Profile: Ben Walters

From busboy via real estate to trading to petro- chemicals, how the peripatetic life of Ben Walters

Lucy Knight profiles

BEN WALTERS

– founder of shoe company http://ospop.com/">OSPOP

Born in New York in the summer of 1975 Walters was the youngest of three with two older sisters. He grew up in North New Jersey where the family ran a petro-chemical business.

Upon graduating high school in 1993 he started at the University of Michigan. “When I was starting University I thought about taking business. I took some classes but when it came to submitting the application I changed by mind. The theoretical education that you get out of taking such a degree wasn’t motivation for me - a liberal arts education suited me better. History was something that I thought would give me skills, a sense of organisation.”

After completing his studies he went back to New Jersey where he started working as a driver but quickly progressed to working as a trader “I was there for a few months. Then I decided to leave and I packed up a car, without really thinking about what my aim was, and drove towards Jackson, Wyoming.”

Walters found it difficult to settle, preferring to ski and take various jobs in order to let him pursue his passion. “I was always living a life that was a means to an end, a basic lifestyle. I wanted to ski all the time.” Taking jobs in construction and restaurants Walters eventually began to work in real estate. “I thought I was just going to stay for the first winter and then it ended up being two years. I was still skiing a lot but I was working as a realtor full time by that point.”

The travelling bug bit again in 1999 and he took himself off down the West Coast down to South America through to Chile.

After yet another long trip he went back home to begin working for the family petro-chemical business. He started at the bottom, learning how everything functioned and then he ended up travelling selling commodity materials around the US. It was at this time that he sensed a good business opportunity emerging from the East, specifically in China.

“In 2002 it became clear that the basic goods business was starting to transfer overseas, it was becoming hard to compete with imported goods. There were now two global markets and my thought was that it would be wise to have a presence in China. I wanted to be able to integrate China into the business models of companies we were working with in the US.

“We were a small company but we had to compete with the big players so we had to add value. I knew we had to provide an on the ground window into the Chinese market.”

Walters decided to take it upon himself to be that window. “I had been to South East Asia on vacations a few times, Vietnam and Cambodia, two years prior to moving out here.” So, in 2003 he relocated to Shanghai.

It was not long after arriving in China that Walters became aware of the workman’s shoe that he has since transformed. Identifiable as a Chinese product says Walters, “the shoes are everywhere. They are sold on stalls and in construction type shops and they cost a couple of dollars.”

Walters bought himself a pair of the shoes and soon realised he had a potential product for the Western market. “The brand concept was industrial and commercial work wear, combined.”

For a Westerner to be making business inquiries was a shock for those Walters approached. “I contacted one factory. They had no export business and it took them by surprise.” This was the only factory Walters approached and they were the ones that took up his offer. Impressively all of this was done in Chinese. Shortly before going to Shanghai Walters had been taking Chinese lessons and then on arriving had spent five months spending up to seven hours a day practising. “I can speak it well, but it’s hard.”

The Tianlang shoe factory is based in Wen County, about 450 miles southwest of Beijing employing 400 people. The name of the shoe OSPOP stands for One Small Point of Pride. The workers here are paid more than the average for a factory and they get overtime. “It’s mostly miners and farmers out here. I first came to the factory in 2006 and they had no export business at all. The area was 97 per cent based on agriculture and mining, there was no industry really. This, for them, was a good opportunity.”

Walters then set about changing the shoe for a non-workman’s foot. “The shoe itself was a fairly poor quality product; work had to be done on modifying the shoe in order to sell it to Westerners. This was the biggest part of the process. We also had to educate the workers on making a cleaner product.”

But, he insists, this isn’t just a hammer and sickle on a t-shirt. “Authenticity is a huge deal to me. These shoes are the same but with more lasting ingredients. It’s a Chinese product that is used here and it’s marketed as such.”

It was Spring 2007 by the time Walters left his family’s business and concentrated full time on the shoes. Their current range was launched in the Autumn. Already they have sold more than 8,000 pairs.

For Walters, working in China, is an exciting opportunity as well as a social study: “This is a fascinating place to be right now while it’s experiencing growth. Watching increasing wealth and change, to witness the impact on people is very interesting. “The government is actually currently doing a fantastic job in creating the infrastructure needed to allow industry to grow, to bring business here.”

What about the future? Walters tells newstatesman.com that he’s not sure what the future holds, whether there will be other avenues for his business or other ideas, it is too soon to say.

As part of the process of change some of the revenue of OSPOP goes into an education fund for students at the high school near the factory. “Last week we had a ceremony where I met the 10 new recipients of the education programme that we have going. They will get help from us to go to University.”

It is apparent that he sees his business model as not only making profits but also helping people, as part of the process of change. In an area where the workforce is made up of predominantly miners and farmers, this is much welcomed help.

Maybe he represents a new breed of entrepreneur who sees not just profit margins but finds a way to help a local community.

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain