We sat down with Steve Spellacy, International Sales & Marketing Director at Crep Protect to find out how he helped build one of the fastest growing independent British brands, established a new niche in sneaker culture and what it was like working with DJ Khaled.

Hi Steve, can you give us an insight into your career journey?  

I started at JD Sports when I was 17 and they had two stores – Manchester and Bury, it was 1985. I was a warehouse lad sent out on the store fits to Sheffield, Liverpool and Bradford as they opened. In 1986 I headed up the ‘computer room’ which was literally a room containing a computer when they first bought one and we started to pick and not on the back of a fag packet. I stayed at JD for 17 years going from Warehouse to Retail to Head of Merchandising and then Buying and finally Buying Director. I left 18 years ago when they had 480 stores in the UK. 

Then I went to the dark side and set up a sales distribution agency called Evil Tongues – I borrowed the name from a Greek orator called Cato The Elder. Because I went from buying to selling everyone seemed to have a negative  opinion on it. The first thing I did was convince the owners of Superdry that we should be the sales agent for the UK. We also signed and opened the first three global franchise stores for them . We signed the footwear licence too. Then they floated and everything went back in-house. I  then did a deal with Firetrap and signed a distributor agency licence for footwear before the brand went bust and was purchased by Sports Direct.

What was your first introduction to Crep Protect?

10 years ago I was passing a trade show called Stitch and went in to have coffee with a friend. A gentleman called Riz Ahmed came towards me with a spray in his hand and said you need to help us sell this. We shook hands on the day and agreed to work together. That was in January 2013. 

To make this happen I created another Sales Distribution company called Nano International and came to the agreement that we would be the UK distributor of Crep Protect. The three brothers that co-founded the business had the entrepreneurial spirit but not the money to take their idea global . I agreed to invest and take that on – I started flying around the world, finding distributors, setting up agreements and managing them. In 2019 I hit 172 flights in that year alone, I do not suggest anyone attempt to beat this number, it definitely took its toll.

During that time we did something that no one anticipated. We convinced many retailers to replace certain wallbays containing footwear SKUs with shoe care. Ten years ago I was told by a key player at a major retailer that this would never happen. Now, we have Crep Protect wall bays in over 100 key JD Sports stores across the UK, Europe and even Australia .

In 2013 the business sold 6,000 units in the UK. In 2024 we expect to sell 16 million units globally. Our partners now see Crep Protect as the most profitable sq ft of retail that they have, the numbers are staggering.

That’s pretty impressive. What was it like carving a new niche in sneaker culture? Were there other challenges? 

It was tough. We re-mortgaged our houses  many times when we began the business. We just weren’t getting anywhere because a lot of retailers were saying that they didn’t want to pressurise their customers with a secondary sale. I would go to the USA to meet with Footlocker and Journeys and I’d come back with nothing. No-one wanted to pick it up. 

Instead of continuing to knock on a locked door we decided to attack the sneaker conventions. For a year and a half we went to every convention in America and Europe with a stand that we built ourselves and cleaned shoes for a few days. During this time we kept going back to retailers and they kept on saying no.  

Then we stopped talking to them and decided to focus on the end user. We went to show after show after show, cleaning shoes and talking nonsense to the people we met. A year later we had a call from Journeys who said that one of their buyers had been to Sneaker Con, saw the brand and wanted to give it a shot. They did a 50k order of the spray. Ten days later they put a million pound order in. It worked because the consumers were the ones that knew us. 

As the sneaker conventions got bigger and bigger, more kids came and eventually more people came on board. Journeys first and Footlocker after. In the UK I was knocking on JD’s door and getting nowhere. Eventually I got a phone call from the buying director who I used to work with. His opening statement was ‘Steve stop ringing my buyers’. He gave me a five store pity order, which I duly accepted. The phone rang two weeks later and I didn’t want to answer as I thought it was the end.  I picked the phone up and he said ‘How much of that sh*t have you got’ – they ended up buying all of our stock which was 15k units at the time.

To re-cap, what’s the story behind Crep Protect?

The starting point wasn’t to create a product for shoe care, it was something completely different. The three brothers that founded Crep Protect – Rizwan, Imran and Nohman Ahmed – amongst holding down full time jobs – had a carpet shop in Kingsbury and didn’t  feel the need to pay for Scotchgard Spray  when they could invent their own, which they used as a protector  on the carpets that were laid . Eventually they noticed their sneakers weren’t getting as dirty as they used to and realised it was because of their hydrophobic spray. They are huge sneakerheads so decided to bottle it up and sell it to friends.

This was 2012, I met them in 2013 and the rest is history. We’re all still in the business today. Riz is the brand police and in total control of research and development, Nohman is CEO and a super smart cookie and Imran is the blue sky thinker – he decided he wanted to send a pair of Yeezys into space  so he did it.

I’m one of the the oldest in the building and my friends ask when I’m going to retire, and I’m like when I die. This is not work, it’s an adventure that gets more interesting every day .We’re not winging it, we’re creating something special and we just got started, there is so much more to come . 

To anyone out there learning at University , or building their own business, don’t be down on yourself because you don’t know everything today, you’re learning as you go along. Just make sure that you don’t think like the competition and make the same mistakes twice.

What’s your approach to brand ambassadors and influencers? Are they important in building brand awareness? 

It doesn’t matter about ambassadors, activations, noise and bluster if you haven’t got the product on the shop floor. So first we focused on winning the hearts and minds of the staff at retailers by engaging with them properly. And most importantly getting the right POS out on the shop floor so that they know we’re important. 

DJ Khaled was our marquee collaboration. It wasn’t just about him coming on as a brand ambassador, we created a limited edition product with four SKUs in a box. I remember going over to his house in LA. It seems he didn’t tell his wife that ten people were going to turn up and ruin her lawn. Thankfully I bought a very nice bouquet of flowers and now we’re friends for life. 

It was a fabulous marketing tool. Did we make money? No. But it opened up the brand to many more people like Premier League footballers who wanted to work with us because they loved the product. So thank you to DJ Khaled for assisting us on the journey. When we turned up to shoot, he threw out the script and did his own thing and it was way better than we could have imagined.

We have quite a lot of mid-level brand ambassadors but we’ve always handpicked the people at sneaker conventions that we think have a future. Youtuber Qias Omar was one of them and entrepreneur Blake Wynn (nephew of hotelier Steve Wynn) approached me when he was fourteen at which point he’d already been flipping sneakers for two years. 

We also collaborated with more well known brands to raise the profile of the business. We worked with New Era to create a cap spray and  carried the adidas Shoe Care licence for four years. Now we’ve taken a step back from that to truly focus on the Crep Protect brand.

What’s next for Crep Protect? 

Now we can’t let the competition know that – not just yet anyway!

And finally we have to ask – how many pairs of sneakers do you own?

I’m a wearer. I haven’t got that many pairs, maybe forty. I have around 10 pairs of Yeezy 350s in different colours. Some of the guys I know have thousands. I did have one pair I didn’t wear (Nike Jordan X Dior Air High Tops) and I got offered such stupid money that I sold them.

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