HE'S only been here since March, but Marco Ellerker is becoming an ambassador for Sunderland.
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.”
Meeting with the brand’s Asian manufacturers has taken up a lot of Ellerker’s time since he arrived in Sunderland, and although an avid football fan who supports Arsenal – “there’s only one team in North London” – he hasn’t made it to the Stadium of Light yet.
“I drive past it every day and that allure is pulling me – I’ve got to go there,” he says. “What has been fantastic has been Take That and Kings of Leon coming here as well. It helps to bring Sunderland into people’s view, it makes Sunderland more of a centrepiece for the North East when you have those sort of functions going on, which has been great.
“I’ve got so many snippets of information from people who live in Sunderland who’ve told me with such pride about the whole area and what the area used to be all about; how the area has changed over the years and how there is so much heritage around shipbuilding.
“I was told more ships were built in the 50s here than in anywhere else in the world. Stuff like that – wow, I never knew that it was so strong, and I sense there’s a passion for people to want to bring back that heritage to the area, and wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to do that?
“Maybe some of the things the Stadium of Light are doing, bringing attractions to the area – could other things be done around the area to help in that respect?”
Football has always been a passion and Ellerker ended up playing semi-professionally after being spotted while accompanying a mate on a refereeing course as part of an FA coaching badge.
“We had to do various practical football bits and pieces and one of the people there was the manager of a football club called Chertsey Town,” he says.
“And he thought ‘this guy can play a little bit’, and he asked if I wanted to come down to their training sessions. I ended up going from basically playing Sunday football to suddenly being in the team.
“I had about a five-year period where I played for Chertsey Town so I was going from North London down to Surrey on a Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and again I loved it, absolutely loved it. It was such a great experience.
“We did really well over those five years, we went on club tours, we travelled across the south of the country to play different matches, there were ex-professionals who came and played with our club – people who were perhaps in the twilight of their career and I experienced that. It was just a wonderful thing to do that.”
Based in Sunderland during the week, Ellerker returns to London at the weekend where wife Barbara and daughters, Claudia, 16, and Kiera, 13, are still living although the eventual aim is to bring the family North.
“We are going to take it step by step,” he says. “I have two older daughters and one of them has just finished exams, so we’ve just got to get the timing right over when that makes sense.
“My wife’s got the connections so she feels like it’s something that’s close to her heart anyway.”
Sunderland will also “absolutely” be the long-term home of the Brasher brand, which moved to the city from the North West when it became part of the Pentland group. The company has 25 staff at its headquarters, ranging from designers to customer support.
Ellerker said: “It’s a perfect situation for us here in terms of position because we’re so close to great walks and great countryside activities.
“Every three months we have an outdoor day for all of our staff, so we’re able to go out and experience the products in the hills and it’s great to be able to do it from here easily – and also get to the Lake District when we need to.”
The Brasher name many not be as well-known as big sister company Berghaus, with which its shares a building, but Ellerker is confident that its target market is well aware of the brand.
“We’re like a hidden gem, I think, we really are,” he says. “Berghaus are a much bigger brand than us, they’re not just in the UK but internationally. But if you’re a hiker, if you love walking, you probably know about Brasher. Within that community, it’s got a really, really good and strong name. I want to take what we’ve got and broaden its appeal.”
What car do you drive?
Lexus RX450 – I'm told it's like a milk float but faster.
What's your favourite restaurant?
Gilgamesh in Camden – unusual, beautifully decorated and a great atmosphere.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Rob Brydon, Kevin Bridges and I've got the Laurel and Hardy box set!
What's your favourite book?
Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom – unbelievable man with inspiring principles.
What was the last album you bought?
Everything All the Time – Band of Horses.
What's your ideal job, other than the one you've got?
Owning my own shoe shop specialising in handmade footwear – as long as making a profit wasn't necessary.
If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you would teach it to say?
Upstairs now and get to bed ...
What's your greatest fear?
I think Jaws still plays on my mind when I get in the sea.
What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Concentrate on your strengths rather than worry about your weaknesses, just be aware of what they are. Get a dog and go walking – it's great thinking time.
And the worst?
I've had lots but it just depends which ones you listen to!
What's your poison?
Guinness – it all started 20 years ago at a wedding in Cork. We made a rule that we couldn't drink anything else for the weekend and I was hooked by the end of it.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Tend to igoogle and watch the news and I'll admit to a sneaky look at The Sun if I've got five minutes.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
50p for helping on a milk round, I absolutely loved it and maybe subliminally that is why I drive a hybrid electric car.
How do you keep fit?
Run, play a bit of football, walk and just getting to grips with mountain biking.
What's your most irritating habit?
I can get bored easily and I'm told it's pretty obvious and apparently I leave water all around the sink after shaving.
What's your biggest extravagance?
Anything Apple – I find it very hard to resist!
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
My grandfather on my Italian side was a cobbler in a small village, a musician and a real gentleman. He died very young but I would have loved to have met him.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Steve Jobs – for a bit of inspiration; James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) who I thought was brilliant in the addictive Sopranos; Charlie Sheen would make it interesting as long as he didn't insist of being the centre of attention and Noel Gallagher and his guitar.
How would you like to be remembered?
As a good person .... no more than that!
CV - Marc Ellerker
1985 South Bank Polytechnic - BA Hons Business Studies
1989 American Express Europe - graduate trainee to European sales
1995 Initial Textile Services - national account director and regional sales manager
1998 Reebok UK - head of regional and national account sales teams
2003 Lacoste Chaussures - UK sales director to vice president of international business unit
2011 Brasher - managing director.