

By 1904 bigger premises were needed and the warehouse moved for the second time to an old church at 3 Bell Street.

The shops at that time were known as the Dundee Equitable Boot Depot. Dundee indicated that the business was wider based than the town in which the shop was situated. Equitable meant fair or equal, i.e. that the customer could be sure of getting a fair deal and value for money. Boot Depot indicated there was a large stock to choose from.

Robert William Junior By the time of the move to Bell Street William had taken his elder son, Robert (pictured left), into partnership and on William’s death in 1912 his younger son, William Junior (Willie)(pictured right), became a partner.

The two brothers continued to run and expand the business. They travelled round the shops, in winter in cold unheated trains, taking stock at each branch and on return to Dundee dealing with any matter that had arisen in their absence. They also did all their own buying and manufacturers’ representatives, “travellers” as they were known, brought their ranges to Dundee and selection was made.

In these days the manager of each shop was a time-served boot repairer. In the smaller shops, he did all the repairs and would maybe have one girl to do most of the serving, but in the larger shops there were two or three repairers and nearly always a young lad serving his time as an apprentice. It was not uncommon for the manager to come through to the front shop in his apron to serve customers and in the early days before restrictions, shops were open till ten or eleven o’clock, particularly on a Saturday night.

A great deal of the stock was unboxed and the likes of tackety boots and clogs were strung together. The shops in fishing towns also stocked greased leather thigh length fishermen’s boots and one shop known as the “Harbour” at the docks in Market Street, Aberdeen was a complete fisherman’s outfitter stocking everything from oil skins and boots to clasp knives.

Other towns in which the firm traded but no longer has a presence were Alloa, Ayr (twice), Bowhill, Cromarty, Cullen, Dalbeattie, Denny, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Fraserburgh, Galashiels, Huntly, Inverkeithing, Kelso, Kirkcaldy (West End, High Street and Pathhead), Lochgelly, Milnathort, Newburgh, Perth, Portobello, Prestwick and Wishaw. The greatest number of shops trading at one time was, it is believed, 48, in the period between the wars.

1930s - Third Generation

Ogilvy Robert’s son, Ogilvy (pictured left) and Willie’s son, Will (pictured below) entered the business in 1933 and 1934 respectively. The firm then undertook a programme of modernisation. installing complete new shop fronts in at least a dozen shops in three to four years. These fronts saw the introduction of the distinctive green vitrolite with red sign letters and a black base.

Will New shop fronts of course required a more modern trading name and D E Shoe Service was adopted for them. For many years however customers continued to refer to “The Dundee Equitable” or just “The Equitable”. Modernisation was halted in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II and with Ogilvy and Will being immediately called up through being in the Territorials their fathers Robert and Willie had a hard time keeping the business going. Gradually more and more staff were called up and it became increasingly difficult to obtain stock, till at the end of the war most of the staff were either old men or women and there was very little stock in the shops or warehouse. At the end of the war former staff were gradually demobilised and many returned to the firm including Ogilvy and Will, both of whom had been prisoners of war.

In July 1947 the present Limited Company of William Smith (Shoe Merchants) Ltd. was formed with all four members of the family, along with George C. Herd, becoming Directors.

1950s & 60s In 1956 Ogilvy and Will became joint Managing Directors and on Willie’s death, Ogilvy also became Chairman of the Company. During the fifties new branches were acquired in Fort William in 1955 and in Oban in 1957. In 1961 consultants completely reorganised the company’s accounting methods and procedures giving more control over the company’s operations. An invoicing machine was purchased which removed much of the drudgery from invoicing goods to the shops. These were the first steps towards modern day accounting, computers and management methods.

1970s During the seventies a programme of modernisation of the shops was started and new shop fronts were installed. The traditional shoe shop image was changing with the introduction of displays for customers to select from. The company also developed greater depth of stock and one third of the branches became specialists in Clarks shoes.

Fourth Generation


Will’s son, Paul (pictured left), had joined the company in 1968. He and Bill Armstrong became Directors in 1971. Paul became joint Managing Director in 1978 and he began to build a new management team and one new appointment in 1979 was Bernard Prestwich. He became Merchandise Director in 1984 having brought a new approach to buying and range building. Goods were allocated to the shops instead of the former regional presentations where shop managers made their own selections. Area Managers, Display and Stocktaking personnel strengthened the retail operation.


Dingwall store In 1980 a new retail image was developed for both interiors and exteriors and was piloted in Stranraer and then carried out in Banff, Blairgowrie, Elgin, Inverness (High Street) and Inverurie. Anstruther, Dingwall (pictured right) and Fort William were relocated and modernised.

In the mid eighties the Buying Department was strengthened and the new function of stock control developed. The company’s own brand of childrens shoes ‘Tren-de Fits’ was introduced to reinforce the high level of service for children which the company seeks to provide.

Development had been restricted by lack of space in the Warehouse and Head Office and in December 1978 No.1 Bell Street was acquired which, after much reconstruction, allowed the Head Office to move into more commodious quarters and provided a springboard for further development.

At the end of the seventies it was also evident that a computer was necessary to cope with modern retailing and a comprehensive computer system was installed in 1983/84. In 1991/92 this was replaced by an upgraded system and electronic point of sale tills introduced in all branches.

In 1985 the management structure was strengthened by the appointment of chartered accountant, Colin Ross, who became Financial Director in 1989.

In 1986 Ogilvy retired as Chairman but remained a non-executive Director and Will retired as joint Managing Director but remained an executive Director. Paul was elected Chairman and sole Managing Director. Sadly, Ogilvy died in 1990.

As the eighties progressed the Warehouse at No.3 Bell Street again became too small and an overflow warehouse – a former jute warehouse – at No. 72 Bell Street was acquired. However by the nineties even all this was inadequate and new premises (pictured left) were purchased in Faraday Street, Dryburgh Industrial Estate in Dundee and in 1992 the company headquarters moved to the new premises.

1990s Fifth Generation

During the nineties the company also concentrated on the development of its staff. Training programmes based on personal development and competence were developed. The company received the Scottish Training Award and the National Training Award in 1993. In January 1995 accreditation was gained under the Investors in People initiative, recognising organisations who reach high levels of excellence through their commitment to the development of people.


Paul Smith’s son, Stuart (pictured right), joined the company in March 1997 becoming the 5th generation to follow in the family footsteps.

New Look for DE Shoes

1998 saw the introduction of a brand new look for DE Shoes (pictured below at Inverurie). This allowed the company’s wide range of footwear for all the family to be more clearly presented in a pleasant shopping environment. The look was successful and quickly rolled out to Stranraer, Castle Douglas, Wick, Inverness, Dumfries, Inverurie and Elgin.

2000s The new Millennium dawned with the realisation that retailing was entering a new era. The loss of profitability seen in the last two years of the twentieth century was not the result of a temporary recession but rather the sign of a fundamental change. Globalisation, price deflation, more competition and the growth of discount retailing meant that the sales levels achieved in 1997 and 1998 became peaks and with costs continuing to rise profits slumped.

Stuart Smith became a Director in June 2000, taking on the role of Retail Director in 2001.

2001 saw the implementation of a profit recovery plan which closed the five smallest branches of DE Shoes and streamlined all departments. The plan worked and 2001 brought a welcome return to profitability and planning for the future

Over the following six years much attention was given to adapting the product range at DE Shoes to be consistent with the company’s aim to be the best family shoe shops in Scotland. New brands were successfully introduced which reinforced DE Shoes as specialist shoe shops. At the same time more branches were refitted to the new look including Banff, Blairgowrie, Dingwall, Forres, Fort William, Kirkwall, Nairn,St Andrews, Stonehaven and Thurso.

Will Smith, who had retired at the age of 82 in 1998 due to ill health, died in September 2002.

A succession plan is essential to any family business and Stuart Smith was lined up to take on his father’s role as Managing Director. He became joint Managing Director with Paul Smith in 2005 and sole Managing Director in 2006 when Paul retired after 28 years in the role.

Lerwick Interior

In 2007, Stuart was active in growing the business by the purchase of a long established shoe retailer, T.C. Pottinger in Lerwick, Shetland and the opening of a concession in the Highland Stores in Dunoon. This introduced DE Shoes to new parts of Scotland where its formula of family footwear and affordable brands proved very popular. The Lerwick branch (interior pictured right) was given a total refit at the end of 2007 and continues to shine brightly as the company’s most northerly beacon.

Robert Sinclair Robert Sinclair (pictured left), grandson of Ogilvy Smith, joined the company in January 2008 becoming the second, 5th generation family member to work in the firm.

The new look continued to be rolled out in 2008 with Cowdenbeath, Invergordon, Crieff and Newton Stewart all benefitting greatly from a complete refit. These refits plus a broader refresh programme gave the whole DE Shoes branch network a consistent look and feel for possibly the first time in its proud history.

Unfortunately, September 2008 saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing, global, banking crisis. Although the economy and the company certainly felt a downturn in the aftermath, in hindsight, the worst was yet to come. However, despite this initial downturn opportunities still presented themselves and in April 2009 a very successful move to a significantly larger unit in Kirkwall was completed. Within the year Kirkwall had cemented itself as one of the company’s larger branches.

In July 2009 Stuart Smith stepped down as Managing Director to pursue a career in the outdoors. Stuart’s passion for the mountains made this an understandable move but his contribution to the company, in his 12 years service, was significant and remains a considerable part of the company’s history. Robert Sinclair who had become a Director in January 2009 took on the role of sole Managing Director upon Stuart’s departure.

Through the 2000’s the power of the internet seemed to grow exponentially and the number of retailers with transactional websites began to outnumber those without. To take advantage of this growing channel for retailing DE Shoes first transactional website was launched in August 2009. Although it was not without its teething problems it did prove that online was worth more investment. In August 2011 the current website and DE Shoes Online was launched – you tell us how we are doing!

In September 2011 Paul Smith retired as Chairman. Having seen the company through many transitions and latterly the move online he reflected on the company's recipe for success over so many years, stating, "it has been its ability to change with the times, a keynote of which has been its consistency of approach, good management and a determination to make continuous improvements. Above all it has valued highly both its own people and the customers it seeks to serve."

On Paul's retirement, Robert Sinclair was elected Chairman in addition to his role as Managing Director. Robert believes this recipe for success still holds true in the multi-channel era and the company now looks forward to providing footwear, not only for the people of Scotland, but also for the people online across the whole of the UK and beyond.

About DE Shoes
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